Facilitating the tough stuff: How training can make it easier

“What was it about your toughest facilitation moment that made it so tough?” 
…is the question we ask even the most experienced facilitators at the start of a day of engagement training. 
Answers come thick and fast. Regardless of how good at facilitation you may be, odds are that you’ve experienced a moment in the community that has completely derailed you. Whether it was witnessing someone break down in tears or being verbally berated, you know that when people are moved by a project or experience, they participate in community consultation in droves. And they bring their emotions with them.  

Indeed, emotion should be expected when facilitating challenging scenarios. More than anything, emotion demonstrates that your participants are interested in the subject you’re engaging with them about. Someone who is interested in a subject is more likely to be an active contributor and proffer useful information.

Thankfully, dealing with emotions, and the behaviours that stem from those emotions, is something that we as facilitators can prepare for – turning the ‘tough’ experience into something more manageable and channelling the emotion into a constructive outcome. 

Preparation is key

Using the right skills and through considered decision making, facilitators can create a positive environment and guide even the most difficult discussions towards a useful conclusion.

As a start, it’s important to understand your audience, the subject at hand and the context of the engagement activity being undertaken to determine how people will react.  

Different styles of ‘facilitator’ may be welcomed depending on the audience, the subject and the context.

Do you need someone direct and driven or someone more nuanced and measured?

Do you need to bring calm or inject confidence into the audience?

Understanding your facilitation style goes a long way in making your facilitation a success. 

Even the timing and setting of the facilitation can mitigate difficult and emotional scenarios. Sometimes you’ll be obligated to undertake the facilitation as soon as possible, but if you are able to select the timing for a facilitation, consider scheduling it for after a situation has calmed down. Live face-to-face facilitation can be daunting at the best of times, so if conversations are expected to be particularly challenging – dangerous even – leverage technology to facilitate digital engagement using online platforms, digital surveys and videos. 

Emotion is inevitable

When emotions invariably eventuate, allow people to express their views and feelings. Acknowledge their perspectives and deploy empathy to create a more collaborative atmosphere.

Demonstrate that you’re an active listener by clarifying and summarising what they have to say. However, if the situation is likely to get out of hand, it’s important to be cognisant of this and be prepared to reassert control to bring the audience back to the task at hand. This is where setting clear ground rules and establishing the objectives of the facilitation up front is useful, allowing the facilitator to revert, reframe or reflect. 
Flexibilty is key in any facilitation session, especially when emotions are charged and you need to be prepared to change your approach if necessary. You may need to extend the time taken discussing a subject, add another topic into the facilitation session, take an unplanned break to reset or allow people to take part virtually rather than in-person (or provide their feedback in another way). Being flexible and changing your approach demonstrates your understanding of the audience and helps to build trust. 

Building trust is also achieved by following up and closing feedback loops. Provide a summary of the facilitation to people who took part and provide answers to follow up questions (or appoint someone who can), to demonstrate your commitment to ongoing engagement for as long as it is needed. 

Critically, a facilitator must always keep in mind that they are not there to defend a project, process, decision or experience. You’re there to inform, consult, collaborate or partner and work with the community to understand what is important to them and what needs to be done to meet their needs.

We can’t shy away from facilitating the tough stuff for authentic engagement, and emotions will be present. But by having the right skills and making informed decisions about facilitation, we can manage those challenges, ultimately contributing to greater community trust and more meaningful engagement.  

Are you prepared to handle tough conversations while engaging? 

At Articulous, we’re facilitators like you. We take on challenging projects that involve many tough conversations.  

Guided by our experience, our team can help you to develop or hone the skills and knowledge needed to deliver positive engagement outcomes in spite of emotion and conflict.

In our exclusive 1-day course, ‘Facilitating the Tough Stuff’ we’ll support you to:

  • Respond to challenging emotions such as anger, trauma and fear
  • Reassure participants that their concerns have been heard
  • Regain control of a room.

Our program explores the theories, techniques and tactics behind successful facilitation, including how to move from problems to solutions, and deliver the outcomes your client is seeking.

This course is designed by facilitators for facilitators.

Topics include:

  • Facilitation styles 
  • Creating an optimal environment for facilitation 
  • Key theories – including the five dimensions of conflict in engagement and the diamond of participation
  • Engagement planning – including how to plan for tough facilitation environments. 

If you want to upgrade your facilitation skills and feel prepared to face challenging and complex situations, our course is a must do! 

Register now to secure your spot in our course on May 15 in the Brisbane CBD.

We can’t wait to work with you!

Written by Nathaniel Tunney