Live from IAEM: Art of facilitation session

Attending the educational sessions here at the Expo! Expo! show is a little different than at other meeting industry events I've been to. Namely, attendance seems to be pretty sparse, so far at least. Part of the problem may be that IAEM didn't really push the sessions much on its Web site: For example, I had no idea there were intensive three-hour workshops going on yesterday afternoon! I smacked myself upside the head after I finally registered around 4 p.m. and, after getting the official show guide, found several I really would have loved to go to (for example, the Social Media Bootcamp, led by Jeff De Cagna). Argh!

This morning, though, I got to go to a session on the art of facilitation, led by Jeffrey Cufaude, of whom I've been a huge fan since reading an article of his in Convene a few years back. This really should have been at least a half-day program—there was so much to cover in such a short time—but he did get through a huge amount of material and, more importantly, he also gave us demonstrations of some of the things he was talking about as he went along (such as having other ways of covering the material when things change on you).

I also loved that he explained how so many meetings cater exclusively to the extroverts among us, to the detriment of we introverts. For example, most brainstorming sessions invite people to just blurt out their ideas. Well, introverts don't blurt. He demonstrated one way of including introverts by having us ponder the best-facilitated workshop we've attended, then write down a few of the ingredients that made it work.

Then we were invited to share some of those ideas with the group. Some ingredients for effective facilitation people shared were:

* A facilitator that does his/her homework and doesn't ramble on.

* Someone who doesn't let the most verbal person control the session.

* Someone who listens to both what is and is not being said.

* Someone who encourages "what if" thinking.

* Someone who gets people to connect with each other up front.

* Someone who keeps on task and on time.

Another point, a key one I think, was how we get sucked into what he called the "ladder of influence." This basically is that we all come to a meeting with certain assumptions, based on the facts as we know them. The problem is that we may have different assumptions, based on the exact same data. The example he used was that he is 6' 6" tall and from Indiana, so everyone assumes he plays basketball. Not one of his best talents. Or that if people have their arms crossed, they must be bored, when in fact they could be cold, or just feel comfortable, or be walking around and not wanting to swat someone by accident.

A facilitator can deal with this by observing the behavior, seeing what meanings are inferred by that behavior, and deciding whether, and how, to intervene. "It's like algebra," he said, "the only form of math where you can get the answer wrong and still get partial credit for doing the work." The facilitator can describe the behavior to test for different views, share the inferences, and help the group decide whether and how to change behavior accordingly. "Sometimes, you may find that different people in the group aren't even talking about the same thing—they're having totally different discussions without even knowing it."

Anyway, there was such a richness of material that I can't possibly hope to cover it all here, but hopefully I'll be able to write it up for a future issue of Association Meetings. Even if you don't facilitate any meetings yourself, you do have to know what to look for in a good facilitator. But really, doesn't everyone facilitate at least a little bit, even informally?

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