How to Successfully Facilitate Groups

“The great leaders are like the best conductors—they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” —Blaine Lee

As a designer, I frequently find myself leading sessions to retrieve insights from clients and internal teams. In this somewhat unfamiliar role, I have often struggled with the processes and techniques used to keep a group on task and productive, while letting their creative urges run wild. Over time, I have improved my skills and led a number of quality sessions, but I was still relying on intuition and past experiences. After looking for help in structuring and running such events, I soon discovered the world of facilitation. This practice of facilitation focuses on processes and techniques designed to enable people to work together, extract results and grow as groups.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in “Group Facilitation Methods”, a two-day workshop held by ICA Associates, here in Toronto. The course is ICA Associates’ foundational course: “a thorough grounding in facilitation practice.” Along with a dozen others from a wide variety of backgrounds, we were guided through the course by professional facilitator Jo Nelson. Not only is Jo a great facilitator, but also a talented instructor who deftly combines experiential learning with theoretical knowledge and practical application of the topics at hand.

Focused Conversation

The first day of the course is designed to teach participants the art of the focused conversation- a simple but nuanced technique that allows a facilitator to guide a group through four stages of thought & discussion. The approach is designed to mimic the progression of our natural thought process, and stages are categorized by the kinds of questions asked by the facilitator.

The four stages in this process are:

  • Objective- focuses on surfacing the facts or the directly observable data.
  • Reflective- explores subjective responses to the subject as well as associations, emotions and images. Interpretive- attempts to make sense of the situation by articulating the values, meaning, significance and implications surrounding the topic.
  • Decisional- focuses on the outcomes of the conversations and future resolves, not necessarily solutions.

These four kinds of questions are asked in sequence to enable individuals and groups to discuss the topic in depth while progressing toward the goal of the focused conversation.

While these conversations can be facilitated on the fly, those that are successful begin with a well-planned structure and series of questions. Preparation is a key to successfully running a session. Most importantly, the conversation should begin with a rational objective that it aims to achieve. The questions posed in the decisional stage should hopefully link back to these objectives.

After working through various approaches to this method, all the workshop participants tried their hand at planning and facilitating a focused conversation. This was daunting but even after only a few hours or practice, I immediately felt more confident in my facilitation skills. Having a solid structure in place helped me focus on reading the group and responding to the flow of the conversation. It also made me realize the complexity involved in making facilitation seem effortless to the participants. Interpreting responses and understanding where they fall within the four stages can be difficult, but essential for keeping a conversation on track; something for me to practice moving forward.

Consensus Workshop Method

On the second day we went a step deeper, combining the focused conversation with the consensus workshop method. At its most basic, this is a workshop format that is designed to help a group solve a problem by generating ideas. While extremely basic in concept and appearance, it’s a powerful method of brainstorming that uses subtle processes to build consensus and meaning from disparate ideas.

Like the focused conversation method, the consensus workshop begins with thorough planning and in this case, a focus question to guide the activity. This question forms the jumping off point for exploration, so its creation and even wording is very important to the success of the workshop and delivering the results you desire. Constructing a focus question is a multistep process that incorporates elements of the rational and experiential objectives of the workshop, the desired outcome and the topic being discussed.

Once you have a quality focus question you can begin the workshop by asking participants to brainstorm ideas. This can be done in groups or individually, but the key is to narrow down this set of ideas to deliver the best results in the end. Each person should write down a specified number of their ideas on cue cards to prepare for sharing with the group (writing big and clearly is key).

Clustering the ideas happens next, but instead of throwing all the ideas up at once, starting with a select number enables everyone to focus on just those. Asking the participants to pair the first set of ideas helps them quickly group like concepts without getting too deep into exploration. These pairs are grouped under different heading cards on the wall that are represented by symbols instead of being labeled or left blank . This helps participants focus on the contents of the grouping not the title or label attached to them which comes later in this approach. Slowly bringing the rest of cards up using some other techniques begins to complete the sorting of cards into a series of distinct groups.

Once these groupings are complete, then we can begin the naming process, using the focused conversation method to discuss, reflect, explore and make a decision on the name. With all the columns named we can then begin to review the results and take action, whether it’s planning next steps or prioritizing results.

While using a focus question to guide idea generation, sorting, naming and action doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea, the little details that Jo pointed out make this process almost fail-safe. Small tweaks or verbal turns of phrase are incorporated to work with the groups natural thought process and quickly deliver results that everyone can get behind.

I have already incorporated this into my design process, using a consensus workshop to guide the generation and prioritization of goals for a design concept. But the simplicity of the method means that I have already spotted multiple steps in a project’s lifecycle that this method can be used to generate ideas or filter in on a select number of objectives that can easily be prioritized.

Facilitating Forward

Overall the training was extremely helpful and something I would recommend to designers who are regularly working with clients to guide projects and product development. I was immediately able to apply the learning at work and I also have confidence to facilitate my next workshop in a more intuitive and relaxed manner. However, I do know that it will take years to perfect and practice these techniques, especially the nuances of the focused conversation method.

Seeing a great facilitator in action is amazing to watch and the results they foster can having lasting impact on the topic at hand and in the lives of participants for years to come. I look forward to my next chance to help harness a group’s wisdom and facilitate them to achieve great results.

Written by

Nate Archer

Nate Archer

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