“What do you think are the common mistakes when facilitators think about control?”
Yen Kai laughs.
Brows furrowed, I ask what he means.
“Participants aren’t stupid. You’ve probably been in those focus group discussions where it feels like the organiser already has a clear view of what the answer is, and is organising the session merely to show that the organisation has sought opinions from the ground.”
How do you know this?
Often the facilitator will end up summing up a point that does not seem too reflective of the entire group.
Or you might see the facilitator avoiding certain topics that are brought up by participants, and leading the discussion down another path.
What is control?
INIFAC competency on control requires master facilitators to create and maintain a productive and safe environment in which participants with diverse styles and culture can engage in interactions that stay focused on achieving the goal. They maintain control of the session and an appropriate pace. They understand causes of disagreement and can effectively guide a group through conflict. They consciously take action to prevent, detect and resolve dysfunctional behaviour.
To me, the INIFAC competency of control is one of the hardest to achieve, considering the seeming polarities of what is being asked.
On the one hand, the facilitator is asked to guide the conversation. But on the other hand, the facilitator cannot be too heavy handed on the discussion, such that it is ‘steered’ in a certain direction.
How does he do it?
Having been a process facilitator for the past 17 years and is he is a Certified Professional Facilitator with the International Association of Facilitators. He was first trained as a experiential learning facilitator, before he encountered process facilitation.
Many of his experiences as a process facilitator have come about organising and executing national level public consultations in the public sector, and within the education sector, such as with schools, during their strategic planning retreats.
After experiencing process facilitation, he fell in love with it. He loved how process facilitators were not the content experts, and could maintain content neutrality throughout the discussion, and instead guide participants to their own resolutions.
Creating fertile environments for facilitation
One of the first things Yen Kai does to produce environments where participants are focused on achieving the final goal, is not during the session.
It is before the session.
Contracting and pre-engagement is a major piece of a facilitator’s work with the client. During the pre-session meetings with the client, Yen Kai focuses on:
- Understanding what the client wants, and sometimes suggesting other methods if it seems process facilitation may not necessarily work as an intervention
- Going through the ground rules of helpful discussions with the client
- Explaining to the most powerful person who will be in the meeting (usually the CEO or director), about how they should not be the first or the last to speak, or how they may not be able to vote
He sets these two rules (turn of speaking, and voting) for the person with power in the room because he has seen how participants may tend to follow what the leader says after his opening remarks. He has also noticed that if the leader is the last to speak, it often results in them summarising the points in a way that fits their final opinions on the issue.
Acclaimed research Brené Brown, in her book ‘Daring To Lead’, talks about how this is the ‘halo effect’ attributed to leaders, where followers fall in line with what leaders proclaim.
Yen Kai also ensures that he enforces these rules during the meeting.
Often it can be as simple as light-heartedly poking the leader, “Hey I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t be the first to go? I will give you a yellow card if it happens again!”
He recounts funnily, “Yes there was once when I really had to ask the leader to leave the room… and I was never asked back again.”
Janice, the co-founder of Facilitators Network Singapore, points out, that it is not when the person with power speaks, but what he/she says.
This is where the facilitator’s role matters. There are 3 things that Janice suggest the facilitator do.
Firstly, the facilitator may need to tell the person in power what their role should be in the meeting. Usually, informed sponsors will ask process facilitators what their role in the meeting should be, and if they should be present. One useful advice is that the sponsor does the opening and closing, and then assumes the role of a participant, like everyone else during the meeting.
During the meeting, sponsors may be confused on how to respond if participants defer to them for a decision.
In this case, the facilitator can coach the sponsor to share that the meeting is not just about the sponsor’s view, but that all participants’ views are equally important, and that the sponsor would like to hear what they think first. The sponsor can remind participants that he/she is like them, one of the meeting participants.
