Amplifying Collaboration with Guerilla Facilitation

Sometimes, an ineffective meeting can be more damaging than no meeting at all. But, if you're not the person in charge of facilitating the meeting, how can you help keep the group and the meeting in line? In this article, Ellen Gottesdiener offers some suggestions for both facilitators and non-facilitators that may help ease some of your meeting frustrations.

Do you ever feel frustrated that you can't intervene during group gatherings gone astray? How can you take action when you're not the one in charge? Do you wonder how you can "lead from behind" to improve the quality of your community collaboration?

Here are some suggestions for making meetings or work sessions work better for everyone.

The Writing on the Wall
We humans first communicated with each other on cave walls. Making your content visible on walls for everyone to see and react to is probably one of the most powerful ways for groups to communicate. You can take advantage of this strong visual orientation by becoming the group's recorder. In this way, you can assist the facilitator (and perhaps act as co-facilitator).

To take this action, be prepared with flipchart paper, wall-friendly tape, and markers. At the meeting, record key summary points, decisions, actions, and a parking lot (a place to store topics you want to cover later), perhaps on separate posters. Be sure you honor people's words. Don't paraphrase without getting permission.

At the same time, you can facilitate the discussion by checking in with the group on anything you write. Here some examples of questions you should ask:

  • "So can I summarize that by writing ...?"
  • "Can I capture that idea by writing ...?"
  • "Looking at what I just wrote, does that summarize your point?"
  • "Can you headline that so I can capture it on our poster?"

Depending on your relationship with the facilitator or meeting leader, you might ask permission to do this ahead of time. Or, you might turn to the meeting leader (if there is one) and ask whether it's OK for you to record key points from the session.

Do You See What I See?
One of my most profound learning experiences as a facilitator was the time I acted as an observer rather than a participant or a facilitator. (My mentor suggested I do this because I felt lost not being in the role of the facilitator!)

Being an observer forced me to focus strictly on studying the group dynamics, watching the flow of interactions, making a point of noticing nonverbal behavior, and sensing the ebb and flow of energy in the group. When I started to see a pattern, I then shared my observation with the group without suggestion or judgment.

For example, I would say, "I noticed when we were discussing X, most people made comments and were looking at each other. But when the topic of Y came up, some people leaned back, others kept glancing toward the clock or door, and there seemed to be less energy in the room."

You can transform your observations into meta-observations by inviting feedback on the observation itself. You do that by stating the observation, following it with your own inference or assumption, and then checking it out with the group. For example, you could say, "When we were discussing X, I noticed more people spoke up. I'm guessing that the topic of X is more important to everyone than Y. Do I have that right?"

By noticing and pointing out specific, observable behavior, you enable the group to "process its process" (what we might call the meta-process). Most of us participate in gatherings without thinking about the group process itself, let alone how to increase its effectiveness.

Acting as an observer and sharing your observations with the group helps the group to process its process and thereby improve it. These practices also increase your own skills in being a facilitator, because effective facilitators are expert observers.

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