I’m in a fortunate position where I often lead workshops and sessions which are trying to bring people together around a particular project or opportunity. So often poor facilitation drives people to condemn meetings, committees and getting in a room with one another — if you can get better at this, it’ll break down silos, help your own career progression and realise new opportunities for your organisation.

Here are a few things that I’ve found useful recently…

Make space for different types of working and thinking

By definition, if you are working with a group of people, you’re going to have a variety of perspectives in the room. This means you’re going to have different ways that people feel most comfortable contributing. As such, to make the most of everyone’s perspective you have to mix up how you run a session. The most obvious way of doing this, is to switch between exercises that ask for individual reflection and group discussion.

I’ll often run a session so that people are individually filling out information (usually on post-its) which we then discuss as a group. Whilst far from perfect, it’s a start in helping everybody contribute to a meeting no matter how comfortable they are with speaking up in front of groups.

The Retrospective is a classic activity that combines individual reflection with group discussion - and requires little prep to run effectively

Collaboration = building on one another’s ideas

If you’ve got people in a room for an extended period of time, then you should be looking to create a joint solution to a problem. If you’re just updating one another with information, I personally think there are better ways to do this. I’m going to assume you agree…

The aim of this session should be to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. That means that no individual has the whole answer before they enter the room. As such, you need to steer conversations so that they build on each others ideas, rather than try and dominate them. A great way to start this, is to encourage people to ask ‘Yes, and’ rather than ‘Yes, but’. It’s a small thing but could set the tone of the meeting…

Another great sentence to use is ‘Tell me more about that’. People always always will have more to say.

[See more tips for collaborative creativity in your teams here — https://medium.com/william-joseph/help-your-team-be-more-creative-10-things-you-can-do-right-now-7f2ff4e1f89]

Stick to a structure and constantly be looking to change it

Many people are not comfortable working in a situation where they don’t know what’s coming up next. They like to prepare their thoughts from one activity to the next and connect them together. This is in contrast to those of us that are willing to react to whatever’s being said in the moment — often termed ‘blagging it’. (I do this for a living many say)

Your role as a facilitator is to make people feel as comfortable as possible, so that they can do their best work in a group. As such, you need to cater for this way of working, rather than try to apply your own vision.

As such, have an agenda and tell people about it at the start of the session. However, you need to be able to spot opportunities to be chased after which often during a session. If you do see one of these, explain exactly the change that you’re going to make, your reasons for it and allow people to discuss it and agree (or veto).

Be present and listen to understand

Facilitating is a difficult job, even when you’ve done it a few times. The main reason for this is you have to be constantly ‘on’ — listening to each point that is made, evaluating it and reacting. This takes a lot of energy. It’s essential though if you’re going to make sure that everybody’s perspective is considered and you can weave them together towards a solution.

A major part of this is practicing active listening — or the skill of truly listening to what someone is saying, rather than thinking about what you are going to say next. I have found mindfulness practices very useful in developing this skill — the same neuro-pathways and behaviours are used in both. So get Headspace on your phone and try to build this capability.

Turn off your phone and set your out of office on

No matter how mindful you are, if you’ve got a mobile constantly buzzing in your pocket, you’re going to get distracted. Likewise, if you’re worried about a client or senior manager emailing you and you not replying in time, you’re not going to be giving the session your full attention. Set the out of office, explain to people where you are and they’ll understand.

There is no situation in the whole world where someone can’t get hold of you if they think it’s really urgent — trust me, I’ve tried!

Visually represent the conversation

People who run workshops LOVE post-its. The first reason for this is it forces participants to distill their thoughts into short sentences — whilst breaking things down into their component parts. They’re also throw away enough so that people don’t worry about putting their wildest thoughts on them — even if they’re discarded immediately.

The second reason is that they are fantastically good at showing people the progress you’ve made as a group. This is important as most people struggle to hold lots of complex information in their head at once. If they can see things represented as a set of post its, then they will be able to ask questions of different stages.

From a recent workshop with a University and Research charity…There’s a reason that agencies are filled with post-it wielding maniacs — they really do help represent even the most complex of journeys or products

Give people a chance to reflect

Once you’ve got your post its on a wall, allow time for everyone to explore them and set time aside to come back to revisit the conclusions which are drawn. This can often be the hardest part of a session as you’ll have been working hard and people will be keen for everything to finish up. It’s crucial for getting solutions that really pull in all the points of view.

Don’t be afraid of silence

If you’re visually representing conversations and facilitating group discussions, there will naturally be a pause in the session. It will feel as if all the ideas have been generated and it will feel awkward. Your instinct will be to move things on. Resist this urge if you can. There is always one more idea to be found in this no man’s land of British embarrassment.

Build relationships before the session and in the breaks

From the second people start arriving, you should be trying to build a relationship with them. It’ll feel odd as you’ll no doubt do introductions as part of the agenda, but introduce yourself and start understanding individuals’ perspectives straight away. This will only help with the session as you move forward. If you need to nip to the loo or get a drink of water, make sure you do it in plenty of time so that you are in the room 10 minutes before the session starts for these little chats.

It’ll feel like small talk at times, but what you’re really doing is building trust between you and hopefully making people feel comfortable.

I’m afraid the breaks aren’t for you to check your phone or eat cheap catering sandwiches. Be using these to check in with people (especially the more senior folks) and be getting those perspectives of individuals who maybe aren’t quite so comfortable speaking up in a group. Don’t be afraid to capture follow up points on post its and explain to the group when you come back together what’s been added.

Have a note taker

In most sessions I run, I’m capturing information and playing it back to the group visually. However, it’s invaluable to have someone else capturing the little pieces of context which might be discussed, but which are missed, no matter how good your post it game is.

Use name badges

I’m rubbish at remembering names. I often worry about the names of people I’ve known for literally years. In a workshop environment this can be seriously debilitating and sets me on edge. So I use name badges which everyone fills out at the start. It also helps the rest of the room remember who they are addressing — as more often than not, they won’t know each other terribly well either.

Have a car park sheet

Have a way to park a conversation which whilst valuable, may be taking the session off track. I usually do this as a big sheet of paper on the wall which I add post-its to if I have to cut someone off or halt a discussion. This allows you to set up separate sessions or work streams to tackle this in the future and goes some way to avoiding people feeling like they’re not being listened to.

Have breaks and keep to time

Whilst you have to go without, breaks are crucial for keeping people engage with the session. I find it’s very difficult for anyone to remain focussed on an activity for more than an hour. Make sure that you’ve got a watch or access to a clock so you can make sure you’re keeping to time and don’t roll into your time that’s set aside.

Bring sweets & bake

There’s nothing that gets people on side more than a bit of sugar. If it can be home made, then even better. There’s no better way to build a relationship or trust than with a plate of brownies they know you’ve taken the time to bake the night before.

All of these little things help to create a mind set of openess and comfort, which in turn allows people to do their best work, no matter what their perspective, style or seniority.