Planning Stakeholder Engagement Part 2: How to Run your Facilitation

n my previous blog posting, I talked about the high level things to consider when planning stakeholder engagement as part of our Deep Listening. Deep Listening is crucial to understanding behaviour and motivation.  Planning these facilitations leads up to actually running them. In this posting, I’ll talk about the things you need to think about to plan your facilitation time.

The first thing I think about is creating a safe space. It’s important to set up an environment where people feel comfortable enough to speak honestly about what they feel, without fear of censure or disapproval from others. This state can be difficult to achieve, but it’s vital to an authentic and constructive meeting.

Not all facilitators take this approach. For example, some value getting an answer to a question above all else. Of course that’s important, but this approach can neglect the human, social and emotional contexts of people in the room. It’s especially critical to pay attention to this when working with vulnerable populations and sensitive topics. So, I believe it is my responsibility and duty to ensure a safe environment. It’s like being the host of a good party: you want to make sure everyone gets home okay.

Next, setting an agenda of what you will accomplish. This is one of the most important pieces of how to structure your time together with your participants. My note on preparing this is that things always take longer than expected. Nothing takes less than 10 minutes. Plus, be aware that breaks have to be structured in, but always tell people they have 5 mins less than they do, as I’ve learned from experience that people come back later than they mean to. Also, I always structure the broadest questions first, and then start to narrow in. Sometimes, in the conversations, I will ask an off-handed question that is actually key to what I want to know. I do this so that people answer more truthfully.

There are hundreds of different exercises that you can do with a group to get different kinds of information. My advice on this is to look for a range of activities that encourage different kind of thinking and doing. A great facilitation will involve a mix of learning. 

Post it notes

Once they are in the room, the real magic can begin. It’s important that people also feel comfortable physically, which can involve having coffee, tea or snacks available, or sensing when people need a break. Give permission to leave the room when they need to (especially important when working with potentially triggering issues) and let people know the logistics of restroom locations. All serve to build comfort and safety for participants. I employ a short list of behaviour expectations that set the stage for the right tone. One expectation is: “step up or step back.” This articulates the idea that if you talk a lot, try to talk less and if you don’t talk much, try to talk more. This is a great tool in my facilitator’s toolkit because I can remind people of this expectation later if I sense imbalance surfacing in the group dynamics.

Safety often relates to power dynamics. For example, sometimes men and women talking about things can create power imbalances. I have observed that men can sometimes be more vocal in a group.  Or, if employees and supervisors are together, employees may not be as frank as they could be because it might jeopardize their job. Groups that include people in varying positions of power can run effectively, but they can easily create environments where people don’t  feel safe. This is incredibly contextual, and has a lot to do with the experience of the facilitator in making the right call. It also has to do with clients understanding their stakeholders and anticipating how they might react.

Sometimes power dynamics can create tension even when it isn’t “fair”. In a recent session we led, one person represented a different department than others in the group. Even though that person was not responsible, nor at a high-level in the organization, they became the target for a lot of hostility from other departments. This was a perceived power imbalance that wasn’t obvious until we got into the room. I was able to negotiate safety for all those involved but it was tricky. It’s for moments like these that I am grateful for my human-centred approach and the ability to sense a group’s dynamics. It helps you as my client as well! Once you’ve assessed the power dynamics of your group, you can make suggestions and recommendations about who to bring into the room in order to ensure the right power balance.

Perhaps the most important tip for anyone looking to run their own facilitation group is to be very conscious of your own opinion. Never give your opinion. People naturally want to relate to the facilitator, which is the person of power in the room. While that’s helpful for building trust, it can be damaging to the safety created if people sense your opinions and preferences. It can bias the results. It takes some skill to successfully negotiate a way to be encouraging an open, without compromising the feedback that you’re getting. It’s important to keep in mind that the role of the facilitator is to surface people’s honest opinions, which begs for open acceptance.It can be difficult to put egos aside, but offering a more neutral response, like  “mhmm” instead of “yes,” can go a long way. Another useful phrase is, instead of agreeing, is simply “tell me more!”

Lastly, be conscious of the dynamics and psychology of the room. People get tired when they use their brains, so you’ll have to measure what you are asking of them. Sometimes it’s helpful to do an energy activity, even as simple as providing an opportunity for people to stand up and stretch. I practice budgeting extra time so that I can end sessions early, which can be used as an end of the tunnel encouragement to people. It always feels great to say: “we only have one more thing to do and that is I can let you go early.” As you can imagine, this typically goes overquite well.

In the next, and final in this series, I will outline how to interpret the results and some of the pitfalls related to data.

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