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Learning to facilitate – one step at a time

So just how do you learn to become a facilitator?  This is an important question, as many people are called on to serve as facilitators in meetings, and public training courses may not be easily available or affordable at a time when needed.
While I have been designing and running meetings for more than 25 years, I would say that I have been a professional facilitator for just over 17 years. I believe that I have become better at my craft over this time, and I cringe when I think back to some of the meetings that I ran back in the early days, when I did not know very much about facilitation!  Perhaps because I didn’t attend any facilitation courses until I had been leading meetings for a good number of years (such things were not easily available in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s), I realized that I learned how to facilitate the same way many people do – by observing how other people facilitated meetings, and by being coached by more experienced colleagues…  (and I was fortunate to have some good coaches and role models!)
I had the opportunity recently to think about how people develop skills and experience in facilitating meetings.  Penny Walker, a colleague in London, wrote on her blog about how she works one-on-one with some of her clients, helping them prepare to facilitate meetings by themselves.
Responding to her blog, I recalled the way I have worked with a number of clients, advising them on how to facilitate meetings.  Because some of my clients are global organizations, it is fairly common that I am asked to help an individual or a team think through how they can facilitate a meeting or conference without the presence of a professional facilitator.  
In cases like this, I find that it helps to divide the task into 2 parts:
Design the Meeting.  What are your objectives?  Who is going to be there, and how long do you have for the meeting?  What design choices are available to you, given this context?
Facilitate the Meeting.  How much experience do you have leading and facilitating meetings?  What is your comfort level in running this specific meeting, according to the way it has been designed?  What support will you need to build your comfort to lead a successful meeting?
The starting point really does need to be the design discussion.  There are many more options available than plenary presentations with large group discussion.  And you can do more than have small group breakout sessions.  But your selection of activities should be driven by your purpose, and not by your comfort level in facilitating the session.
Once the design is determined, then we look at how to facilitate each step along the way.  As I said in my response to Penny, it can be intimidating to consider taking on an entire session by yourself.  But as we break the facilitation task into discrete steps (such as: forming small groups, giving instructions to the groups, managing small group reports), we give simple guidance and tips for accomplishing each piece.  And then as they are all integrated in practice, the task of facilitation become far more manageable for novice facilitators and meeting leaders!
What do you think?  Can you learn to facilitate meetings through one-on-one processes?
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