I am about to say what for many might be considered facilitation blasphemy. When I hear a facilitator say to participants, “Just trust the process,” it gets my stomach churning. If I were a participant my response would be, “No, thank you.”

Blasphemy, yes? So, why do I feel this way?

My Story

See, it reminds me of a time about eight years ago when we had a facilitator come in to help our team with communication issues we were having in-house.

  • The facilitator had been suggested to me. When I interviewed him, it was clear that he had tools and strategies that could very well be helpful to us.
  • At the same time, I made it very clear that my purpose for the session was NOT for us to learn new tools.
  • Instead my purpose was for him to use whatever tools he thought made sense to help us identify our issues, decide what we were going to do about them, and create an action plan for the steps we would take after the session ended.
  • I let him know if by 2 pm of the full day workshop, if we were still identifying problems, THAT would be a problem. He agreed.

The workshop started out fine, though it was clear that the facilitator could benefit from our facilitation skills training! (As an aside, my team agreed that, going forward, we would not have a facilitator work with us unless they had already gone through our class – far too distracting to watch classic mistakes being made. It’s tough facilitating a company of facilitators!)

Unfortunately, a couple of our facilitators made suggestions to him about how to lead a particular process. This prompted a member of our Operations team to request that we add a ground rule: “Trust the Process – Only One Facilitator in the Room.” The team accepted the ground rule.

In spirit it made sense: let the guy do his thing. In practice, however, it was a disaster. Several people showed frustration with the process, the content, and eventually the facilitator. By 2 pm we hadn’t even begun discussing our problems. At the break, I reminded the facilitator of our agreement. And he said those words, “Trust the process, we’ll get there.”

We didn’t get there. His closing comments were, “My goal today was to share with you some tools that hopefully you will be able to use going forward to address the various communication issues you are facing.”

I wasn’t happy. He apparently achieved his goal. He did not facilitate us achieving mine. I trusted the process and it didn’t get us there.

An Alternative to “Trust the Process”

There is an alternative to asking people to trust the process. First, let’s agree that “trust the process” means that I am asking you to believe that the process will get you to where you want to go. And indeed, there are times when a facilitator will have to say, “Please, trust the process.” But I believe this should be a last resort. We should use these words only when all other alternatives have been exhausted.

See, instead of asking people to trust the process, I believe we should give them the reasons to trust the process, even before they ask. Why would they trust the process without you asking them to do so? Because they believe that the process will get them to where they want to go.

How do you do this?

I believe trust in the process is built primarily in the opening – how we begin the facilitated session. I believe we should execute the opening in such a way that, when we go over the agenda with the participants, they trust the process without you having to ask. Here’s how I do it. (Anyone who has gone through our training will recognize IEEI: inform, excite, empower, involve.)

  • I start by reviewing the overall session purpose and the product that will result from the session. (inform)
  • I then give my view of why I believe this is important and what is in it for them. (excite)
  • Next is to identify why they were selected and the role they are playing, whether it is to make a decision, develop recommendations, etc. (empower)
  • I then ask them to identify the most important issues they feel they need to discuss in order for us to achieve the purpose and create the product. (involve)
  • Finally, I review the proposed agenda and ask them to identify where in the agenda each of their important issues will be addressed.
  • In cases where the agenda doesn’t cover the issue, I ask them if we should make changes to the agenda to incorporate the issue or if we should agree that this is an issue that will be addressed later.

These last two steps are the clinchers. By showing them where their issues will be addressed and by making adjustments to the agenda as needed, we are now ready to start the work of the group with full buy-in to the process. The participants understand the process and understand how their issues will be addressed by the process. They now have reason to trust the process, without me even having to ask.

What if someone wants to change the process?

It’s all good. One of the upsides to people recommending changes to a process is that it shows that they feel that the session belongs to them and that they have the power to ensure that their session is productive. Another benefit is that it is an opportunity for you to possibly learn a different way to achieve a purpose.

However, there are downsides as well. Any time spent discussing how the team will do something is time NOT spent doing it! You can waste a lot of valuable group time discussing how the group will do its work. Another potential downside is that the team might ask you to do something that you are not prepared to do. You may have spent hours designing and preparing a process, and in a matter of two minutes a team may choose to have you do something else.

I like the benefit of being open to process changes and I also believe both these downsides are potential problems. I try to maximize the benefit and minimize the problems by doing two things in particular.

  • When someone makes a process suggestion, I immediately say, “This may be a good idea. So we don’t spend an inordinate amount of time discussing it, can we agree to take 4 minutes to open it up for discussion, but after 4 minutes we make a decision and go forward? Okay great. So explain what you are suggesting and why…” My goal is to give room for the discussion but limit the amount of time taken.
  • To avoid trying to create processes on the fly, I routinely have a standard set of process agendas that I have available to me that I can access at any time for process ideas. When a change is made to the agenda, if I am not clear on what process I will use, I will call for a break and indicate, “Now that we’ve made that change, I need a few minutes to determine what adjustments I need to make to ensure this works. Can we take a 10-minute break to allow me time to do this?”

Let’s Continue The Conversation

These are my thoughts. I would love to hear yours. Do you believe facilitators should ask people to trust the process? What strategies do you use so that you don’t have to do this? Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter @LeadStrat.

Interested in learning more facilitation techniques? Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.