HR Consultants Hone Facilitation Skills

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Apr 6, 2012
Often, HR consultants are involved in situations where they need to facilitate conversations among two or more individuals. Whether a consultant is involved in individual coaching or facilitating large-scale projects, there are specific skills that make some more successful than others.

Chief among these skills, and one that can be a challenge, is the ability to be a neutral participant, said Cheryl McMillan, who leads executive development sessions for as a chair in Northeast Ohio. The job of the facilitator is to help make the journey happen without dictating the itinerary. “The facilitator provides the structure, process and guidance for the meeting while staying out of the content,” she said.

But being a neutral participant is just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad skills that effective facilitators must master.

While professional facilitators make the task look easy, there are some critical competencies that they possess to excel in their role.

Patty Tedesco is an executive coach in Chalfont, Penn., and has been a facilitator for more than 25 years. “I believe the key to a good facilitator is to be able to read the people you are facilitating for, whether it’s one or a roomful,” said Tedesco. “It’s not enough to know your subject. It is as important, in my opinion, to meet the needs of the audience.”

In addition, she said, facilitators must be “quick on their feet” and able to change direction if that is what the group needs.

The ability to identify, acknowledge and work through conflict situations also is important for facilitators, noted Shannon Sennefelder, a certified performance coach and the president of White Swans Consulting in Scranton, Penn.

“In conflict, as in any relationship, when people aren’t first heard, they cannot begin to feel understood, nor can there ever be an opportunity for them to feel validated,” she said. Consequently, it is important for facilitators to allow those in conflict an opportunity to “share their story,” she said. But, she noted, it is not the facilitator’s responsibility to “solve” the issue. Instead, she advised: “Trust that they each have their own answers and support them in being in charge of their own destiny.”

Importantly, facilitation is an active process, not a random exchange of information.

The Facilitation Process

Trellis Usher-Mays, an HR consultant and facilitator, is president and CEO of T.R. Ellis Group LLC in Atlanta. Facilitation involves a series of common steps, noted Usher-Mays. These include:

  • Setting the agenda. The facilitator’s job is to guide the group to some end, she noted. To do this effectively they must have a clear line of sight to a desired end goal and a sense of how that goal will be achieved. “You have to know and have planned the execution of the techniques that you are going to use to make sure they get you there,” she said.
  • Managing group dynamics. The ability to manage group dynamics effectively is a critical element of successful facilitation. “A facilitator has to be somewhat insightful about human behavior so that he or she can ‘read’ the dynamics, give each person what they need and still move the meeting or session toward the expected outcome,” she said. While Usher-Mays said that most facilitators are familiar with common “profiles” that will crop up in meetings (the know-it-all, the quiet person, the nonparticipative person, the naysayer, the saboteur, the yes-person) and likely has techniques to deal with these types, the real challenge surfaces as the types interact. These real-time dynamics, she said, create the greatest challenges—and opportunities—for facilitators.
  • Synthesis. A lot of information is shared during a meeting or group session. The facilitator’s job is to sort through it and synthesize it to identify themes and trends, said Usher-Mays. Facilitators need to be able to “connect the dots and help the group see the relevance and connection where perhaps they didn’t before.”
  • Building consensus. Nothing moves forward if people are on opposite sides, Usher-Mays pointed out. “A skilled facilitator has to help the team recognize where they are potentially saying the same thing, just coming at it from a slightly different perspective, and look for win-win solutions.”

Beverly Flaxington is co-founder of The Collaborative, a business development consulting firm in Medfield, Mass. Effective facilitators, she said, need to:

  • Have a process and clear agenda. “If you ‘just talk’ you won’t end up getting anywhere.”
  • Have a stated, agreed upon desired outcome. Why are we talking? What do we hope to accomplish?
  • Be sure to facilitate. Don’t direct or push your ideas.
  • Watch your own filters. “Be an interested observer, not a participant.”
  • Have a wrap-up, something most facilitators miss, she said. Make sure to identify the next steps that are agreed to by everyone.

Flaxington said that facilitation is one of her favorite things to do, and many HR consultants feel the same way. Often the very interests and traits that drew them to the field will serve them well in a facilitation role. But even those with natural skills can benefit from formal training or coaching and from certain experiences.

Developing Your Skills

How to become a skilled facilitator? Said Dr. Marlene Caroselli, an author, keynoter and corporate trainer: “The way one gets to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.” Caroselli recommended starting in nonthreatening, nonconsequential situations—perhaps facilitating a family discussion—before attempting to facilitate a high-level meeting. She pointed to a number of traits and skills that effective facilitators must have.

In addition to being knowledgeable about team dynamics and processes, she said, they must be: calm, patient, reflective, analytical, positive, observant, attentive, sensitive, verbal, resourceful, well read, diplomatic, confident, persuasive, open-minded, attuned to nonverbal factors and impartial. That might seem like a daunting list, but fortunately there are ample resources to assist those who would like to develop or fine-tune their facilitation skills.

“If your goal is to be a facilitator, it is mandatory that you acquire all the training and practice with your peers before you enter the room,” she said. Toastmasters, said Tedesco, offers a great way to build facilitation skills.

In addition, there are organizations focused on facilitation that HR consultants might explore for formal training in facilitation skills. These include:

Opportunities in facilitation are natural for independent HR consultants. By its nature, facilitation requires an outside, third-party, nonbiased professional to lead the process. That is exactly the perspective that HR consultants can provide.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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