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5 Facilitated Conversations You Can’t Afford to Put Off in 2023

By: Aaron Wolowiec | Jan, 6 2023
Facilitation Methods & Strategic Planning

Did you catch our recent facilitation advice in the Dec. 9 edition of CEO Update? Along with several other facilitators, I was quoted in a cover story by William Ehart titled, "Experts see facilitation as 'next frontier' for group leaders." Specifically, I shared five tips for effective meeting facilitation, including a focus on creativity, clear aims, participation, ground rules, and documentation.

It may have gotten lost in the holiday shuffle, but that’s par for the course when it comes to facilitation, isn’t it? It’s a skill that we know is important — for us, for our teams, for our members, and for our volunteers — but it’s one that we often deprioritize (whether intentionally or unintentionally). If we take a closer look, one of the following scenarios is usually at play:

  • It feels like a “soft skill” and somehow less important in our professional development plans and budgets.
  • Maybe since we’ve not yet refined our facilitation skill, technique, and confidence, we somehow believe it’s too late for us (or we’re too embarrassed to be the old dog learning new tricks).
  • We don’t know where to turn to grow our facilitation knowledge (or the training we do come across isn’t specific enough for the association industry).
  • We’re already proficient (or so we tell ourselves). We’ve had that one session that one time, or we have a few tools that we consistently come back to time and again that seem to work, or we watched that one facilitator and simply mimic their approach as closely as possible without fully understanding the underlying value system or methodology behind it.

But as I returned to a regular work schedule this week, it occurred to me that now’s the time to both reflect on our current level of facilitation knowledge and confidence, as well as take stock in those important conversations we need to have before we get too far into the minutia of the day-to-day meetings and tasks that are almost inevitably creeping into our calendars (even as you read this post). 

My husband calls this the brief period of awakening before we stick our heads back into the sand (because in a few weeks as we return to a more rigorous schedule, we simply won’t have the bandwidth on a daily basis to helicopter up to the strategic level, nose dive back into the weeds, and still reserve space for both creativity and proactivity). So my goals for this post are three-fold: 

1. Outline just some of the conversations I think you can’t afford to put off in 2023.

2. Encourage you to take some time this month to intentionally scan your current environment for the conversations most relevant to you and your team.

3. Remind ourselves that these conversations will be healthier, more productive, and result in better outcomes if we use the sound facilitation tools, techniques, and resources available to us.

So, without further ado, let’s jump into these five must-have conversations:

1. Cold shoulder. Feeling the cold shoulder from a team member? Not sure what that’s all about? Hoping to start the New Year with a clean slate and amiable relationships? It’s time to approach them. But not in an argumentative or defensive way. And not in a way that catches them off guard. Clearly consider the aims of your conversation. What do you hope to achieve and what is your vision for the relationship post-conversation? Take a breath. With a clear mind, write a series of questions or talking points, ask the individual if they’re open to meeting, facilitate a two-way conversation (meaning: you have to be open to learning something undesirable about yourself), and develop together creative and mutually beneficial solutions.

2. Unmet expectations. Is there a staff member, volunteer, or vendor consistently not meeting expectations? In a past life, I may have just cut them out of the picture. Seems easier to just sever the relationship, right? I mean, the alternative is to actually “confront them.” But much like the “cold shoulder” scenario above, we have to appropriately set the stage, not assume the worst in our colleagues, recognize that they may not be aware of the shortcoming, and give them an opportunity to reflect and improve. So what does this look like? I often recommend the four-part nonviolent communication process by Marshall B. Rosenberg, which gives us a method for exploring together our observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Additionally, don’t leave feedback for once a year. Really consider the culture of feedback you’d like to create for your team, then draft and implement a Feedback Model

3. Staff culture. Jamie Notter of Propel is my favorite subject matter expert on this topic. But even if you’re not able to engage a professional like Jamie, now’s the time to think about your team’s current culture, the culture you’d like to have, and the methods you could employ to close that gap. With one client, we plan to have this conversation outside of a regularly scheduled staff meeting or strategy checkin to be sure it gets the time and attention it deserves. And we’ll utilize creative facilitation methods with large flipcharts and colored markers to identify each person’s understanding of the current culture, brainstorm our preferred future together, and explore strategies we’re all interested in and committed to that will shape a thriving workplace environment.

4. Strategy checkin. Wondering if the current strategic plan still aligns with the Board’s vision for the future? Curious if the staff fully understand the strategic plan as written? Interested in beefing up communication around the strategic plan so that Board, members, and staff are not only on the same page, but rowing in the same direction together? There’s no better time than the present to invite your key stakeholders to review the strategic plan. Then, draw up a series of simple questions that get them to reflect on the plan, starting with what stands out to them, what excites them, where they are skeptical or frustrated, what implications the current plan will have on the organization, and what changes or next steps may be needed. 

5. Focused implementation. Finally, the devil is in the details. Not sure to what extent the implementation plan is drafted, complete, and being followed? Updates seem far and few in between or intentionally vague? Projects seem to be constantly behind schedule? Volunteers seem to be MIA and not following through on assignments? Time is of the essence! When we ignore these situations or simply hope they will improve, we delay resolution and progress. But it does no good as the leader to simply swoop in and declare the singular path forward. Instead, consider facilitating a conversation that unearths answers to the following questions:

  • Briefly scan the implementation plan. What’s a project or milestone that catches your attention?
  • What’s one thing we’ve completed or accomplished?
  • Without blame, shame, or judgment, what’s one thing we’ve not yet completed that’s impacting other work?
  • As you reflect on the implementation plan, what’s one thing that’s gone well?
  • What’s one thing that’s not gone as well?
  • How are you personally feeling about the progress we’ve made to date?
  • What’s the importance to our team/organization in making regular progress on this implementation plan?
  • What will happen if we don’t make progress?
  • What actions do we need to take to make meaningful and consistent progress?
  • What are you personally committed to moving forward?

As a reminder, facilitation is not just about the big stuff — like a multi-day strategic planning session planned once every couple of years. It’s also about the small stuff — like the conversations listed above. And these should be happening much more frequently, but (maybe surprisingly) require the same level of facilitation skills.

If you or your team has a best practice for raising and facilitating conversations like these, or if you’d like to add a must-have conversation to our list, please share with us your tips, tricks, and recommendations using the comments below or by emailing us at [email protected]. And should you need some additional tools, techniques, resources, or support in facilitating one or more of these conversations in your organization, contact us!


Photo courtesy of iStock by Getty Images

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