Paving The Way For a Successful Facilitation: Avoiding 4 Common Pitfalls

Sue Cass, ProjectFacilitation

Much can go wrong during a planned group facilitation. Unfortunately, even the most well designed event can have mishaps. While it’s easy to think about best case scenarios, let’s understand a few of the things that can go wrong in a facilitation. Highlighting some of these common pitfalls will help you more effectively plan for and lead group discussions in a way that ensures you get the positive outcomes you’ve planned for.

#1 The Discussion Dominator

Not every facilitation has one, but if you happen to have a dominator attending your event, you’d better be prepared. Dominators are people who tend to have one or both of 2 specific goals – just to be heard above all others and/or to push through an agenda no matter what. Dominators can be extremely damaging to a facilitation because they can stifle the voices and engagement of others, block or sidetrack the process, diminish the ability of everyone to listen and undermine the opinions of others. In many cases, dominators will interfere, interrupt and make it difficult for anyone to be heard who has differing opinions. If you are able to anticipate participation of a dominator you may be able to work with them in advance of the session to negotiate rules of positive participation or uncover and deal with underlying issues that could drive such behavior in advance. In planning a session keep in mind that it is easier to manage dominator behavior in small group settings than large plenaries. Ideally every session should start with outlining and having the group agree to both the agenda and guidelines for group discussion and participation. Refer back to these guidelines when needed. During a session, if necessary, use a break to speak privately with the dominator. But don’t be surprised if the group themselves also take on the job of dealing with inappropriate behavior.

#2 Technical Difficulties

When you’ve invested your heart and soul into a project, unexpected technical difficulties can be frustrating. Take the time necessary to ensure all of your technology is working properly and ready to go. Develop a facilitation working script that includes all technical details. When disaster strikes, it can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared. And even the best, cutting edge solutions have been known to have a glitch. It’s best to also plan for lower tech back-ups in case of failure.

#3 Conflict

With groups of all sizes, some conflict is expected, but diverse opinions and heartfelt passions can lead to conflict situations that explode. While you certainly can’t always know when or where conflict will erupt, it’s best to have a strategy in your “back pocket”. Working closely with stakeholders in advance to understanding potential conflicts will help you more adequately prepare. Having the ability to restructure a certain element of the process or change directions midstream to accommodate a new variable will help you stay steady on your feet in times of turmoil.

The conflict management term “going to the balcony” can also be useful one to keep in mind. It refers to creating an opportunity for conflicting parties to temporarily step out of the conflictual situation to calm high emotions, reflect and reassess.  It can create an opportunity for you to work with them outside the formal session to help calm the storm and create conditions for more positive engagement in the process.

#4 Not Having a Backup Plan

Starting with the design process, it’s imperative to prepare for the unexpected. Not having a backup plan in place is one of the most damaging, and avoidable, pitfalls. A great facilitator should have the capacity to not only roll out a process in a logical, effective and timely way, but also should be responsive to change if need be and have the ability to manage it effectively. In planning each portion of an agenda think through in advance what elements could be dropped, changed, timed differently etc. if needed. It could be as simple as adapting who is assuming the role of moderating a panel if time management of presenters is problematic or as complex as restructuring an entire element to address an unexpected conflict. Having a well-designed plan along with back-up strategies will help greatly in keeping your facilitation on track and ensuring a successful outcome.

No one looks forward to mistakes, unexpected setbacks or technical problems. But the reality is, they happen and they can happen often depending on the complexity of the event and the process being undertaking. Part of learning the art of effective facilitation involves not only understanding what could go wrong, but also taking proactive steps to avoid pitfalls by planning for the unexpected.

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