Facilitation - The Land of Opportunity (or "5 Ways to Hear More From Your People")

Facilitation has been on my mind lately. Sure, it's the part of my work I most enjoy, but it's more than that. Brian Willis recently invited my friend Shaun Collins and I to record back-to-back episodes for his Excellence-in-Training broadcast. Then, I got to hear Joe Willis (no relation) speak on facilitation at the ILEETA conference. Years ago, Joe and I had reversed roles in the classroom, so it was a blast to sit and learn from him. Then a client asked about capability to teach facilitation as a class. So, yeah, it's been on my mind. 

These are classroom examples. As an outsider, I also use facilitation to guide business conversations - I'm supporting leaders as they improve their organizations. But is facilitation also a useful tool for leaders themselves? I think so.

Facilitation simply means "to make easy." You've probably seen examples that both supported and assaulted this definition. Done right, a facilitator enters a room full of professionals and guides a productive conversation. The diverse experience and perspectives in the room result in effective outcomes and everyone learning or growing. The sharing of ideas has been "made easy."

Another way I look at facilitation is "creating opportunity." A lot of times, whether in a classroom or boardroom, a leader enters the room and has information to dispense or a position to advance. She may even want ideas or feedback. There is a wealth of input sitting there. But groups often don't engage or offer their opinions. I had a well-respected leader of a company tell me he would ask for people's opinions, but was convinced they'd just go along because they liked and respected him. It's not uncommon for group norms like this to develop. As a result, the conversation is often one-sided and fails to tap the wealth of perspectives sitting in the room. 

A good leader works to mine that wealth. However, the challenge is to re-program norms and thinking that have hindered conversation. These include thoughts like:

-"I didn't think my opinion was asked for"
-"My opinion was asked for, but they don't really want it"
-"I play close to the vest"
-"I've got an opinion, but I'm still processing it" 
-Or even just a group habit of not speaking up. 

So how do we move things the other way? Here's just a few - of many - ways:

1. Let people know what you're after, that you really want candid - and respectful - idea sharing. Keep saying it, because they won't believe it the first time. 

2. Give positive recognition. When someone speaks up, give a high-five for participation. To put it in the negative, if you squash someone when they offer an opinion, everyone else shuts down.

3.  Ask lots of questions, most of them open-ended. That is, questions that can't be answered with a simple nod or frown.

4. Leverage silence. Silence might make you uncomfortable. Don't fall into the trap of filling the air. Make the silence work for you. Someone will eventually answer your question. I've found the longer the wait, the more golden the nugget. 

5. Be humble. This should probably be number 1, but it's really all throughout. It's hard to sit and listen when others disagree. But to truly facilitate, we've got to listen to and actually entertain positions different from the ones we now hold. 

One caveat: Balance your facilitation with candor. Your people really want to know what you actually think. So don't facilitate forever. Let your people into your mind as well, let them see through your eyeballs. 

I have immense respect and admiration for Colin Powell, and his words are fitting to close. In 2011, I sat in an auditorium at Texas A&M University and listened as he and other members of President (H. W.) Bush's staff shared candidly about the Gulf War. General Powell mentioned the disagreements the staff had as they made decisions. 

"You cannot be a good team unless you have disagreements. But we had ways to work through our disagreements...The president was masterful at letting us argue in front of him, and then made his decision."

 Maybe he even did a bit of facilitation.