Many who find themselves serving in a facilitation role are expected to be both a participant and the facilitator.  This is especially true for consultants, who are expected to bring and share their expertise, and for internal facilitators – those who primarily facilitate inside the organization that employs them. See this great question we are always asked:

“I wanted to thank you for your book, The Secrets of Facilitation…  I have a question. In your book, the facilitator is typically portrayed as an outsider that assists an organization in finding a solution or strategy to address particular issues or to improve a procedure. In my organization, I am responsible for both marketing and strategy, and I often need to lead meetings on projects that require a facilitated session.   I am not in a position to bring in an outside facilitator each time we need to make a decision.   This means that I almost always will need to act as both a participant/contributor and the facilitator.  Do you have any suggestions about how I can do this effectively without overly influencing the direction of the solutions/strategy and overshadowing the other contributors in the meeting?

Of course, according to many schools of facilitation thought, the facilitator should NEVER play the role of participant or offer content suggestions.  As this view goes, “The facilitator is responsible for process. The participants are responsible for content.  Never the twain shall meet.” And, as David indicates in the question, by the nature of the role, if a facilitator gets involved in content discussions, the facilitator can overly influence the direction of the solutions/strategy or overshadow the other contributors in the meeting.

However, at Leadership Strategies, we take a different stand that might be considered blasphemy by facilitation purists.  We come from the “consulting” school of facilitation, which dictates that consultants/facilitators have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients to do whatever they can within reason to help their clients succeed.  If we see an alternative that might be helpful to our client and no one is bringing it up, we believe we are obligated to offer the idea.  Likewise, if the client appears to be going in a direction that might be detrimental based on our experience or knowledge, we are compelled to offer the insight to the group.

But, how do we offer insights without unduly influencing?  In our course, The Effective Facilitator, students learn strategies to utilize when they are both a participant and the facilitator. Here are two ideas in particular.

1.    Help the participants understand the two roles you are playing and be clear when you switch from one role to the other.

As a way to introduce this concept of the two roles, you might say the following:

“Though I will be facilitating the meeting, there will be times when it will be important for me to get an idea out on the table or to object to something someone has said.  When this happens, I will purposely pull up a chair, sit down, give my comment, stand up, and then say something like, ‘We just got some interesting input from the person sitting in the chair.  Let’s go around the room and give reaction to what he said.’ “

While it sounds a bit hokey, people get it right away: when you are sitting in the chair you are a participant;  at all other times, you are the facilitator.  You can achieve this same distinction in other ways as well – such as by having a hat labeled “team” and putting it on when you need to make a comment.

You may choose other less dramatic ways to make the difference in the roles clear.  But, do keep in mind the importance of the people in the meeting understanding the two roles you are playing and when you are playing which role.

2.    Float the idea.

For ownership and buy-in, it is better to have the participants come up with an idea on their own rather than to have it imposed by an outsider.  That is why great facilitators use questioning techniques to help guide discussions.  Sometimes, however, even the best questioning techniques fail to uncover a specific idea that the group may be overlooking.

Rather than allowing the idea to go unsaid, the facilitator has the option to “float” the idea into the discussion and allow the group to take it or reject it.  To float an idea, the facilitator states the idea in a form of a question, “What about…?”  If the participants respond favorably, the second part of the reacting question should be asked, “What do you see as the benefits?”  And, if they see the benefits, ownership is locked down through the final question, “How do you want me to write it?”  The box below provides a sample of floating an idea.

Example of Floating an Idea

The management team from a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners is installing a new payroll system and is determining how the payroll information will be gathered for their traveling sales force. Today, they make very little use of technology, as you will learn.

  • Facilitator:               Now that we have concluded that the people in headquarters will enter their own payroll information using computers strategically located throughout the building, let’s turn to the sales force. How will we get their information?  Think about all the ways you receive the information you need today.  Which of these forms would be most appropriate for our sales force? (starting question)
  • Controller:               Let’s just have them mail the information in… ?
  • Facilitator:               That could work.  What other alternatives are there (prompt question)? [The facilitator believes that giving the sales force lap tops could allow them to enter the payroll information in themselves and transmit the information at night.  As well, during the day, they could use the laptops for other applications.]
  • Pay Clerk:               If we are going to have them mail the information in, let’s at least give them pre-printed forms for each week, so they won’t have to write so much.  The stuff some of those guys call writing couldn’t be deciphered by the CIA.
  • Facilitator:               That’s a thought as well.  Are there solutions in the area of technology? (leading question)
  • Sales Manager:       Let’s have them fax in their time sheets!  That way the information would get there faster.
  • Facilitator:               Are there other technology solutions? (prompt question)
  • Technician:              I understand that there might be a solution available where the sales folks could enter their payroll information through touch tone phone.
  • Facilitator:               Okay, we have several potential solutions listed here.  Let me ask – what about giving the sales force laptops? (float an idea)
  • Sales Manager:       That’s a great idea!  I like it.
  • Facilitator:               What do you see as the benefits?
  • Sales Manager:       Though the laptops would primarily be used for payroll, there are so many other things for which the laptops could be used – like customer presentations, sales forecasting, lead management, and so on.
  • Pay Clerk:               And, I like the idea that the information is entered only once, so there will likely be fewer mistakes.
  • Facilitator:              Those sound like great benefits.  How do you want me to write the idea?

We find that these strategies provide a vehicle for the facilitator to contribute without overpowering the group.

Want to learn other methods to both facilitate and participate effectively or get practice in employing the float-an-idea question type (plus over a handful of other unique questioning techniques)? Get trained in these two facilitation courses – The Effective Facilitator is for you and your team if you lead complex, large-group sessions that require in-depth facilitation training and practice. Facilitating Masterful Meetings is for you and your team if you regularly lead standard group meetings that require fundamental skills building.