Monday, October 29, 2018

The Facilitator's Job

I was asked to facilitate one of the breakouts at the last conference I attended. (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that last week I said I had six more conferences and workshops to attend before the end of the year.)

The conference organizer reached out to me, I assume primarily because of my position as the President/CEO of the trade association that represents the technology that would be the focus of the breakout, and asked me to take on this role. Even though I knew the discussion in the breakout was likely to get technical, and that my long-ago Bachelor's degree is English Literature was not likely to help me, I never hesitated. Yes, of course I'll facilitate the breakout.

Here's what the conference organizer said would be my job: "Your breakout session will be an open mic format for participants to talk about their perspective on the technical challenges, market barriers, and future direction for [subject of breakout session]. Please be flexible and ask people if they would like to speak. Please remember to take good notes (ask someone to help you if you need help). You will need to write up the findings and present them in the main room following the session. Thank you and good luck!"

It wasn't much to go on, but it was enough. I did just a little homework before the session, familiarizing myself with some of the latest information I had on the breakout's subject. I even put some of that information together in a few slides, but I wasn't sure I was going to use them. I figured I would have them as a backup in case participation fizzled or started to wane.

Turns out I didn't need them. There were plenty of people who wanted to talk in my session and I quickly saw that the real challenge was not going to be getting people to contribute, but identifying a list of summarized comments that everyone in the session would agree fairly represented the group's thoughts and opinions.

That, you see, is really the job of a facilitator. It is not just making sure everyone has a chance to speak, and it is not just transcribing everything that everybody says. Facilitators often do those things, but the real job of a facilitator is to listen carefully to all of those ideas, identify the common ideas and concepts, and then repeat them back to the participants to ensure they are being fairly recorded.

And that's pretty much what I did. Like I've done a dozen or more times before, I live-edited a document that was projected up on a screen for the whole audience to see. To keep some order, people who wanted to speak were given no more than five minutes to make their case. I let that go on for the first half of our session time, listening the whole time for common ideas and concepts and populating my document with them. Then, with apologies to anyone who had not yet had the chance to speak, I revealed the list I had been working on to the room and asked for everyone to react to it. Was it accurate? Did it fairly summarize the major themes that we had all just heard emerge over the last hour?

That created a lot of back and forth, and that was exactly what I expected and wanted. One person wanted one of the bullet points changed. Another person wanted to add another bullet point. A third person thought the third bullet point should be nested under the fifth, but a fourth person disagreed, explaining how he saw the two bullet points as discrete concepts.

For much of this discussion I was simply the scribe, editing the document in accordance with each person's suggestion, but each time checking with the room to see if anyone disagreed. Wearing my facilitator's hat, I then made sure that disagreements turned into discussions, and discussions turned into compromises that both parties -- and the room -- could live with.

In the end we had about four slides of content, summarizing the discussion of the group. When I presented the slides in general session a few minutes later, I observed breakout participants in the audience nodding their heads in approval. I had accomplished what I had sought out to do -- fairly capturing the general themes and recommendations inherent in the group's discussion.

I didn't write this post to pat myself on the back. I wrote it to make the point I've made once or twice before on this blog. Some people are impressed with my ability to do what I've just described -- to listen to a group's discussion and to work collaboratively with them to distill it down to its basic elements. This was not the first time that I've received accolades from participants and observers on my ability to do exactly that. And although perhaps I may have some natural talent for parsing ideas into words (English major, anyone?), I firmly believe that not only can this skill can be learned -- it has to be learned by anyone who wants to call themselves and association professional.

The facilitator's job? From where I sit, it's just another word for association management.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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