The A.R.T. of Facilitation: 8 Sublime Lessons Gleaned from Ordinary Experience

Lain Hensley

In our world, A. R. T. translates to being Aware of your Reflexive Tendencies. What that means is that you, as a leader, must be acutely attuned to every aspect of your professional being. This is important when you are at the office of course; it becomes critical whenever you take the helm as facilitator. You know that the employees attending the meeting are not necessarily there by way of their own free will. Sure, several of them truly want to be present, but many more would rather be somewhere else. If you are a guest facilitator speaking at another company, the employees don’t know you, so you already have a tough crowd. It’s similar to the substitute teacher syndrome: the students will test you. Your attitude must be the best in the room, your smile the brightest, your control of your reflexive tendencies—how you listen, how you stand, the pace with which you speak—the strongest.

Cultivating your A.R.T. positions you to more effectively guide others to honing theirs. It may not be a line item agenda, but that’s your job as facilitator. The way you lead your meeting needs to take into account the various mix of people in the room and engage them all. After 21 years in this business, from good experiences and less-than-pleasant ones, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me develop my A.R.T. of facilitation. Perhaps the following eight insights can help boost yours.

  1. At any given moment, there are four types of people in the room. The population in the room is a microcosm of society at-large. People learn and retain information in different ways and you need to be sensitive to all of them, a task not as daunting as it sounds. Vary the content, pace and activities of your presentation to keep everyone present. Here’s a glimpse into the four types of people and a tip for what they need:
    • Structure: These people need to know the day’s schedule and feel comfortable when you stick to it.
    • Energy: Activity, activity, activity! Consider break-out sessions or games.
    • Compassion: What can you do to make these professionals feel good? Include a task with a philanthropic bend.
    • Knowledge: More information, please. These patient students love the lecture.
  2. Motion creates emotion. Keep your team moving through activities, engaged and interacting with one another. Whether you introduce a silly game or a serious task, make the content relevant to the overarching theme of the day. Help your attendees invest in the outcome of the task by defining a clear objective.
  3. Make the setting lively. Music, anyone? I cannot overstate the importance of this one little element. Music is imperative. It sets the mood and lifts the spirits. Have background music playing as people enter the room before you get started, during breaks, and any other time you need to shift the energy. That said, pay attention to the volume and style. You want to choose music which appeals to a diverse audience, so you might want to leave your gangster rap or heavy metal at home.
  4. Re-arrange the furniture. Do you really need tables? If you don’t, get them out of the room. Tables create barriers. If you must have them, place them creatively and strategically along the edges of the room. As for the chairs, angle them ever-so-slightly. Limiting the number of sharp edges and straight lines in chair and table arrangement creates a sense of community in the room, helping foster a teambuilding experience rather than a solo journey.
  5. Love your slideshow. If you are not absolutely passionate about each and every slide in your presentation, yank it out. Get rid of the fluff and fodder and give your "students" real substance that will help them develop as humans and professionals. If the situation allows it, why not get really avant-garde and not use a PowerPoint at all? Consider it.
  6. Carefully construct your language. When addressing your audience, ask questions that focus people toward solutions and away from problems. For example, rather than asking "Why are sales down?" pose the question, "What are five things we can do to drive sales up?" This simple language shift dynamically fires neurons in the brain, yielding creative solutions.
  7. Limit the time you give for each task. Here’s a funny anecdote. The other day, I gave my crew four minutes to do a task for which I normally give two minutes. Half the room walked out during the activity to tend to their personal needs. I learned a harsh lesson in meeting pacing: I gave the group too much time. They thought they had plenty of seconds to waste, so they took the liberty of taking a break. Learn from my mistake. Clock the tasks yourself and stick to just-enough-time.
  8. Trust yourself. It’s common to feel unsettled before facilitating a meeting, whether for your own well-seasoned team or a new bunch of strangers. Rely on your expertise. You have earned your position as a leader. Your mind will feed you limiting beliefs, but as an, you have cultivated your personal power. Go forward, poised, confident and ready to have fun!