The Art of Facilitation: Be Curious

Recently, I had a conversation with a student who was about to start her first job at a large consulting firm and she asked me for advice on how to start and how to behave. I gave her the advice that I received from my Nanny McFarland, “put a smile on your face, enjoy yourself and remember to be curious – ask a lot of questions.” And then it occurred to me that the second part of my grandmother’s advice – to always be curious – was also very good advice for meeting facilitators and session moderators.

Part of our work at Farland Group is to facilitate one-on-one discussions and Board meetings with our client’s top customers. For our work to yield benefit, we need to ask questions and pose provocations or hypotheses that will encourage more dialogue. Sometimes a group or an individual can make easy work of this by offering rich perspectives with very little probing, but more often than not, some facilitation elbow grease is required. One of the biggest challenges is to turn the spotlight off of you, the facilitator, and onto them, the customer or client, as quickly as possible so that you can gain as much insight in the time given. We think of this as Return on Time Invested.

How often do you go to a meeting or attend an event where the moderator or facilitator confuses their role with that of the panelists or the clients? The following are some tips to consider as you think about meetings that you may be called upon to facilitate:

  1. Get to the point. It goes without saying that meeting facilitators should be prepared, but often facilitators are prepared for the flow of a meeting and not for the questions they really want to ask and get perspectives on. Practice those questions so that they are clear and concise. The longer you talk as a facilitator, the more likely you will shut down further dialogue – which leads to point number 2.
  2. Open ended questions. This seems like a no-brainer, but often facilitators offer their perspective in the lead up to a question and then end it with a “do you agree” close that inevitably shuts down a broader discussion.
  3. Channel your inner 3 year old. “But Why?” Be constantly curious and when in doubt ask one of the why, what, how questions to probe further into a point that was made. It never fails to bring more insight and thought that will set you up for a pivot to another discussion.
  4. Ask the obvious. Often as adults we don’t want to ask the obvious because we feel it is a stupid question and we should know the answer. But as a facilitator, you are put in a role to ask questions and often you can do yourself and the group a favor by asking the obvious. The most famous example of this is the Polaroid story. The inspiration for the camera came from the question from inventor Edwin Land’s 3-year-old daughter who wanted to see the photo and asked “Why do I have to wait for the picture?”

Research shows that we stop asking questions around age 5 and our fear of asking something that is wrong continues throughout our adult years. As moderators and facilitators we get to channel that inner curiosity and have permission – even get paid – to do so. In your future planning – take the time to think about the questions you need answered rather than the products you want to pitch or the solutions you want to share.


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