The Listener, the Rapid Synthesizer and the Guide: What Facilitation Really Is

I’m working with a group that intends to offer facilitation training to its group of global professionals. They have conviction that if they could facilitate better, all of their meetings and gatherings would be that much more powerful.

I agree, but first, I have a question for them. I want to know what they really mean by facilitator.

If I put facilitation experiences on a spectrum, I might envision it like this: on one side is a facilitator that has an agenda, and on the other is a facilitator whose agenda is to see what’s within the group, pulling out insights that are fresh, not thought of beforehand.

All along the spectrum, facilitation skills can be used. But for the facilitator that is advancing a belief, a view or an agenda, skill and persuasive ability becomes less about facilitation and more about leadership: setting the tone in a room so that you can bring the members around the table to consensus. Also on this side is the teacher: a teacher can lead a group so artfully that the members around the table experience material and concepts so deeply that the lessons are internalized forever. This also takes skill and ability, but it is not exactly facilitation.

The facilitation we hope to create for this group is different: the listener, the rapid synthesizer, and the guide, all in one. The person who can use tools in an almost invisible way but still be the “adult in the room” taking care of the conversation. This person is aiming to have every voice heard. This person helps built up ideas into greater insights. This person asks questions “is this what you mean”? This person connects relationship between two seemingly unrelated statements. This person interrupts to keep the ideas moving, and calls on others to draw out, but this person is mostly quiet. This person formulates possible conclusions or statements to drive the group to check-in “are we saying that…?”. This person holds the space and pronounces completion when the work is done.

Every meeting has a facilitator, whether it's stated or not. Your facilitator could be the person who talks the most and commandeers the meeting. Next time, see if you can take on this role of the listener, the rapid synthesizer, and the guide, and give yourself an insightful meeting worth sitting down for.

At the beginning of a meeting

This is part of a series of notes I’m writing to a friend whose goal this year is to become a better facilitator. She asked for my help, so I’m aiming to help her by writing down the vignettes I think are most crucial for bringing people together in a powerful way, whether for an internal meeting, a quarterly offsite, a Board meeting, or bringing a new group of stakeholders together. I hope any of these pieces will also help you. —Brynne

At the beginning of a meeting, if we wonder why we are there, or if it is the best use of our time, then our brain is split into fragments.

At the beginning of the meeting, if we are dreading the personalities in the room, or some bigger issue in your organization, our heart is fortressed.

At the beginning of the meeting, if we aren’t called upon to participate and to matter, our body checks out.

We want heart, body and mind of everyone in that room at its best.

You’re only the facilitator, you can’t handle every demand on each person in the room, but you can do this:

Center the room.

Shaping the structure for the first few minutes of any meeting will set the psychological safety in the room. It will also provide direction and focus healthy intensity toward your goal. Whatever kind of meeting with whatever personalities, if you communicate intentionally in the first three minutes, you can all relax and do your best work in the time you set aside for it.

What is this accomplishing?

At the beginning of a meeting, you are responsible for taking the fragmented conversations in everyone’s head and funneling into one powerful collective effort. All this takes is communication:

Put your stake in the ground. Let your group know what you’re doing in that time, and why you want to accomplish it. Make sure they know you won’t threaten their most precious resource -their time. Promise you’ll end on time or make it easy for them to move on after the committed time is through.

Centering, in this case, means you are helping them let go of the multiple trains of thought barreling through their heads. Focus is harder to come by these days. Help them release fragmented thoughts for the moment to focus on the innovation about to take place by having everyone together. Meetings can be a sieve of time and talent, or a firestarter. By centering, you move all minds into one powerful workstream.