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Four Facilitator Roles Guarantee Success
by Baldwin H. Tom


A facilitator can benefit most any group deliberation. One of the most challenging assignments for a facilitator is to form a coalition with groups not necessarily friendly with each other. This is the framework in recommending four facilitator roles that guarantee session success.

Defining the Coalition

A coalition is a group of independent entities, sometimes with virtually nothing in common (e.g., between historic enemies), joined together to accomplish a shared goal. To illustrate, we want to form a coalition that needs to agree on who and how to manage new community grant funds. With a deadline looming for accepting funds, the four different groups defining the coalition (community association, professional group, concerned activists, and a funds management group) must come to agreement or lose the funding. Importantly, the groups have tried, unsuccessfully, to make progress.

Defining the Need

A neutral facilitator has the potential to return the discussions onto a positive track, as long as all parties agree to work together. Urgency of the situation must be overtly delineated. It will require pointing out the implications of further delay - likely different for each party. Leading the participants to articulate their common goals and constraints will be critical to get everyone working from the same page.

The negative dynamics in such circumstances foster suspect communications, hidden agendas, lost focus on the tasks, poor morale, and disruptive participants that, taken together, sustain negative energy. The facilitator can gain a semblance of order by grouping these types of situations into three categories of process, content, and psychic satisfactions that, when addressed, predict success for group processes. Therefore if the process is satisfactory, the content relevant, and the atmosphere in the session positive, the meeting will be successful. Less successful meetings have one, or more of the satisfaction factors missing.

Setting the Stage for Facilitator Success

The facilitator needs to:

  1. Focus on the seriousness of the situation. Mimic the demeanor of the group to start.

  2. Be formal. Ground rules are provided up front and endorsed by all participants. Agreements to abide by the rules are overtly sought and the roles and responsibilities for participants and for the facilitator are accepted. In other words, use the negotiations approach to lead the group to agree to simple decisions ('getting to yes') before the tough questions are asked.

  3. Articulate the facilitator's role to keep the group on task. Remind them that if anyone steps out of line that it is the facilitator's responsibility to make corrections. One approach is to use a "time out" sign when you suspect a breech of the process and behavior guidelines and then ask the erring party if they had originally agreed to abide by the group's guidelines. [Note: When participants agree to abide by guidelines, they will not say, in front of their peers, that their word is not to be trusted and that they now wish to take back their original agreement.]

  4. Show no favoritism and don't publicly embarrass any group. Behind the scene deliberations and decisions must avoid setting up one group over another that becomes apparent during the session.

  5. Communications transparency. It is important to remind oneself to ask: "Am I sending a fair and open message?"

  6. Be aware of the meeting satisfaction factors and work to optimize them.

Four Facilitator Roles Guarantee Success

The goal, therefore, is to create satisfaction within a work session. Here are four distinct roles for a facilitator in this context:

  1. Meeting manager (emphasizes process and psychic satisfactions)

  2. Process consultant (emphasizes process)

  3. Collaboration specialist (emphasizes process)

  4. Strategic thinker. (emphasizes content and process)

Meeting Manager. Understands the nature of meetings and uses appropriate skills (active listening, directing, eliciting, involving, cheer leading) and behaviors (supportive, protective, complimenting, corrective) to manage the process. Fully capable of dealing with the range of personality types in meeting settings.

Process Consultant. Can bring into play, group techniques such as brainstorming, problem solving, negotiating, conflict management, creative thinking, and consensus building. Can suggest individual methods such as mindmapping. Uses deadlock-breaking tools to help the group get past fixed positions.

Collaboration Specialist. Understands the dynamics of collaborating & building coalitions. Has discipline to build multiple small agreements of process, procedures, and obvious agreements before moving on to the more controversial topics. Accepts diverse personalities and the uniqueness of people. Patient and flexible.

Strategic Thinker. Sees the whole as a generalist - a systems thinker. Implications mapping is a tool in this area. Is versed in strategic exploration. Able to position the group's work to achieve optimal results that fully support organizational goals. Helps the group answer the question, "Is what we are doing helping to drive our vision or mission?" If a 'yes' answer does not jump right out, then the task under consideration is probably not a priority and the facilitator needs to get the group back on track.

Play the Roles

It would be good to suggest a sequence to use the roles. There is none. Just like the basketball player dribbling to the basket against a defender, the precise path is uncharted. What the dribbler will do next is fully dependent on that moment in time. I trust you get the point. The key to facilitation success is to learn the tools so one is prepared to react with the right tool at the right moment.

Final Thought

The funds management facilitation was to get the parties deliberating together and that was accomplished after three sessions. During the second session, it was necessary to require all 35 participants to sign a behaviors document as a physical reinforcement of their agreement. It was simpler to refer to their signature to remind them of their 'pledge.'


The Author

Baldwin H. Tom

Baldwin H. Tom CMC® With a tagline, "Ignite the promise of service excellence," his award-winning firm helps clients work smarter, save time and money, and gain peace-of- mind. With a strong code of ethics, this Resultant SM team receives accolades for customer service. Past National Chair of the Institute of Management Consultants USA, 2004-2006. Download the Strategic Facilitator SM roles sheet from (look under Publications).

Many more articles in More Effective Meetings in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2008 by Baldwin H. Tom. All rights reserved.

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