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What is a Meeting Facilitator?

Written by Patrick Valois

If you’ve heard the term “facilitator” used in a professional setting but aren’t quite sure what it is, you’re not alone. Anyone who’s worked as a professional facilitator has more than likely been to countless parties, weddings or gatherings where introductions went something like this:
Stranger: “…and what do you do for work?”
Facilitator: “I work for an organization that specializes in professional facilitation” Stanger (looking confused): “and what does that involve, exactly?”
All of us in the facilitation industry have a slightly different elevator pitch for why certain meetings can really benefit from hiring a professional facilitator.

Think of it this way:
In any meeting or engagement that you’ve been involved in where important decisions are being made, have you considered what needs to happen to get it right? 

When you’re bringing groups together, achieving what you set out to achieve can quickly become a daunting task. A professional facilitator is an expert in the process involved in bringing people together the right way. You may have heard the expression, “a camel is a horse made by a committee,” to explain how ineffective committees can be. Well, not that there’s anything wrong with camels, but it’s a facilitator’s job to implement the process required to help that committee make a Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred horse! In other words, try to imagine people with different personalities, experiences, opinions, views, etc. represented as arrows pointing in different directions trying to achieve a shared goal. A facilitator helps point all those arrows in one direction toward a common goal. 

You may be asking yourself, “but how can a facilitator lead a group of people through a topic that they know nothing about?” Facilitators are experts in the process of engaging groups rather than the content of the discussion. Intersol facilitators have successfully led engagements on topics ranging from quantum technology to reducing the carbon footprint of concrete, neither of which we can claim to be experts in. In fact, many organizations hire professional facilitators because they are outsiders. Hiring someone impartial to design and deliver a meeting, especially on a contentious topic, is a strategy used to ensure there is buy-in on the decisions made over the course of the engagement. 

Are the right people around the table? 
In any meeting in which decisions are being made, it is important to consider the people that these decisions will affect. Why? Let’s say, for example, the executives of a large restaurant chain got together and decided it was time to refresh the menus across the country. Sure, they have the authority to do whatever they want with the menu. They are the ones in charge. But do they have the insights of the serving staff who know what brings people in the door? Are they familiar with the clientele who may not come back if their favourite cheese dip is taken off the menu? That’s not to say that everyone from the CEO of the company right down to the regulars at the local restaurant should have a seat at the table. It is, however, important that their voices are represented. It’s time to call on a professional facilitator when large decisions need to be made that will affect other people, so they can ensure the necessary strategies are in place to achieve buy-in. Everyone involved should feel like they have a little piece of ownership in these decisions, that ultimately affect them and their work. 

Are the right engagement questions being asked?
When organizations bring stakeholders together to engage with them on an issue, they usually have an idea of what information they’re looking for. An organization trying to address climate change, for example, could bring scientists together to come up with some of the most effective ways to cut carbon emissions. It’s a facilitator’s job to ask the right questions in the right way to squeeze out all that valuable information. There’s nothing worse than working hard to bring all the right people to the table to engage them on a topic and not getting the information you need to take the next step.

How much thought has been put into the agenda design?
Designing a meeting agenda is more than just jotting down some of the topics you want to discuss over the short time you have scheduled to meet. When the results of your meeting are important, careful thought should be put into crafting an agenda and shared with participating invitees. Invited participants will be more likely to show up to a meeting prepared and there will be enough time for meaningful discussion.  

How do you promote input from everyone at the table, not just the usual suspects?
There are introverts and extroverts. Those who want to let others do the talking and those who won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise. It’s a facilitator’s job to not only play the role of “traffic cop” during a meeting to create flow in the discussion but also to encourage all participants to contribute. Everyone is around the meeting table for a reason and missing out on valuable input is a lost opportunity. 

How do you prevent those with difficult personalities from taking over or derailing the meeting?
We all know who they are… The hecklers who can be combative or confrontational, the go-getters who talk because they have to say something, not because they have something to say. There are several types of difficult personalities that have the potential to derail a meeting. We get it, sometimes the threat of change or the process of making decisions that will affect people can lead emotions to run high. Did you know that professional facilitators have strategies to deal with these types of personalities in a respectful and professional way? We are trained to make the meeting about the purpose, not the personality.  

Maybe 1,000 words on what a professional facilitator does isn’t exactly an elevator pitch… so here is our best shot at summarizing it in 20 words or less: A Facilitator is a skilled leader that assists in re-orienting people toward a new and shared direction.

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