Secondly, the facilitator can coach the person on what to cover in his speech. Usually, Janice recommends that the opening speech could cover:
- Why the meeting is important
- Why the participants are specially chosen to be at the meeting
- What is expected of them
During the closing, the person in power can thank the participants for contributing, and share what the next steps are.
Lastly, the facilitator must judge if the presence of the sponsor may affect the ‘safe’ space of the meeting. If it does, the facilitator would have to advise the sponsor to attend the large group sharing segments of the meeting and not participate fully in the meeting.
Be process assertive, not content assertive
Yen Kai does see less experienced facilitators sometimes being too assertive on content, rather than process.
For example, some facilitators may set out out-of-bound markers, stating categorically that certain topics cannot be talked about.
That may leave participants feeling like they cannot bring what they think is relevant.
Yen Kai’s advice is that facilitators enforce conversational norms that allow a good process to happen, such as having one conversation at a time.
It may also be due to the facilitators own internal anxieties, and ironically, lack of self-control internally, that leave them projecting their anxieties onto the group’s process.
Facilitators can be aware of their own emotions whilst facilitating the group process, simply by checking in with their breath when they feel overwhelmed.
Rather than set content boundary, Janice suggests the use of the Parking Lot for holding content raised by participants that are beyond the meeting objectives. These ‘parked’ items can be reviewed at the end of the meeting by the participants for them to decide what they would like to do with these items.
From conflict to consensus
Of course, sometimes, a group conflict can leave a facilitator feeling completely perplexed.
Yen Kai has had his fair share of conflicts and tensions in the room.
“The facilitator has to first be comfortable themselves with conflict. When you are aware of the conflict, naming it can often be the first step.”
Leaving conflict as the unsaid elephant in the room, and trying to gently dance around it, can often heavily impede group progress.
“Then you must sit with the conflict, with the group. Talk about it.”
When I ask Yen Kai when the group can move on, he pauses.
“Until the group feels it’s ‘enough to move’, and they are ‘ready to move on’. It’s not about coming to a resolution or a clear set of actions. But often it can just be each party saying, “Okay, I finally see why you did that. I may not agree with it. But I see why.””
Conflict can be one of the disruptions that affect facilitators.
Another can be disruptive presences in the group. We have all experienced them.
The person who talks too much. The person who becomes argumentative. The person who insists on hogging the microphone.
How do you deal with disruptive influences in the group?
Dealing with disruptions
“Why does disruption happen? Because people don’t feel like they are heard. Or people may feel that the facilitator is not neutral.”
Yen Kai believes that content neutrality can prevent these disruptions from happening in the first place.
Often, participants have made their way to discussions, taken time out of their busy schedules, because they are vested in the issue and want to share, and shape the discussion.
But as facilitators, we may inadvertently ‘label’ some participants as ‘disruptive’ or ‘difficult’. I confess.
I have done them many times.
I skip over them when they raise their hand. Look past them.
Yet, giving them the space to share, shows that their opinions are respected, rather than dismissed.
Control is not about steering conversations
What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of control?
You may think of: power. Influence. Assuredness.
As INIFAC reminds us, “Master Facilitators create and maintain a productive and safe environment in which participants with diverse styles and culture can engage in interactions that stay focused on achieving the goal.
Maintaining control of the session and setting an appropriate pace, they understand causes of disagreement and can effectively guide a group through conflict.
They consciously take action to prevent, detect and resolve dysfunctional behaviour.”
It is not an easy task.
Yet what Yen Kai has reminded us today is that control is about ‘holding processes lightly’. Even as we maintain a handle on the conversation, it is also about being flexible enough to let it flow according to the input of the participants, rather than you, the facilitator.
It is recognising that you are not there to ‘steer’ the conversation.
You are simply there to hold the space where better conversations can happen.
John is excited about helping young people to brave challenges of the 21st century and writes about how young people can flourish in work at liveyoungandwell.com.
If you desire to better control meetings you facilitate, please check out our SPOT on FacilitationTM where we cover the core competencies facilitator including INIFAC competency on Control.