The Symphony Way: Effective Communication by Our Talent Development Department vol. 3

One-on-one conversations are difficult enough, but group communication can prove to be even more troublesome at times.

Facilitating meetings, discussions, sprint reviews and plannings, or any other group-type communication is a completely different topic — a topic that will be covered in this Newlentina. Our TDD is bringing this sub-topic to a conclusion by focusing on group discussions and their facilitation while providing advice on how to get the most out of each participant and help them have their voice heard.

The role of the facilitator

To facilitate — to make things easy or easier.

A skilled meeting facilitator can help a group focus, discuss, generate ideas, solve problems, and make decisions by guiding the process and managing participation by asking effective questions to ultimately utilize the knowledge of the group. They can also help ensure meetings are productive, build or improve relationships, and mediate conflicts.

The facilitator doesn’t have to be a subject expert and is best to remain in a neutral position helping the group get to where they need to be. So start by answering: What do we want to achieve?

Define the purpose and agenda

Before organizing the meeting, define the purpose — a clear result you want to achieve at the end. State it in the agenda (along with topics that will be covered, priorities, timing), which should be sent to participants beforehand, so that everyone is aware of their role and can prepare effectively. Also, reiterate the purpose at the beginning to start the meeting with a clear focus, and if the discussion goes in the wrong direction, remind everyone of the result you all want to achieve at the end.

Define and state ground rules at the beginning to minimize distractions and motivate participation based on your goal. Examples can be:

  • Full focus and no-distractions rule when it’s critical for the group to listen actively, share their perspectives, and increase understanding;
  • Q&A time at the end of each topic or the whole meeting;
  • The 5-minute rule to prevent individual topics from running too long;
  • Everyone is expected to share their opinion on the issue — different opinions are welcome;
  • “A parking lot” on the whiteboard or notes where you write down ideas, topics, and questions that are out of scope for the moment so that you can follow up on them later on.

Facilitate with questions

As the facilitator, your job isn’t to have all the answers, but rather to lead the group to answers by asking the right questions at the right time. These can challenge assumptions or invite other perspectives that may help the group reach a conclusion themselves. To do this effectively, you will first need to listen actively so that you pick up on the things which you can dig into deeper. Here are some examples:

  • Can you explain that point?
  • How would you summarise that?
  • What would that look like?
  • Are we moving in the right direction?
  • How do you feel about this?

Depending on your meeting’s purpose, and the dominant process of the group, you can guide the discussion with questions to help improve the thinking process and achieve your goal (from the Six-Thinking-Hats methodology).

  • What else can we do here? — to generate ideas;
  • Whose else’s opinion should we consider? and Are there any facts we are not aware of?— to look at the bigger picture;
  • What are the benefits? and What is the value you see in this situation? — to focus on the positives;
  • What are the challenges? and Where do you see the risks?— to draw attention to the negatives;

When talking about emotions or gut feelings, keep it short (up to 30 seconds)— it is not expected to provide an explanation for your intuition.

Create space for everyone to contribute

One of your roles is managing participants so that there is room for everyone to contribute. Sometimes, there’s a “star” in the group — a strong personality that can dominate the discussion, or even disrupt it, and the facilitator needs to find a way to utilize their strong sides and help them listen and constructively contribute to the discussion. One option related to this issue is to give a specific task to this person, e.g. to take notes or review action points.

On the other side, there can be those who you need to draw into the discussion — people who are usually quiet but might have an important point of view — so it’s important to create space for them to speak. Try inviting them toward the end of the discussion to share their reflection on what the group discussed, and see if there are any points that weren’t considered.

Create safety to share different opinions

People are sometimes prone to looking at things as black or white, right or wrong; but in reality, there are usually many different ways of reaching the result we want, with different pros and cons, more or less applicable to the situation at hand.

Within the group, you will often have different opinions or interpretations of the same situation — based on our knowledge, history, experience. Your role is to help bring these to light and increase the understanding in the group, creating an environment where people understand that the differences are what will contribute to great team results. This will especially be important when you are mediating a conflict, or when team meetings are inefficient and leading nowhere.

A good facilitator should guide the group in their thinking process by helping them stay curious, open to different perspectives, and agile enough to try things out. It is also advisable to ask for feedback, as it will help improve each next meeting — especially the recurring ones, while in the longterm, it will create an atmosphere where each team member can flourish and feel safe to share their opinions.

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