Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
4 min Read
July 9, 2019

Becoming a better group facilitator

Working collaboratively, productively, and strategically in group settings can be one of the most meaningful parts of nonprofit work. Working collectively also has the potential to lead to transformative results in ways that top-down decision-making can’t achieve—developing solutions that take into account critical perspectives that aren’t always at the table.  But the old adage, “Too many cooks in the kitchen” sends a fair warning too. The quality of a work product can take a toll when there are too many people, departments, and decision-makers involved. Too many cooks can slow down a process or even take critical projects to a standstill. 

Striking the right balance between working inclusively and efficiently is critical for nonprofit communicators in particular. Veer too far into inclusivity and you risk developing something that never sees the light of day or whose quality suffers from too many ideas and compromises. But if you place too great an emphasis on efficiency, you will exclude important voices, considerations, as well as miss the opportunity to inspire the necessary champions for your communications efforts.  

Strong facilitation skills can be superpowers for nonprofit leaders who need to make the most of working in groups. Since most nonprofits aren’t in the position to hire outside facilitators very often, it’s worthwhile for staff within nonprofits to invest in their own facilitation chops.

Sam Kaner’s book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-making offers a helpful definition and framework for facilitation. “Facilitation, first and most, is about groups. Whether the facilitator is teaching, leading, mediating, or managing a process, their purpose is to strengthen the group’s ability to get the work done.” Kaner discusses that it’s a facilitator’s job to manage the flow of a meeting or process while supporting the group to do their best thinking. 

Effective facilitators can help a group of nonprofit staff align around ideas that incorporate everyone’s point of view while simultaneously instilling confidence and trust in the group’s ability to work together. Facilitators also serve as a filter for ideas— they can help identify common ground as it emerges among group members, act as a translator between different groups of people, and ultimately, foster decisions that the group can get behind and own.

Strategies for effective facilitation

It’s helpful to think of effective facilitation as a set of tools that can be used in situations involving groups of people. Seasoned facilitators will have a diverse set of tools they can use flexibly in any group dynamic they find themselves in. But the ability to be able to use a few fundamental tools can go a long way. Here are a few strategies to get your facilitation toolkit started. 

  • Synthesizing: summarizing and prioritizing ideas shared by the group. 
    • Why use it: To take stock of different themes and points of view that have emerged, and identify what ideas to advance further.
    • Put it into action: During a brainstorm that generates a lot of ideas, ask participants to take a step back, name the various topics being explored, and decide with the participants which ones to pursue. Provide suggestions for narrowing the conversation or organizing themes. For example, “It seems like we need to look at several different dimensions of the proposed campaign idea: the impact on our donors, impact on our clients, and our ability to execute. Why don’t we take these one at a time?”
  • Reframing: frames are the perspectives through which we view and organize what’s happening around us. Reframing is a technique to influence how the group is processing information that is being discussed. 
    • Why use it: To isolate the most useful ideas being shared by group members and help turn challenges or barriers into opportunities. Reframing is all about influencing group members to do their best thinking by changing the “frame” of their contribution.
    • Put it into action: Try tying back contributions to agreed-upon goals, frameworks, and ground rules. Facilitations can reframe by asking questions like: What goal does this advance? What is the opportunity here? Might it be useful to think of it this way?
  • Active listening: involves listening intently and demonstrating that you are fully invested in the speaker’s contributions. The “active” element involves a practice of taking steps to demonstrate that you are internalizing what is being shared.
    • Why use it: Active listening is critical for building trust among group members and for encouraging people to contribute their ideas.
    • Put it into action:  Non-verbal actions such as maintaining eye contact and nodding your head when others are speaking go a long way. Asking participants to clarify or build on their ideas without coaching or intrusion helps too. Try a simple question like “Can you say more about that?” You can also actively listen by paraphrasing or repeating pieces of what people say. This makes participants feel heard and lets others hear their points a second time to clarify key ideas.

Look ahead to the meetings and collaborative sessions on your calendar and identify who will be facilitating those meetings and who will be participating in them.  If you lead a team, invest in your staff’s facilitation skills as well as your own to make those contexts as meaningful and productive as possible. With stronger facilitation skills, you may find that the benefits of working in groups soon outweigh the challenges. 

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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