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The Great Facilitator: Part 2 – Check In and the Chair

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how facilitation is a key role most of us in the IT world play at some point. I also described the two pitfalls facilitators sometimes fall into: the Presenter vs. the Scribe. Now, I am going to share two basic practices I’ve seen facilitators use to manage a room and deliver effective facilitation sessions. These aren’t the only two recommendations, but I’ve found these practices have helped me personally manage some very strong groups.

First, the Check-in…

One challenge facilitators face is having a single person in the room dominate the discussion. There are two typical causes for this situation:

·         The first possibility is that others perceive the ‘dominator’ as having all the answers. This person has been around twice as long as us. He is also a genius. So rather than the rest of us spending 30 minutes trying to solve the problem, we can just let “Joe” tell us the answer now and finish up the meeting early.

·         The other possible reason for the ‘dominator’ is that the person who is dominating believes no one else has anything to add. They shut down others by interrupting or attacking an idea before it gets a chance to grow.

In either situation, it’s obvious that the room is in dire need of a strong facilitator. Someone who makes everyone feel that their opinion matters and the team can collaborate to achieve their desired goals.

One simple way to get ahead of this curve is a practice I call the “Check-in.” Here’s how it works: At the beginning of the meeting, as the facilitator, you describe your understanding of the overall team objective and the specific goal of the session. For example, the team objective may be planning the company’s summer picnic. The purpose of this particular meeting is to choose a theme for the picnic.

This part is simple enough. But now you need to go around the room and ask everyone to share their specific role related to today’s meeting. Now it gets trickier. Maybe one person was part of the planning committee for previous events and is there to share her experience. Another person from HR is there to help choose the theme and, more importantly, to make sure the theme is appropriate, professional and compatible for special-needs employees. There may be an individual who is there to observe, learn and support the team in activities like coordinating picnic vendors.

Because everyone shares their “role,” as a facilitator, you can clearly ask individuals to speak up. In this way, you prevent a ‘dominator’ from interrupting by explaining that “Jerry from HR” needs to express concerns from an HR perspective.

As the facilitator, you aren’t trying to control the room or shut down any individual. You are simply asking everyone to both play their role and support others in their roles.

Next, the Chair…

This technique is useful when you are facilitating a group of people and standing in front of the room. Maybe you’re at a whiteboard or easel, recording decisions or helping others capture ideas. The idea is that while you’re standing up front, there are usually four to 12 folks in the room.

When I am in this position, I always make sure to have a chair at the front of the room. If I am not physically at a table, I will have a chair just to the side of the whiteboard where I am standing. The purpose of the chair is to allow me to relinquish and regain control of the room.

For example, if there is good discussion around a topic, even if it’s disagreement, I want to encourage this discussion and let the participants feel in control of the room. I will sit down at my chair and really listen to every word.

If things get off-track or out-of-hand, or if the energy gets too low, I will get out of my chair and show my intent to start facilitating. I usually do this by raising a question.

You’re probably thinking, “Bob — are you serious?” While this seems like a very small tactic, if you are trying to lead a group, especially one that you don’t work with often, and need to make sure you are facilitating without confrontation, this is a natural way to control the energy and rhythm of the room.

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Bob Zimmerman’s career in custom software development spans more than two decades and has been largely dedicated to the process of leveraging technology to drive innovation and growth. As Geneca’s CTO, Bob Zimmerman continues to build on his work as the driving force behind Getting PredictableS.M., the requirements definition and project best practices that are the foundation of Geneca’s mission to make software development predictable. He continues to extend these best practices to leverage more value for clients and new growth opportunities for Geneca.