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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




What a Good Facilitator Can Do 

March 4, 2014 — By Margarita Parra

Some people are born with great facilitation skills, and there are others, like me, who need a little help. Believe it or not, one of my New Year’s resolutions—made just as the clock struck midnight—was to get better at facilitating meetings: of my grantees, partners, and other donors, and even meetings between family and friends.

Late last year, I attended a training session on facilitation at the Foundation. Led by David Barkan, the training was, for me, transformative. And judging by the response—a third of our staff has now been through the training—I’m not alone.

One of the most useful ideas that I took away from the training was also the simplest. There are various types of meetings and many reasons to meet, but the real purpose of virtually any meetings should be to do something: engage in generative discussion, make a decision, explore a new direction, or learn about something new. If we are meeting just for the sake of meeting then we are wasting time and money, according to David. This was like a thunderclap! How many times have we all attended meetings only to walk away with the feeling that an email would have been sufficient? The purpose of the meeting, the discussion we need to have or the decision we are trying to make has to be clear and must guide the design of the session. A good facilitator has to prepare well (the preparation might take more time than the actual meeting), weighing whether or not the meeting is necessary, its purpose, its goal, and how the goal might be accomplished.

The training also gave attendees the opportunity to practice our facilitation skills—listening skills in particular—that can help move a group from disagreement to unanimity. Getting to a collective agreement can take much more than one meeting. Often the facilitator hears distinct and divergent points of view and has to deal simultaneously with difficult interpersonal dynamics that stifle productive conversation. This requires patience, skill, and focus over time to understand and facilitate well. What I learned is that a good facilitator is sometimes a good interlocutor: clarifying, capturing and interpreting the group’s myriad points of view so that everyone at least understands the problem before trying to solve it. I paid close attention to what David said about paraphrasing and balancing—being able to accurately reflect back to someone what they are saying, and organizing the conversation to give equal space to opposing views. These are perhaps the most difficult skills to master.

Last month, I had my first opportunity to put what I had learned to work while facilitating a session with colleagues from other foundations and the World Bank. My table had a great group of people, both enthusiastic and skeptical. I knew going in that finding consensus was not going to be easy. Even with my preparations, there were things I hadn’t anticipated. I tried to open up space for everyone to articulate their viewpoint and reminded myself to be encouraging so that we could identify actions on which there was the possibility of collaboration, our goal for the session. Many good points were made, but there was no single narrative thread that tied them together.

Complicating matters further was the format of the session, which required our conveners to move intermittently to different tables. As new faces shuttled to my table, I had to use my newfound skills to summarize for the new members where we were in the discussion. But this repetition had an unexpected benefit: This constant summarization of the issues provided me with some clarity, which in turn, enabled me to identify the common themes that had eluded us until that point—the precursors to finding consensus.

After reporting back to the larger group, I returned to my table to words of praise for my facilitation and a few thumbs up. Afterward, as we all milled around the hotel conference room, others approached me just to tell me they were impressed with my facilitation.

I was ecstatic.

I know I still need to work on some important skills, but I can see the critical role that a good facilitator can play in improving the quality of meetings, the decisions made at them, and our grantmaking.