GROUP FACILITATION – Counseling Clients

As a Group Facilitator, I am often hired by a governmental entity or a business to manage a large public meeting (e.g., a public informational exchange about a proposed project) or to facilitate a series of meetings (e.g., for a public task force or a series of retreats to develop a strategic plan).  In either case, the client is also hiring me as a conflict consultant.

Prior to facilitating a public informational meeting, I advise clients on the best strategies to:

  1. Make a quality, interactive presentation at the meeting.
  2. Respond to questions from the public in a non-confrontational way, while delivering honest information.
  3. Develop and present a plan for long-term interaction with those members of the public with ongoing concerns with the proposal (see The Issues Group).  (If the client desires, I can be the manager of that long-term plan.)
  4. Most of all, I make sure that the clients understand the differences between my role as the process person and their presentation and advocacy roles.

When I facilitate a series of meetings, I can serve as an ongoing advisor to the client (typically the convener of the meetings), giving advice and counsel on:

  1. Ensuring that the group selected is inclusive – even aggressive, “radical” elements must be at the table for exhaustive discussions to occur and credible decisions to be made.
  2. Setting out clear expectations for the task expected of the group (sometimes this is very difficult for a client who simply wants to create a task force to “bring down the heat” about an issue).
  3. Cooperatively developing a documentation process for the meetings of the group (if the meetings are public, they may be documented electronically, as well as by my flip chart notes).
  4. Modifying the agendas for individual meetings in the fluid world of an ongoing task force (e.g., the group may decide to move to decision making earlier in the sequence of meetings than anticipated and, if resisted, shut down).
  5. Continuing to monitor the “temperature” of the group to help the client have a realistic picture of the progress being made.
  6. Forging on through to the end of the process, allowing the group the best chance to make an informed, independent decision that responds to the original expectations set forth by the client.

Some of these services can only be adequately provided if I am brought in as a conflict consultant prior to the selection of the group.  The client does not always choose to do so.  In that case, I do the best I can with who and what the client provides (e.g., an already-selected group may be, in my opinion, non-representative of the interested/affected parties).  A group facilitator must always be adaptable – “fast on his feet” – to succeed, but good planning with a client can keep this uncertainty to a manageable level.

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GROUP FACILITATION – Construction of Agendas

An agenda is a powerful tool a Group Facilitator uses to keep a meeting on track and ensure that progress toward the goals of the group can be made.  I will not facilitate a meeting without a written agenda.  My strong preference is to have a timed agenda – each topic has its own specified time period.  Then, when people digress or carry disputes to extremes during the period of time allotted for that topic, I can use the agenda to remind them that they only have a limited period of time for the topic and exceeding that time will mean that another topic will be shorted or pushed to a future meeting (given a not unlimited number of meetings such topic shifting may not be possible – and the parties usually know it).  This focuses the parties to keep them on topic.

It is important to work with the convener and the group itself to make sure that the agenda for each meeting is doable for the meeting time.  Trying to cover too many topics during a meeting will put the Group Facilitator in the position of appearing to cut off discussion, not allowing everyone to fully have his/her say on a topic.  This can put the Group Facilitator into an opposition stance with a party or a faction within the group.  Using the structure of the agenda to permit good time management is the key element to keeping the group on track in a collaborative way.

I always make sure that the convener who hires me as a Group Facilitator knows that I will be using the timed agenda model for my meetings, and I let the group itself know the same thing from the very beginning.  I also like to get the agenda out to the group a day or two prior to each scheduled meeting so the members know what to expect.  In my early days as a mediator (prior to the advent of e-mail), this was cumbersome to do; now it’s easy to simply e-mail everyone the proposed agenda.

A first final thought: The meeting and the agenda for it belong to the group.  The Group Facilitator and the convener need to be willing for the group to suggest and perhaps implement changes the agenda for any meeting.  If they decide to do that, the Group Facilitator should be ready to help the group discuss the proposed changes and integrate the new topic(s) into the agenda, being mindful that the concept of the timed agenda within the time set aside for the entire meeting needs to be preserved.

A second final thought: Never facilitate a meeting without a written agenda or even with a written, untimed agenda.  At best, you will cover less than all of the topics for the meeting.  A worst, no meaningful dialogue accomplishing the group’s goals will occur.  In both cases, the members of the group will walk out the door unsatisfied.

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