June 4, 2013

Three Guidelines for Co-Facilitating Conversations 

by Natalie Millman

In recent years, I have run a few different conversation-based ventures with colleagues, and also observed many stellar and not-so-stellar facilitation teams for groups in which I have participated. Examining what went well and what went wrong in these situations has led me to establish firm ideas about How To Successfully Co-Facilitate a Conversation. This is a list of three guidelines for running a conversation event with someone else.

These guidelines are also relevant to all people who might attend a conversation, to explain the amount of preparation and due diligence that must happen in order to put on the conversation. These guidelines are also relevant to those who are considering whether or not they want to hold an event in the future, and perhaps are wondering if running the event with a co-facilitator will ease the time, energy, and resources you expend on the event.

Clearly, these guidelines also inform those who do decide to co-facilitate a conversation – to boost your personal success, encourage a good facilitation experience, and propel an excellent conversation. Note that these guidelines are not meant to replace trial and error, which is integral to learning how to masterfully conduct conversation groups both individually and with a co-facilitator.

1. Co-facilitate for the right reasons.

Co-facilitation is not for everyone. There are many positives to working with someone else in running a conversation or other event, but there are also drawbacks. There are three major misguided reasons to choose a co-facilitator.

One misguided reason many people co-facilitate is because they want to include someone who is a colleague or friend that they want to “get to know better.” This is not a good reason to co-facilitate – instead this is a reason to not co-facilitate! Co-facilitation requires knowing each other well already, including strengths and weaknesses. Co-facilitating with someone you barely know can hinder more than it can help – it is terribly embarrassing to disagree with each other about group management philosophy during the event!

Another misguided reason many people co-facilitate is because they need help running an event. A co-facilitator can help with these things: conversation ideas, providing a meeting-space, a printer and ink, refreshments, or extra help with time-consuming tasks. However, needing help with these things is not a reason to get a co-facilitator. Instead, delegating these tasks to other people without giving the title of “co-facilitator” is perfectly acceptable. Give the people who help you with these tasks “volunteers,” stressing the importance of their time, money, and other contributions. They do not need to be “co-facilitators” to be important!

One last misguided reason to co-facilitate together is because either you or the other person is an “expert” at the topic of the conversation. It doesn’t matter what topic is at hand – the conversation is supposed to remain a conversation, not become an impromptu lecture. If you want to make the event explicitly a “seminar” style kind of conversation, integrating a formal lecture with conversation, then fine – label it appropriately. If you want the event to remain a conversation, however, then it is more judicious for you to remain the sole facilitator, and to just state that the expert is a “guest with a special interest in this topic,” and treat the expert like any other guest, though occasionally referring to the expert for expertise on factual questions.

2. Choose a co-facilitator who makes sense.

The best reason to co-facilitate together is because you both believe that your synergy can make the conversation group better together, in an equal partnership. To do this, most successful co-facilitators practice with someone who complements their skill sets. For example, if you are great at time management, but struggle at making people feel comfortable in the room, choose a co-facilitator who excels in helping people feel comfortable in large conversations. Other facilitation skills are also important to consider, including the ability to balance the voices in the room, maintain a focused conversation, keep spirits high, acknowledge multiple viewpoints, educate appropriately, and encourage diversity and inclusiveness. Of these critical skills, any that you feel that you lack, make sure that your potential co-facilitator “balances out” your skill set.

Another component of choosing a co-facilitator who makes sense is not working with someone who you feel is an incompetent facilitator. While this may seem obvious, this happens surprisingly often, usually when the more experienced facilitator’s goal is to “teach” the person how to facilitate a group. In this situation, it may work better for both of you if you facilitate an event as an individual facilitator, but assign the person some enjoyable background duties, such as helping with preparation of the materials, setting out refreshments, greeting guests to the conversation, conducting follow-up, or other tasks.

In choosing a facilitator, you may not have a lot of options. Noting this, it is preferable to work with someone that you have seen in action than someone you have not seen in action, even if the person you have seen in action has room for improvement in their style. However, be cautious about deciding to work with the person. Chances are, the style’s aspects that annoy you will not necessarily go away when you are co-facilitating with the person, even if you both feel your personalities “balance out.” To work together successfully, some change will have to happen – preferably change on both your part and your co-facilitator.

People do not change quickly or easily, and it requires having motivation to change, willingness and commitment to work together on change, a course of action to change, setting clear boundaries and role assignments concerning the change process, and no-fault attitude when change doesn’t happen. It is far easier, of course, to work with someone whose facilitation style does not annoy or aggravate you, but often this is not possible. In cases where the potential co-facilitator is not a good fit, and where change does not seem possible, it is definitely better to work alone.

3. Clarify your commitments: boundaries, role assignments, courses of action, and escape clauses.

Clarifying your commitment involves making choices logically, mindfully, and honestly about how much time you can commit, what other resources you can commit, the likelihood of your being able to fulfill your commitments, and how much room you are allowing for “slip-ups.”

