When to bring in an outside facilitator, and how to get the best outcome

Facilitator
Facilitator
Margo Purcell

When organizations are too close to an issue to see what’s really going on or if people can’t find a common ground, it’s time to call in a facilitator – someone with top-notch communications skills who asks the right questions, calls things as they are, and brings a positive and unifying approach to any team session. Margo Purcell is such a woman.

Margo is President of Open to Possibilitities, a consulting firm with a focus on offering creative ways to help individuals and organizations capture their full potential through team development and learning experiences.

She tells us why organizations need facilitators, her approach to facilitation, and what to do if you’re ever asked to facilitate.

Working with a facilitator – setting the stage

What does a facilitator do?
A facilitator creates the conditions for the conversations that are essential for a team/organization to have and holds the space for them to happen.

Why do organizations need facilitators?
Often people within an organization are too close to the situation or the work to be able to see what is getting in the way of their success or to be able to see a path to even greater results.

A facilitator is that set of eyes and ears that can observe dynamics that may be preventing achievement, can detect patterns that are adaptive or maladaptive, and can ask questions that can elicit solutions from those who know the organization best – the people within it.

What factors prompt a group or organization to reach out and bring in a facilitator?
Growth, new initiatives, significant change (internally or externally driven), tension/conflict within the organization.

How do you approach your work as a facilitator?
In my work with Open to Possibilities I have some foundational principles which shape each session, regardless of industry, topic, or issue. They are:

  1. Participants have the answers; the facilitator provides the questions that help to uncover them
  2. The agenda is theirs and not mine
  3. The group or team must be prepared to receive what emerges from the group/conversation and I help them explore that
  4. I observe and reflect without judgement or interpretation
  5. I invite the group to participate and create the space for them to step in.

Your foundational principles make it clear that session participants have a degree of ownership – of the agenda and answers. But what do you do when people look to a facilitator as a leader or think that she/he should set the agenda or provide answers?
I work with the client directly to try to understand what might be going on within the organization and pull together an approach based on our best understanding of where they are. I also set the things out up front at the beginning of the session to let participants know that we have an agenda AND we are also going to see what emerges as we work through the day. I let them know my role is to observe and reflect back to them and then to foster discussion around those observations.

It’s important to note as well that sometimes we are doing a session that is more set (say we are working with an instrument and there are exercises that are as part of that). In those cases, we have a more structured agenda and integrate customized questions into the exercises that allow the group to explore issues/topics specific to them.

Communication skills are paramount

Communication must play a huge role in making a session successful. Do you need to spend some time at the start of each session on how people communicate? If so, what kind of approach do you take?

Lack of interpersonal communication skills accounts for a significant portion of the challenges organizations experience.

For this reason, early sessions with a new client often focus entirely on communication styles and preferences – building self-awareness first and then moving to understanding others.

I also offer to the group that we work from the premise that people’s intentions are good even if it may initially come out wrong. Lastly, I offer for people to participate to whatever degree they are comfortable AND that the more they put into it, the more they will get out of it.

When I read about your experience, work and background, the group therapist analogy came to mind. Is this a reasonable comparison and does it sometimes seem that you are helping people sort through some heavy or tricky feelings and/or attitudes?
Interesting that that came to mind for you – I prefer to see it as group coaching – we are collectively finding a way forward and listening deeply with all senses to seek to understand the others in the room and their experience/perspective. It is much easier for someone to understand your perspective if they feel truly heard and understood by you as well.

Yes, there are some heavy and complex feelings that often come up through the process – we are complex beings and bring all of our life experiences to each interaction we have. Sometimes those life experiences help us see things for what they are, sometimes they cloud how we interpret those experiences and people. Helping people sort through the layers of a situation and/or relationship can help them create healthier teams and organizations.

Often, we humans carry around emotions that we’re not aware of or willing to recognize. What do you do when you encounter feelings of anger, disappointment or even grief during a session? How do you support participants and find a positive way forward if things become too intense or difficult?
I name it. I make an observation about what I am seeing or if the energy has shifted in the room and then ask what that’s about or what might be underneath it. If things become really intense, I ask what is most needed right now – sometimes it is to step away and get some air, sometimes it is to put a name to the feeling they are experiencing. To help them name what they are feeling I will often give a framework of “observation/impact” – for example: “I observe that people have stopped talking and the impact on me is I feel anxious and am hesitant to speak up myself.”

