11 Ways to Facilitate Great Conversations

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11 Ways to Facilitate Great Conversations

Group Discussion

Bonni and I were asked recently by our church to train members of our congregation on how to be effective facilitators for small groups.

When we delivered the training, the questions raised and resulting discussion reminded me that many of organizations simply don’t provide good examples of facilitation.

While the role of facilitator isn’t a role most leaders find themselves in on a daily basis, almost every leader finds themselves in situations where they are called on to facilitate: conferences, innovation meetings, retreats, customer focus groups, and many more.

Here are 11 principles for facilitating great conversations in almost any environment:

1. You’re the Air Traffic Controller, Not the Pilot.
Pilots are experts at flying planes. Air traffic controllers provide direction and coordination for planes to get where they are going as easily and safely as possible.

When a group forms for any reason, people are going at different speeds and directions. As a facilitator, it’s not your job to be the expert in the material or to figure out how everyone should contribute. Your job is to establish a trusting environment so each person can do that for themselves.

2. Establish Group Norms
An important job of a facilitator is to ensure that the group discusses and establishes ground rules for their work together. Sometimes these ground rules might be provided in advance — but most of the time, it’s up to the facilitator to establish norms.

Aim to decide how the group will handle these things:

  • Determining who speaks next
  • Group logistics, meetings times, food, etc.
  • Attendance expectations, if appropriate
  • How the group will handle conflict, should it emerge
  • Confidentiality expectations

3. Focus on Questions, Not Answers
Facilitators are there to help the group advance on both their individual and collective goals. Although the facilitator may have extensive knowledge on the topic, the goal of facilitation is help the group move forward, not to convey knowledge (that’s training).

Focus your preparation time on questions to ask rather than answers to provide. Spend your time during facilitation asking questions and creating a space where genuine dialogue can emerge.

4. Ask Open Ended-Questions
The best facilitators encourage conversation and relationship-building through open-ended questions. Some of our favorites when facilitating are “How so?” and the request “Tell me more.” If possible, avoid asking questions than can be answered with a simple yes/no or other one-word response.

5. Encourage Relationship-Building
It’s often both a goal and a motivator for many people in groups to build better relationships with other group members. Ask questions that facilitate this.

  • What do you most hope to gain from participation in this group?
  • What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?
  • Tell us something about you unrelated to the topic of this group.
  • What keeping you busy these days?
  • What’s something people should know about you that they don’t already?

There are lots of variations to these questions that may be more or less appropriate depending on the purpose or venue of the group. The key is to ask general questions that reveal something about people, while also allowing flexibility to answer lots of different ways.

6. Prepare a Conversation Starting Point
Some groups won’t need prompting to begin conversations. Other groups will wait for direction from the facilitator.

It’s a good practice to have questions prepared in advance that might help start the group’s conversation, even if you don’t end up needing them.

7. Invite (but don’t force) Participation
It’s common for a few people to speak more often than others in the group.

Unless it’s a job requirement, don’t insist that quieter people speak. Even then, giving people space to contribute at the right time for them will result in a much richer dialogue.

Watch for eye-contact, facial expressions, and subtle motions that the quieter people might make when they are ready to talk — and then ensure that have a chance to speak.

Avoid statements like, “Let’s hear from someone else other than Rick.” Instead, if you determine you have 1-2 louder people in the group, set a broader expectation like, “Let’s hear perspectives from four different people on this.”

8. Bring Relevance Into the Discussion
People will engage more enthusiastically in group dialogue if they can see a clear connection to what’s in it for them.

As a facilitator, you can bring relevance into the conversation by posting questions like, “How is this issue showing up in your work right now?” or, “What connection are you seeing from our conversation to making work/life easier for you?”

9. Help People Save Face
If possible, avoid putting people on the spot by saying things like, “Lisa, you’ve been really quiet the whole time,” or making performance requests like, “Bob, let’s have you read the next section of the report.” Instead, make invitations for volunteers and let people engage when they are ready, so they don’t feel put on the spot.

10. Separate Disagreement from Conflict
In almost every discussion, disagreements are inevitable. Experienced facilitators expect disagreement — and even welcome it — for an authentic conversation.

Conflict can arise if disagreements aren’t handled respectfully. If this happens, revisiting the group norms is often helpful. It’s also helpful to establish a group norm that disagreement is welcome for the purpose of understanding, but not for convincing.

11. Make Peace With Silence
A lot of us have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with silence. Sadly, most organizations are uncomfortable with it too.

If you ask a question and nobody answers, avoid answering your own question. You want to set an expectation for dialogue, not monologue, so give it the space to happen.

For years, Bonni has used the 8-second rule when facilitating or teaching. Simply allow 8 seconds of silence before asking a different question (you’ll almost never finish counting before someone speaks up).

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