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The Art of Facilitation

Since college I’ve appreciated a well run meeting. I love a set yet flexible agenda that’s sent out ahead of time. It comforts me to know exactly who is running the meeting and I cheer on the inside when that person keeps the goals in mind and keeps the conversations on subject all while being sensitive to emerging topics. By extension, I’m a fan of Robert’s Rules of Order but only the diet version of it.

I’ve also come to appreciate the kinds of meetings held in the ALC community. The tools that make customs and practices explicit and adjustable. The techniques that keep conversations and meetings lean and less argumentative. The biggest thing I like is reframing how the group perceives the person running the meeting.

Typically, the person running the meeting is not just in charge of the meeting but likely in charge of the people at the meeting and possibly the larger business/organization around the meeting. But as I’ve experienced at ALF Summer and on ALF calls, the person running or facilitating the meeting is someone serving the needs of the assembled community. The community has a previously agreed upon yet adaptable system for determining and handling meeting agenda items and goals. The community has a previously agreed upon yet adaptable set of customs and parameters for the meeting. What the community needs is a person who can help and guide them through the processes of the meeting, keep the conversations on track, make sure everyone is heard, and make sure there’s an efficient use of time. The facilitator serves this role.

There’s even the custom and accompanying hand signal of making sure everyone is supporting whoever is facilitating the meeting. What an amazing approach! It honors the facilitator by acknowledging their increased responsibility, trusting them to take care of the community needs, and asking everyone to make the job easier. By helping and supporting the facilitator, participants are also fueling the health of the meeting and community. It’s very “help me help you”.

It’s great to have a neutral-ish facilitator who isn’t too invested in particular agenda items or who at least can regulate their bias. This allows the facilitator to serve the “higher”(?) purpose of the meeting.

Because I am quite inclined to introduce and explore tangents, engage in debate, or not pay attention at all I am particularly vigilant about moving the meeting along, parking unresolved issues, and staying on topic. When the conversation derails even just a little bit or when participants go back and forth responding to a response to another response you can end up wasting lots of meeting time on things that don’t/won’t accomplish the goals of the meeting. In addition to wasting time for the present meeting, I’ve found that wheel spinning and bike shedding can lower community morale around the present and future meetings. Throw in some negative emotional intensity and it only makes it worse.

Another sin is not coming to meeting prepared. This is more on the shoulders of meeting participants than the facilitation. Assembling an agenda, reading necessary documents, and asking certain questions ahead of time can keep the meeting lean. Of course, some face-to-face conversation will always be needed but I think the desired outcome of the conversation should always be kept in mind. Few things as demotivating as a discussion that went on too long without helping to come to a conclusion while there are still many other things on the agenda to discuss.

As it relates to facilitating at an agile learning center, I think a lot of the underlying principles apply. Serving the desires of community needs requires balance between a big picture eye and an ear for the details. Especially with kids, who have shorter attention spans, it’s important that our meetings are to the point and that we don’t get too caught up on any one thing. We try to encourage students to have a mindset that considers the community at large and doesn’t solely advocate for the self all the time. Still, there arises moments when something does require more immediate attention and thus some flexibility in the script. Discernment and compassion is important to help bring out the heart of a matter.

Ultimately, we hope that the students will see facilitators not so much as the bosses in the room but more as the people trying to serve and support the desires of the community.

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