The Art of Group Facilitation
One-on-one communication can take place easily on the phone or through e-mail. Questions are easy to address because there is no competition for the time or communication resources. Group communication is more challenging. Technology affects the type of exchange that takes place. The users need to know the basic mechanics of the system in order to hear and to speak. The facilitator needs to know how to direct the conversation.
There are different types of group communication, which include:
- Audio-only conferencing, such as:
- Teleconferencing, using wired or wireless phone systems.
- VOIP, such as MagicJack or Skype audio.
- Simple web conferencing, which includes both audio and video, such as:
- Advanced web conferencing and video conferencing, which adds other features, such as desktop sharing, chat, and polling. Examples include:
- Web conferencing:
- Go To Meeting.
- Video conferencing systems:
- Text-based systems, which include discussion forums (asynchronous) and chat (synchronous):
- Chat is less than optimal for larger groups because of:
- The potential for multiple concurrent conversations.
- The different speed of typing and reading among participants.
- The difficulty in facilitating the conversation.
- Discussion forums work well for conversations that are not time-sensitive, when the emphasis is on analysis and brainstorming.
Virtual group conversations can be very frustrating for people because:
- When voice is used, dominant people can monopolize the conversation.
- People cannot see each other in audio communications and presentation-based communications.
- People forget that they are visible in video conferencing systems.
The facilitator's role is to try to prevent these and other issues from taking place in the meeting. Ultimately, facilitation is simply ensuring that all members are respectful of other members and the conversation stays on track.
The objectives of facilitation are to:
- Promote quality communication.
- Encourage participation.
- Discourage control.
- Avoid and minimize disruptions.
When using discussion forums, disruptions and control are not often an issue because participants have equal opportunity to contribute, and they can contribute throughout the day around their work schedules.
Promote Quality Communication
Quality communication is informational, thoughtful, and respectful. The following are basic guidelines for the facilitators using audio and video tools:
- Make certain that everyone hears comments from others. This may mean the facilitator repeats the comments.
- Make certain everyone has a turn to speak.
- Make certain everyone announces himself or herself when they speak, so others can follow the conversation easily.
- Ask speakers to look at the camera, not the screen or monitor, in conferences that use video. The camera replaces the eyes of the other participants at different locations. From the other people's perspective, it can be distracting if the speaker is looking away from the camera.
- Move slowly and describe your movements when sharing desktops or other media, such as a document camera. It takes time for video signals to reach the other participants. Slow movement prevents the images from looking choppy, blurry, or distorted on the other end of the line.
As a manager, you are likely to be the meeting facilitator. Facilitators are tasked with making sure the meeting runs well and is productive. In online discussions, facilitators also need to:
- Moderate disagreements.
- Keep the conversation on topic.
- Direct discussions by asking for input from all participants and asking questions that encourage more thought and stimulate ideas.
In any synchronous meeting, three primary factors affect participation dynamics in meetings.
- The ability of some people to think before they speak.
- The dominance of people who naturally speak and think (or don't think) at the same time.
- The opportunity given to the participants to contribute.
Most techniques used to encourage participation in live, online meetings are the same techniques we would use in a traditional face-to-face meeting. People who process internally are not likely to speak up instantly. When the facilitator gives them time, even though it feels awkward, he or she can encourage the quiet participant to contribute to the conversation.
People who find it easy to speak do not usually need encouragement, but they should be acknowledged. After they have shared their thoughts, the quieter people should be offered adequate time to respond.
In some types of live exchanges, rotation is the best way to handle time fairly. Be sure to allow time at the beginning and end of the meeting for introductions and wrap-up, and allow time for questions and discussion.
A challenge to communicating in a virtual environment is that it provides the quiet participant a better chance to hide and avoid contributing because they aren't physically "there." This makes it all the more important that the facilitator encourages participation. Rotating from one site to another and asking a question like, "Does anyone in Cleveland have a response to the last statement?" may bring the participants to the forefront without addressing one individual directly.
Discussion forums are excellent for bringing out quiet participants. If you struggle getting quieter staff members to share, open a follow-up discussion forum if one is available to you. Solicit ideas related to the meeting topics. This will:
- Allow quieter participants time to think about the issue before sharing.
- Eliminate any intimidating factors that may be present in live meetings.
There are certain people that tend to talk a lot, and some that simply like attention. These people can monopolize synchronous live meetings if not kept in check. The way to manage meeting controllers is to:
- Set a time limit on how long each person can speak.
- Remind the participants about the time limit at the beginning of the meeting.
- Enforce the time limits.
The last item is the most difficult. When a person known to be vocal is ready to speak, subtly remind them of the limit. For example, you might say, "Bob, the next four minutes are yours. What updates do you have for us?"
If the person is nearing the end of their time limit and appears to intend to go beyond that time, the facilitator needs to interrupt that person and remind him or her of the time constraint. Most people will wrap up at that point, but some will simply continue.
Unless the person is sharing critical information, the facilitator needs to stop the person. He or she might say, "Bob, I need to stop you here so others have a chance to speak. Let's write your topic down so we can hear more of your ideas if we have time at the end of the meeting, or in our next meeting."
When a person is speaking in a live, virtual meeting, all other participants should be as attentive as possible to hear what the speaker is saying. However, little unintentional sounds and behaviors can interfere with the message, including things that wouldn't take place or wouldn't be disruptive in a traditional face-to-face meeting. Consider these noises that are picked up by microphones:
- Talking (side conversations, rude comments).
- Children and pets.
- Ceiling fans and air conditioners.
- Shuffling papers.
- Breathing, coughing, and sneezing.
Behaviors can also distract. Listed below are four examples:
- People walking in and out of rooms during video conferences.
- Participants getting up and moving around during video conferences.
- Participants leaving the conference unannounced.
- Participants not waiting for the extended pause caused by delayed transmission, thus speaking over other participants.
And finally, meetings can be disrupted by avoidable technology issues, such as:
- Inferior equipment or setups which don't transmit voice or visuals well.
- Audio from the meeting, causing an echoing effect.
- A participant who does not know how to use the system.
To minimize these disruptions, create a list of expectations for the meeting, and communicate them to the participants. The list should include the use of the features available within the system being used, and should include the following:
- Turn off all cell phones during the meeting.
- In a teleconference, never put your phone on hold as your hold music might play.
- In a teleconference, turn off call waiting.
- When not speaking, mute your microphone.
- If you must step out, always inform the facilitator or another participant and say when you'll return.
- Avoid side conversations.
- When you wish to speak, announce your name.
- Always inform the facilitator as soon as possible if audio or video signals fade, die, or are not clear.
- Precheck the local setup to verify the audio and video are working well.
Additionally, you, as the facilitator, can minimize the time spent on problems by testing for technology issues. You should:
- Never assume you can be seen or heard.
- Always perform sound and video checks with every connecting site at the beginning of meetings.
- Occasionally and throughout the meeting, check with participants at each site to make certain the sound and video continue to be good.