What Is Facilitation?

Use Facilitation to Make Meetings More Productive

Coworkers sitting around conference table with a facilitator leading
Facilitation Can Make a Meeting More Effective. Klaus Vedvelt/Iconica/Getty Images

Facilitation is a process that trainers, team builders, meeting leaders, managers, and communicators use to add content, process, and structure to meet the needs of an individual, group, or team. Generally speaking, facilitation is used to help a group of people achieve the goal set forth in their meeting.

The main role of a facilitator is to add value to a group planning session or meeting by keeping the group on-task and moving together in the same direction.

The facilitator also ensures that each group member participates in the meeting.

Group Facilitation

Facilitation of groups or teams is provided by internal employees, or external consultants, who are skilled in:

  • Presenting content and information,
  • Designing and formulating a process that helps a group achieve its objectives,
  • Providing an appropriate structure to a meeting, training, team building session, or another work event, so that the mission of the group is accomplished in the session,
  • Promoting shared responsibility for the outcome of the meeting, and
  • Drawing forth from participants the answers to questions and solutions to problems.

Individual Facilitation

When individuals take part in the process it is usually because two or more employees are experiencing conflict, disagreement, need to set mutual goals, or there is a need to debrief a project, process, or experience. A skilled facilitator can provide the structure, content, and process needed by the individual employees to reach a mutually satisfying solution to their issues.

Characteristics of Individuals Who Provide Facilitation

Facilitation is a learned skill that comes most naturally to individuals who demonstrate such characteristics as:

  • The ability to creatively present training and team building content in a way that encourages participation from session attendees,
  • Empathy for people and their situations,
  • Powerful listening and communication skills, and
  • The ability to structure group interventions and events to produce the desired results for the group.

Under the leadership of a skilled facilitator, meetings, team building sessions, and training classes can achieve results not possible without a leader. That's because team participants in a group often lack the skills, permission, and support needed to effectively facilitate their own work processes.

Avoiding Competing Conversations in Meetings

It's often difficult to have effective working relationships with people at work. This is where facilitation comes in handy. Effective group facilitation in meetings manages the interaction of difficult people holding competing conversations.

Off-topic conversations between two or more meeting members wastes time, inhibits group progress, and limits the contributions of individuals to the team as a whole. Additionally, competing conversations in several small groups, even when on-topic, deprives team members of the insights that the members of the team are discussing.

This ultimately results in limited ideas produced in meetings.

Whether you are the meeting leader, a manager, or a group member, you can use the following ideas to bring the group back together when group members hold more than one discussion at a time.

Managing Competing Conversations

  • Use nonverbal communication:  Look steadily at the participants for a moment. Raise your eyebrows while looking, or wave to the participants. Stop the person who has the floor for a minute while the other participants rejoin the group. Don't be afraid of doing this–it's part of a manager's or team leader's job to control meetings.
  • Ask a question: Call on one of the group members participating in the competing conversation. With a brief summary of the discussion occurring in the meeting as a whole, ask for his or her opinion. Ask him or her to share their ideas with the rest of the people in the meeting.

    Say, "I believe we'd all be interested in your thoughts on this issue, Kerry." This may be a bit uncomfortable for you, but it serves two purposes: It brings the side conversation into the main conversation and it lets everyone know that the behavior is not permissible. 
  • Verbally intervene: Directly ask the group members participating in the competing conversation to rejoin the group discussion, without using sarcasm or anger. Say, "I'm afraid we're missing good ideas when everyone is talking at once. I know I can't keep track of all of these thoughts." Generally, it's better to use this tactic as a second or third attempt to pull people in. It's direct and very effective but can embarrass team members.
  • Establish a group signal: The group signal reminds participants to hold one discussion at a time. A signal that works effectively is to make a non-verbal time out sign followed by holding up one index finger to indicate one meeting. If there is a good relationship among team members, a joke can also be an effective tool. Try something like, “Hey, John and Jane, stop trying to plan your world takeover and come back to the meeting.”

A Final Word About Competing Conversations in Meetings

People spend a good part of their work week attending business meetings. It's your responsibility as a manager or meeting leader to make sure employees are making good use of their time. Effective meeting management preserves their time and by controlling side conversations you can ensure the meeting stays on-topic and produces quality work.