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The habits of highly successful facilitators

Before a community event is a success or an economic development strategy is implemented, a community meeting takes place — or more likely, a bunch of meetings. That makes leading good community meetings pretty important. "Good meeting facilitation may be as important as voting or a local tax base when it comes to successful communities," notes Mary Ann Hennen, former program leader for leadership and civic engagement programs at Extension. "It isn't practical or affordable for communities to hire professional facilitators for every meeting, so some knowledge of good facilitation needs to be available at the front of the room."

A team of Extension educators make learning skilled facilitation a key element of leadership and civic engagement education in Minnesota. "Our goal is to help emerging and existing leaders understand how critical good meetings are to their success, and to make skilled facilitation a habit among community leaders."

Through leadership and civic engagement programming, educational materials, and online tools, her team offers training in facilitation. Below, we describe some of their key messages for local leaders.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Effective facilitators focus on the goals of the group. "If a meeting is disorganized, the group can't do what they are charged to do," says Jody Horntvedt, one of Extension's leadership and civic engagement educators. "Disorganized meetings can also create strained relationships among participants. And that often creates a negative downward spiral."

Successful facilitators start planning a meeting well in advance. Mike Hirst, who participated in Extension's leadership training through the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, has led community meetings for many years in his town of Baudette, Minnesota. He notes that he works hard to establish the purpose of the meeting well ahead of time. "I really try to know the audience and have a good idea of what my expectations are for the meeting, as well as others' expectations," he says. "Sometimes, I even call people to make sure they're attending and give them some background about the meeting to make sure we're on the same page."

Building from that understanding, facilitators can develop what Horntvedt calls the "essential building blocks" of effective meetings — a good agenda, a suitable meeting room arrangement, and the right supplies and equipment.

Processes to help the group progress

Within the meeting agenda, skilled facilitators use processes that guide the group's work. "Experienced facilitators have a toolbox that they access to choose the right process for the task the group has in front of them," says Lisa Hinz, another educator of the leadership and civic engagement team.

Here are a few essential tools to have at your disposal.

Snow cards to brainstorm ideas

Snow card brainstorming is a great process to use when groups need to generate information and ideas from everyone involved. The facilitator encourages participants to come up with as many ideas as possible, recording each idea on a card. Then, everyone shares their ideas in a "round robin" fashion. Duplicates are removed and similar ideas are clustered into categories. The resulting clusters of cards resemble a "blizzard" of ideas, hence the name "snow cards." The collection of ideas can then be reviewed by the group to prioritize or sequence for action.

Fist to five: determining support

This process is a convenient way to determine the degree of support participants in a group have for a given proposal. Once the group is comfortable they understand the proposal, participants use their fingers to show their level of agreement.

  • Fist — "That is not a good idea, and I am going to block it. "
  • One finger — "I do not agree, but I promise not to block it."
  • Two fingers — "I do not agree, but I'll work for it."
  • Three fingers — "I am neutral."
  • Four fingers — "It is a good idea, I'll work for it."
  • Five fingers — "It is a great idea, and I will help lead implementation."

Once the degrees of support are known, the facilitator should ask anyone who shows less than neutral support to share their reservations and their suggestions for a more acceptable proposal. Asking this accomplishes two things. First, it gives those not in support a chance to share problems s/he sees with the current proposal that the rest of the group hasn't considered. Second, this approach invites suggestions that can strengthen the proposal into something everyone in the group can support.

Tabatha Widner, a recent graduate of Extension's Emerging Leadership Program and a first responder for her town's Volunteer Ambulance Service, has used the Fist to Five technique in community meetings and finds it useful. "In one meeting, people had very strong opinions about whether or certain health information should be accessible, per HIPAA guidelines," she says. "We used the Fist to Five rule and could immediately see where everyone stood."

Criterion grid: making a decision

A criterion grid is a matrix used to evaluate a set of ideas and determine which offer the best solution(s). Using a criterion grid is helpful when the group needs more objectivity and thoroughness for a the decision. Facilitators lead the group to identify criteria needed to choose among options. Must their plan fit within a certain budget? Does it have to be implemented within six months? Does it have to adhere to the requirements of a funding source? (Note: This discussion may result in new options that are better than those on the original list.)

Example Criterion grid

Food prep area Ample dining space Handicapped accessible On the bus line A "safe" area of town Space for additional activities Total Xs
Church basement X X X 0 X 0 4
Park Pavilion X X 0 0 0 X 3
Bob's Coffee Shop X 0 X X X 0 4

Five to nine criteria are recommended — more make the process cumbersome and fewer gives too little data to guide the choice. Drawing a grid that all in the group can see makes it easy to compare each option to all criteria and document it. It also makes it easy to see which option meets the most criteria.

Read more about criterion grids.

Staying on course

Inevitably, groups can get distracted or off-topic during their discussion. Skilled facilitators are highly aware of whether a group is drifting. The facilitator's job is to add realistic thinking to the planning process, so that the agenda helps the group stay interested and on track. A good agenda limits the number of items and provides enough time to discuss each one. When a group strays from the agenda, a skilled facilitator helps them refocus on the issues that need to be addressed unless a member shows good reason for deviation should occur. In that case, the facilitator, with the group's permission, should be flexible and allow the change. Otherwise, the moment may be lost for an important issue. "It's tricky," notes Hinz, "because too much control by the facilitator can be a negative for the group. Being able to flex the agenda when it's important for the group is a skill and an art for leading well."

Dealing with conflict

Helping a group deal with conflict is a very important part of the facilitator's job-differences are a normal part of group life. Hinz notes that this is another area where preparation is helpful. "Having some skill at dealing with common problem meeting behaviors can be very helpful in the moment." For example, if a group member is long-winded or starts side conversations, you can acknowledge their contribution and ask others for their ideas. If they continue to dominate, you may also approach them during a break, reminding them to let others speak or to pay more attention to other presenters. "You can't change people, but you can make them aware of the effects of their behavior," says Hinz.

It is also helpful to consider why someone is expressing a problem behavior. Perhaps the long-winded participant is dominating because they are afraid they won't have a chance to express their opinion, or perhaps a silent participant is waiting to be asked for his or her thoughts. Considering the "why" may be helpful to determining the "what to do."

Working together

Facilitating successful community meetings can be a challenge, but preparation, tools, and mindfulness can make a difference. When facilitation skills are available within community groups, they can get better results. "When you have effective meetings, you create energy that is put towards purpose," Hinz says. "To be effective is to get things done together." And together is the key to successful community life.


Elyse Paxton

Reviewed in 2021

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