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The secrets of facilitation in three words

​​Facilitation is a process that requires you to be a polymath of sorts, comfortable in your skin as a bridge builder, able to communicate across professions and life paths, and with enough empathy and courage to keep the show on the road when obstacles invariably appear.

I grew into this role from a significantly non-linear career path, which brought me here via 5-6 academic disciplines, 4-5 cultural settings, and 3-4 career changes. Now settled happily in beautiful Devon, my tiny home office is a hub of activity thanks to the internet, with clients spanning academia, secondary schools, and industry. I provide services in collaboration and innovation, which means I facilitate collaborative meetings and conferences, train teams to work better together, and run innovation workshops based around the concepts of design thinking.

So here is what I have learned so far about the process of facilitating collaboration. First, you listen. Listen carefully to your client when they recruit you, make sure you are clear about the scope, scale, and expected outcomes of the meeting. Listen to their worries, and to their aspirations. On the day, listen to everyone as they come in the door to understand their readiness to collaborate, their sense of security and level of enthusiasm. This informs you how they need to be managed during the meeting.

Next, you adapt. The best facilitators are those with a whole toolbox of possible methods and approaches, gleaned from experience and gathered from reading books, mags and blogs. You carefully select the methods that are most appropriate for the project at hand, and adapt them to best meet the specific needs of your client. Plan well, with an agenda and a checklist of materials and processes for the day. On the day, be prepared to adapt the deliverables to match the realities. The meeting might go slower or faster than planned, or a participant throws a concept that offsets the discussion. Be ready to perhaps skip a step, or add an activity, a new visual or discussion point to the meeting.

Finally, you enable. Your client wants reassurances that you will take care of the flow of the meeting so that they can focus on the project. Enable them to feel confident that you are there to support them and guide the meeting. On the day, set ground rules for mutual respect and time keeping, enable each participant to tell their story, and then enable the whole team to feel they are a cohesive entity all set for action.

Thus the secrets of facilitation can be summarized in three words: Listen. Adapt. Enable. If I were to add a fourth, it would be Enjoy!

Sawsan has a PhD in plant science (University of London), worked in bioinformatics during her first postdoc, and from there to medical genetics after a family relocation to Miami, Florida. She was the director of engagement for computational science at the University of Miami, while still teaching both bioinformatics and team science. Now Sawsan is affiliated with the University of Exeter, and runs an independent consulting business in collaboration and innovation. Check out her website for useful resources, and follow her on Twitter @SawsanKhuri and LinkedIn.

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