Tools and Strategies
Effective facilitators use ground rules to lay the foundation for effective meetings. These rules of operation provide a foundation that enables the facilitator to keep the discussion on task and set the stage for group members to:
- Engage in dialogue rather than debate
- Focus on issues and interests
- Test assumptions
- Treat others with respect
- Ask questions
- Respect time boundaries
Ground rules are especially useful when the group will be working on a contentious issue or if conflict is likely. Facilitators can develop their own ground rules or work with the group to establish ground rules of their own. In either case, ground rules should be shared with the group at the start of every meeting. Many facilitators provide members with a copy of the ground rules or post them on a wall as a reminder.
Following are a number of statements that can be used as a starting point for establishing ground rules:
- Only one person speaks at a time
- Treat others with respect
- Listen to ideas and think about what they are saying – not whether or not you agree
- Focus on issues and interests, not on positions or personalities
- No side conversations
- When in doubt, ask for clarification
- Respect time boundaries
Facts, Myths, and Values
Community engagement facilitators work with people interested in public issues. Understanding and helping community members understand the differences between facts, myths, and values is important because they impact how people discuss and interpret an issue and what they believe is the appropriate response for dealing with that issue.
A fact is a verifiable statement of what is. One meter equals 1.09 yards. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contribute to global warming. Invasive animal species compete with native animal species and often negatively impact agricultural production. These are all facts that can be verified using an objectives standard or scientific method.
A myth is something that people believe is a fact or is true but in actuality is false. Myths can be disproved using objective measures. Community engagement facilitators play a very important role helping people learn which perceptions of an issue are facts and which are myths. Dispelling myths allows people to better understand the issue and possible responses to the issue.
Values are beliefs about what should be. Values are based upon an individual’s perception of what is good or bad, pretty or ugly, right or wrong. Values help us interpret and act on the facts surrounding an issue. Taxes are too high is a value judgment. It cannot be proven right or wrong.
Understanding the difference between facts, myths and values is important because it helps us understand why reasonable people can agree on the facts of an issue, but disagree on how to respond to that issue. Because values in a group and in a community vary among the members and people’s interpretation of an appropriate response to an issue will vary even though they all agree on the facts of the issue.
Most of the friction over public issues occurs because of value conflicts. By understanding the role values play in resolving issues, the community engagement facilitator can work to ensure people discuss value differences as a way to find common ground (interests and concerns.) Identifying common ground sets the stage for a community or group to develop consensus about the facts of an issue, and then focus on developing a way to resolve value differences about the response.
Guidelines for effective meetings are simple. The concepts in the box to the right can be used for formal and informal meetings to produce effectively run and productive meetings (Pitrak & Hoopfer, 1979)
Set Objectives for Meetings
Objectives should be set before every meeting. Before planning the agenda for a meeting, write down a phrase to complete the sentence “By the end of the meeting, the group will . . .” The ending for the sentence will include very specific phrases, depending on the focus of the meeting. Examples could be “. . . finalize a timeline to apply for funding,” “. . . leave with an action plan,” “. . . agree on a budget for a project”, . . . or learn about and provide input on a topic.”
There are several benefits from setting objectives. Objectives help focus the meeting. The more concrete the meeting objectives are the more focused the agenda will be. A second benefit of having meeting objectives is that there is a measure against which you can evaluate the meeting. This evaluation allows the facilitator to continuously improve meetings and keep participants involved.
- Only hold a meeting if it is necessary.
- All meetings must have clear objectives.
- Meeting information should be circulated to everyone attending prior to the meeting. Include the following information
- Meeting objectives
- Meeting agenda
- Background information
- Assigned items for preparation
- Consider inviting a neutral person to facilitate sensitive meetings.
- All meetings should have an agenda that includes:
- Topics for discussion presenter or discussion leader for each topic
- Time allotment for each topic
- Meetings must start on time. Starting on time rewards those who are punctual. Starting on time also sets the stage for how serious you are about making the meeting effective.
- Meeting participants should:
- Arrive on time
- Be prepared
- Be concise
- Participate in a constructive manner
- The meeting facilitator must ensure notes are recorded and are part of the groups meeting archives.
- Any decisions made by the group
- Assigned action items should be documented
- Meeting effectiveness must be reviewed at the end of each meeting and suggested improvements applied to the next meeting.
Engagement facilitators find themselves planning and facilitating meetings throughout the engagement effort. Agendas are an important management tool that effective facilitators use to plan for and conduct productive meetings regardless if it is a meeting with one or two individuals or a meeting with 100 people.
Here are some reasons why the meeting agenda is important (Pitrak et al, 1979):
Communicates important information such as:
meeting objective or purpose topics for discussion, the person responsible for presenting or leading discussion for each topic, the time allocated to each topic, the process for each item (e.g. discussion, information, decisions)
Provides a guide for the meeting.
Provides a checklist to make sure all the information is covered.
Allows participants to know what will be discussed prior to the meeting, allowing them to prepare for the meeting.
Roles that help groups
Facilitators serve a number of roles that help groups accomplish tasks and maintain relationships.
Roles that help groups accomplish tasks include:
- Idea initiator – The initiator suggests or proposes new ideas to the group for their consideration. The suggestions or ideas may relate to problems being discussed, procedures, goals or solutions.
- Information seeker – An information seeker asks for clarification about suggestions or information being presented or discussed to discover the factual adequacy of the information.
- Information provider – The information provider offers facts that relate to the discussion which are “authoritative.”
- Problem clarifier – A problem clarifier helps the group better understand factors that are blocking the group’s ability to come to consensus about a decision or path forward.
- Consensus tester – A consensus tester regularly checks with the group to determine the level of agreement among group members about information being presented or discussed.
Roles that help groups maintain relationships include:
- Harmonizer – A harmonizer mediates differences between other members and reconciles disagreements and deals with conflict situations.
- Gatekeeper – The gatekeeper works to keep group communication open by encouraging and facilitating the participation of all members in the discussion. This is accomplished by posing questions such as “Does anyone else have thoughts or ideas about . . .” or by proposing a process that ensures everyone can contribute to the discussion.
- Supporter – A supporter accepts and values the contributions members make to group discussion or tasks. The supporter seeks to help group members understand and consider points of view, ideas and suggestions put forth.
- Standards monitor – The standards monitor works to ensure all members are treated with respect, that discussion about different opinions focuses on the issue not the other person, the discussion stays on topic and other ground rules.
Pitrak, Paula and L. Hoopfer. "Group Dynamite." East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service (1979).