Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Informal Facilitation Techniques

I spent a pleasant evening recently with 14 delightful board members of a local non-profit. The session lasted several hours and was very productive. It reminded me how informal a facilitation can be and still be effective. In reflecting on the session, I noticed that I used four of my favorite informal techniques – Floundering, The Pearls, The Sophisticate, and The Time Nazi – and I'd like to share them with you.

The Pearls
After the first hour of nitty-gritty content presented by my sponsors, the session was turned over to me, introduced as "the facilitator". The first thing I said was "Does anyone want a break?" All heads nodded, but before we could stand up a fellow said he just had one question. As it turns out, the resulting conversations kept everyone in their seats for another 45 minutes. I didn't say a word, and it was solid, useful discussion. I call this technique The Pearls because I just have to introduce one speck of irritant into the water for the group to start creating value around it. The irritant in this case was seeing an "expert" facilitator apparently introducing further delay. I'm sure it gave rise to fears that nothing useful was going to happen. Those fears prompted someone to speak up with a real question. That's the benefit of The Pearls – it causes people to begin to assert themselves.

Floundering often happens at the beginning of the session, just after the objective and ground rules are clear. The 45 minutes I just described were Floundering, so named because the participants don't yet know what's expected of them. They appear to believe that I will direct them, which is not my style. I might ask a leading question and observe them putting toes in the water as they answer. But mostly, I just sit back and watch. To the extent I lead at all, it is to help them avoid stepping on each other as the group warms up and the opinions start to come out. The benefit of Floundering is that is permits people to acclimate to their joint task and content individually and as a group, at their own pace. My deference to their pace also helps make it safe for them to engage each other even though they may be feeling uncertain. I do intervene more assertively as time goes on, but only in due time.

The Sophisticate
Here's where your own life adds a lot of value to the party. When my life and my career have exposed me to possibilities that the group doesn't seem to be aware of, I may offer one of these to them. As a facilitator, your life experiences in business strategy, interpersonal or family relationships, media, or simply your passion will tend to widen the scope of inquiry and increase the humanity of the discussion. Even though a facilitator's value is supposed to be in their mastery of the process, I've found that, as The Sophisticate, one or two nuggets that I provide often prove so valuable to the group that they make their way into the outcome.

The Time Nazi
My least favorite technique, but one I'm very good at, is to make the group aware that time is running out. In this 4 hour session, I started playing The Time Nazi 45 minutes before the scheduled 9PM end. Here's how I announced that role to the group: "You only have 45 minutes left. So would you try to imagine that, after 9PM, you would never, ever get back to any of these issues you've been discussing. And that these remaining 45 minutes are your last chance to come to decisions for action on those issues. Which issue would you want to be sure to resolve in the remaining time?" Boy did things sharpen up in a hurry! We ran over anyway, by only 10 minutes, but it was a very effective use of time. The group made as many sound, informed, engaged decisions in that 55 minute endgame as they had in the previous three hours.

How well do these techniques work? In the words of the board's Treasurer, "We couldn't have done it out you. We wouldn't have done it without you."