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