Setting appropriate boundaries is important for this. Before committing to anything, make sure you have room in all spheres of your life for the commitment: not only consider time and resources, but also the impacts of the commitment financially, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and biologically. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries, and say, “No, I don’t have time to do this.” Or, give a caveat. “I can’t do this on the third week of the month; that is when I have my period, and I’m not at my best at that time.” If the person presses you – “Come on, when I was your age, my period wasn’t that bad…” – stand firm and consider revising your plan to co-facilitate with this person.

Another component of setting boundaries that I cannot stress enough: it is far better to commit to fewer projects that you are sure you can fulfill than to take on too many projects and fulfill them poorly or not at all. Take a moment and think back to the last time you cancelled on someone, whether it was meeting a friend for lunch, a doctor’s appointment, or dropping by to visit a neighbor. If it was in the last week or so, and if you find yourself cancelling on someone at a rate of once every two weeks or more, I highly recommend you consider just attending conversations, not hosting them, especially if you are liable to cancel hours or minutes before an event. When people have committed to being a part of a conversation, you may not see it how much people have adjusted their schedules to attend, often doing so weeks in advance, sometimes making great sacrifices of time, energy, and money to be there. Unless you have a major unexpected issue, such as a death in the family or a debilitating illness / accident, you have a responsibility to fulfill your commitment. If you aren’t sure you can do this, I suggest you wait until a time in your life when you can fulfill your commitments consistently. It is not fair to your co-facilitator, your guests, or yourself to do otherwise.

One way to set boundaries is through written role assignments. When co-facilitating, the worst thing to do is to tell someone that they are your “co-facilitator” and not give this person any jobs to do. This will make the person confused at best, and frustrated at worst.  Role assignments can change from week to week based on the needs of the co-facilitation team, or these assignments can pre-determined and consistent. Either way, it is vital that these role assignments be clear, unambiguous, and functionally sound.

Equality of role assignments, both in the process of preparation, facilitating the actual event, and follow-up after the event, is vital to a smoothly-running conversation. The question is, what tasks should be assigned? It’s more than just deciding who will update the Meetup page, print the handouts, or bring the cookies, which are fairly simple to assign.

When it comes to navigating the conversation itself, it is important to know who:

a) is the one who does the introduction piece and facilitates guest icebreakers

b) is the one who starts the conversation

c) is the one who is the timekeeper

d) is the one who helps move the conversation along when one guest is talking longer than a minute or two

e) is the one who helps refocus the conversation when it is getting off-topic

f) is the one who focuses on positive affirmations of guests and their contributions

g) is the one who manages connections between ideas voiced by different guests

h) is the one who manages disputes between guests or emotional disturbances

i) is the one who leaves the room if it’s necessary to get additional pencils, get tissues for a sneezy or teary guest, direct a guest to the bathroom, etc.

j) is the one who manages emergency medical situations that might arise

k) is the one who greets people at the door, particularly latecomers

l) is the one who passes around handouts, reads aloud, introduces expert guests, promotes a recommended book, etc.

These are just some examples. Many of these things might be interchangeable tasks, but it is necessary to elect either one person or the other to take on the majority of one kind of task, with the understanding that the other person serves as a backup. Assigning roles should not be arbitrary, and instead should reflect the goals, skills, and values of each co-facilitator equally.

Remember that flexibility is necessary in assigning roles, and that it is necessary to take appropriate courses of action to evaluate and modify role assignments. One significant underutilized course of action is the process of debriefing. Immediately after a conversation, or the day after, talk with your co-facilitator about what went well, what was lacking, and what should and should not be repeated. Treat each event like a social science experiment – isolate each important factor, analyze it, and decide what to try next time. Formalize this plan by writing it down, and refer to the plan for the next event. Remember that this is a team-based process, and decide how to adjust the function of the group as well as the role assignments.

Of course when committing, there will be things you do not anticipate; pre-decided courses of action for disputes, inequality in resource expenditure, and adjustments in roles can make changes swift and smooth. Escape clauses help you decide in advance how to make sure that the commitment to unexpected expenses of time, energy, and money is equal, and agree on the procedures for adjusting to new expenses. For example, if you suddenly realize you need name-tags for the conversation, who is the person who will go to the store and purchase them? Will one of you reimburse the other?

Chances are, one of you will be a better fit to meet extra unanticipated financial needs for the conversation event, while the other will be a better fit to meet the extra unanticipated time or travel needs for the conversation event; make sure that all efforts are met halfway and appreciated, and contribute as much time or financial resource as is possible for your circumstances.

Of course this is far from an exhaustive guide to running and managing group situations, and I do not profess to be a great expert at group facilitation or co-facilitation. This is merely a cumulative study of what I have learned after watching great co-facilitators, great single facilitators, and watching those who are still learning to be great co- and single facilitators. I intend to use these guidelines myself in my own group facilitation efforts, and I am certain my opinions will further evolve through the years. May you all have many happy conversations!

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