Setting up for success with a facilitator

What is the biggest barrier to a successful session with a facilitator?
Lack of communication by the organization about the session, the reason for it and then intention behind it. If people come in already anxious and unsure, it is difficult for them to trust the process and do the work that is most needed.

What kind of factors provide the best advantages to achieving a successful session with a facilitator?
Engaging participants ahead of time and getting their input to some degree in the design of the session. I often have conversations with each participant ahead of the session to ascertain themes and to gain cross-functional perspectives of where they are, how they understand things came to be and strengths/challenges in the team from their viewpoint.

I also see open communication especially from the leaders about why we are doing a session and what they are looking to get from it and how they intend to support the process following the facilitation.

Lastly – follow through on the outcomes from the session. For a session to be successful, it’s important that it not be an event and that will come down to actions taken based on what surfaced and holding each other accountable to any actions agreed to during the session.

What’s the best possible outcome you hope or aim for when you facilitate a group of people?
That they get to the heart of what’s going on and make a real connection with each other through the process. There is often a focus on getting things done – the actions you take following a session will be more productive and effective if you first understand and address any maladaptive dynamics that are present.

For anyone set to be part of a session led by a facilitator, how can they prepare themselves?
Be open, be aware of thoughts/feelings you are carrying with you to the session and most of all, have some fun when you’re in the session.

How to facilitate a session

There are times when, for whatever reason, groups or organizations don’t hire a professional facilitator and instead an inexperienced individual must step into the role of facilitator. What guidance can you offer someone who’s preparing to facilitate for the first time?
It’s less important what you say and more important what you ask and how you listen. Your role is to create the space for people to work through an issue, topic or situation. Set out some guidelines for participation (I like guidelines rather than rules), anticipate things that might come up based on what you know so far and prepare some open questions ahead of time to generate dialogue.

Also, do something for yourself ahead of the session that has you entering the room in the frame of mind you want to be in. I like to listen to a song that has words in it that connect me to the work I am about to do with the group. I also like to go on a walk, notice what is around me and ground myself – even if that walk is simply my walk into the building.

For someone who wants to become a facilitator, what kind of skill set or key attributes do they need?
I strongly believe in the foundational skills that come from coaching – deep listening, the ability to ask open questions, the skills of reflecting and reframing, being fully present and being comfortable not having the answer. Other skills that support facilitation are improvising, public speaking and observing. Attributes I appreciate in facilitators are empathy, adaptability, and a sense of humour – something is probably going to go “wrong” at some point during a session, having a sense of humour can help prevent a catastrophe.

Otto von Bismarck said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” This could be a facilitator’s mantra! With your honours degree in politics, was there someone you read or a quote from an inspiring professor that has stayed with you and shaped your work as a facilitator?
I focused on International Relations during my studies at Brock. Professor Patrick Sewell constantly challenged us to look outside of North American sources of information and see perspectives from other countries, other populations. He said that we cannot get to the truth of a situation when only seeing it from a narrow point of view. I use this in my facilitation each and every day – seeking multiple perspectives in creating the approach and encouraging participants to do the same while in the session.

While at university I was fortunate to have a broad range of experiences both within my academic pursuits and as part of campus life as well. One of the greatest influences was Les McCurdy-Myers who trained us in peer counselling for my role as a Don in residence. His focus was on teaching us active listening, something I had never even heard of before. What a gift to learn that skill so early in my life and career. I use it every day in my work.

Facilitator Margo Purcell

Margo Purcell has extensive experience in training and development, public engagement, and advocacy. She started her career with HB Group Insurance, where she eventually became a Trainer and Educator.  Margo founded Open To Possibilities in 2004 and created, designed and facilitated TeamScaping® [link], an innovative organizational effectiveness program that builds the internal capacity to drive efficiency, profitability and engagement.

Based in Calgary, Canada, Margo has a Professional Certificate in Inspirational Coaching from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, a Myers-Briggs Step l and Step ll qualification from Psychometrics Canada, and a B.A. in Politics from Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is also an Activator with SheEO, a global initiative focused on building an innovative new model to finance, support and celebrate female entrepreneurs. You can find out more about Margo on Linkedin and follow her on Twitter.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist and content marketer. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. She is a Director at Gocontentmarketing.com and is available for freelance assignments. Contact her via the contact form or Linkedin.

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