Reflections on Facilitation: Tips for Making Meetings Flow and Having Fun

I need to laugh more. I mean really laugh. It feels so darn good and must trigger something in the brain. Even little smiles are good. I was in a gardening center today and saw a sign that read, “Unattended children will be given an espresso and free puppy.” Now that is humorous and it certainly gets the point across. It made me smile.

I need to laugh more. I mean really laugh. It feels so darn good and must trigger something in the brain. Even little smiles are good. I was in a gardening center today and saw a sign that read, “Unattended children will be given an espresso and free puppy.” Now that is humorous and it certainly gets the point across. It made me smile.

Recently I taught The Art of Facilitation course sponsored by TSNE. When I teach and reflect on effective facilitation, I am increasingly convinced that the 3 key skills of a great facilitator are:

  • getting the group to feel safe and relax,
  • telling stories, and
  • having fun.

Think about the last meeting where you really felt it was effective and that you remember the discussion and resulting actions. I’ll bet you were having fun. I’ll bet you laughed during that meeting, or at least smiled.

The Age of the Right Brain

Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind (2006), talks about 6 aptitudes of the coming “Conceptual Age,” the new period of time that is replacing the “Information Age” due to automation, globalization and outsourcing. The world is calling for abilities, he claims, that before now were not in vogue – the right brain-directed talents of storytelling, being empathetic, effective and pleasing design, making things meaningful, bringing unlike ideas together (he calls it symphony), and yes—having fun.

These skills, I emphatically point out in the course, are the same as those of a superb facilitator. As most know, the definition of facilitation is “to make easy.” And what is easier than sharing a story or two and having fun with metaphors? What is easier than caring for and really paying attention to your participants? That you have mini-breakthroughs in your thinking? And, what is easier than laughing?

Having Fun Promotes Learning

I would love to know if all the emerging understanding of the brain supports the notion that having fun promotes learning and enhances memory. I believe it does. I can't recall the names of the people in the training last month, but what I do remember is the story told by the woman involved in environmental protection; the look of recognition by a participant when I told a story about facilitation gone wrong; and the sounds of laughter.

Did they learn about facilitation? Yes, I hope so. Are they relaxed enough to be empathetic, use humor, garner a story, throw in some metaphor and guide a group to its own meaning? Absolutely.

How to do this, you ask? To engage these attributes, simply make it easy for the group to enter, be in the room together, understand their purpose while there, and exit with actions or resolve to do something differently.

Before the Meeting: Know your Rational Aim

What is it that you and the group hope to accomplish?

Think about design. What is the mood that needs to be set and the experience that is to be had? Given your topic(s) to be discussed, would it be better/safer to break it up by having participants meet in small groups? Do you have a strong hierarchy that requires management (again, good reason for small groups)? If you are gathering a lot of information, would a carousel approach work?

Meeting Opening: Welcome Everyone

Establish a firm, clear and energetic beginning.

Share the rational aim with them in an opening statement of purpose. And, be clear what it is that they are personally going to gain from their time together. “I hope by the end of this meeting you will leave very clear about your role in this project.” St the tone for the meeting by using a metaphor … “We are building a house together, and today we’re putting in the foundation.”

Meeting Content and Flow: Know How the Group Makes Decisions

For each agenda item, be clear about what is being asked for – feedback, a sounding board for someone, sharing information, input, or a decision.

Bring every item to closure (action or resolve) before moving on. If you are unclear about a point someone is making, ask them to tell a quick story to illustrate their viewpoint.

Meeting Closure: Summarize the Actions

You’ll be a star. Ask for a metaphor that describes the meeting outcome or where you are in the project, and thank everyone for participating.

But most of all, have fun! It will be catching.


Nancy Jackson led a training on facilitation techniques in April 2010, as part of TSNE's Capacity Building Training Series. Here she shares some pointers from the training.

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