Book Review – The Secrets of Facilitation By Michael Wilkinson

Secrets of FacilitationIntroduction

Secrets of Facilitation subtitled, The S.M.A.R.T Guide to Getting Results with Groups, was written by Michael Wilkinson to help people get more results from groups using a structured facilitation process. S.M.A.R.T is an acronym that stands for Structured Meeting And Relating Techniques. Make no mistake this is not a training book, although the techniques taught can very much be used as part of a training process whether virtual or face-to-face. Michael Wilkinson developed the technique partly based on his experience working as a business consultant at IBM. He observed that solutions created in conjunction with customers which has their buy-in and agreement have a higher chance of being implemented as opposed to solutions proposed by the consultants. The book covers 60 “secrets” that are essential for making facilitated sessions effective. While you may not like the term “secrets” and some people have commented that they are not really secrets but common place facilitation techniques, having them all collated in one book is very useful. In the book Wilkinson defines a facilitated session as, a  highly structured meeting in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood and accepted by all participants. The book itself is very structured and follows a pattern of stating each secret in a quotation format, explaining the secret in more detail and then using an example to show how the secret works in practice. More so the language is quite simple, free from jargon, and applicable to both novice and experienced facilitators. The book consists of:

  • A detailed table of contents
  • An introduction to the whole book explaining what you will gain from reading it
  • 13 chapters
  • An epilogue
  • Resource guide for facilitators
  • Acknowledgements and a bit about the author
  • A list of the 60 secrets of facilitation

This is not a small book with exactly 300 pages, but it does have a lot of value. The secrets are a combination of skills covering areas like asking effective questions, handling difficult situations in face to face meetings, writing agendas, and planning. Following is a quick review of the thirteen chapters. Each chapter is preceded by a visual chart showing the SMART framework and also highlighting which aspect of the framework the chapter covers.

Chapter One – What is a Facilitated Session?: This chapter defines what a facilitated session is and deals with when facilitation is appropriate and not appropriate. It also outlines what the responsibilities of  facilitators are.

Chapter Two – The Secrets of Questioning: The SMART framework has 11 core principles which are made up of the 60 secrets. This chapter deals with the first principle which is asking questions. It also promises to teach you how to design questions to get better answers. Some of the questions answered are:

  • How do you phrase questions that create a bonfire of responses?
  • In asking a question, when should you choose the verbs could, should, must and will?
  • How do you use questions to guide a group?

Expect to explore techniques such as the starting question, type A and B questions, building a PAC (playback, agree, challenge) and using questions to drill down to the root of a disagreement.

Chapter Three – The Secrets To Preparing: What are the most important steps in planning for a facilitated session? What are the key questions that you need to have answered? With whom should you speak to get prepared? What do you ask participants about the session? How do you know if you are well prepared? These are questions dealt with in this chapter. Key techniques covered are captured in what the author calls, the five Ps of preparation which are: Purpose, Product, Participants, Probable issues and Process. Practical examples are used to explain how to use the five Ps. In reality the five Ps can be applied to other group meetings such as training courses, team meetings and any form of consultative sessions. This is the second of the SMART principles.

Chapter Four – The Secrets To Starting: The fourth of the SMART principles, Secrets to Starting is all about how to open a session. No doubt the author is a big fan of frameworks. So this principle is captured in four words which when applied to starting a session are executed in order. They are: Inform, Excite, Empower and Involve making up IEEI. Using parking boards, opening non-facilitated meetings and getting started on time are also discussed.

Chapter Five – The Secrets to Focusing: In any facilitated session ensuring a group is focused and not off track or distracted is important for obtaining maximum results. Four secrets to focus the group are discussed in this chapter.  Using checkpoints through reviews, previews and a big view to help the group stay on track is the first secret. The second secret refers to how you warm up a group and the technique proposed is to ask questions that require a nonverbal response. The third secret deals with how to give clear directions, while the last one is about labeling flip charts, and asking prompt and redirection questions.

Chapter Six – The Secrets to Recording: What is the most important information to document from a facilitated session? What do you do when a participant gives you a long monologue? What is an appropriate format for the documentation? These are some of the questions answered in this chapter. Knowing how to record information from the participants in such a way that the participants feel listened too is a thread  that runs through the whole of this chapter. The key message is that, how the facilitator records and documents information from the participants should motivate and encourage them to participate actively.

Chapter Seven – The Secrets to Information Gathering:  When running a facilitated session such as strategic planning, team building, issue resolution and program planning the facilitator will often have to gather information. Seven ways to gather information or what the author has termed as “process functions” are explained. They are gathering facts  for detailed information, categorizing for grouping information, inquiring for creating questions to ask a speaker, generating ideas for solutions, prioritizing for ranking, reporting for getting feedback from groups and getting feedback for evaluating the session or an experience.

Chapter Eight – The Secrets to Closing: According to the author, after a facilitated session the participants should be able to answer certain questions. Some of these questions are:

  • What did we accomplish?
  • What decisions did we make?
  • Who is responsible for making it happen?

A four-step closing sequence is presented to help the facilitator check that the participants can indeed answer these questions just before closing the session. The four steps are to: review activities performed, participants objectives and the parking board for holding issues decisions and actions, to evaluate value of the sessions, to end by highlighting next steps and closing the session, and to hold a debrief meeting with the session’s sponsor to identify strengths and areas for improvement. This technique can be used for almost any group meeting setting, even for training sessions.

Chapter Nine – The Secrets to Managing Dysfunction: The information in this chapter is very useful to those interested in learning how to manage challenging situations when dealing with groups. Four topics are covered. The chapter starts out defining dysfunctional behavior as any activity by a participant that is consciously or unconsciously a substitution for expressing displeasure with the session content or purpose, the facilitation process or outside factors. Next techniques for conscious prevention or how to prevent dysfunction from entering the room are discussed. The third topic covered is how to detect dysfunction early. What do you do once you detect dysfunction? This is what the fourth topic deals with.

Chapter Ten – The Secrets to Consensus Building: The aim of this chapter is to provide the reader with techniques on how to create and maintain a consensus-focused process during facilitation. A one liner which is one of the 60 secrets, in this case secret number 42 is used to explain consensus as, “I can live with it, so I will support it.” Key aspects of this chapter are an explanation of different ways to make decisions, understanding why people disagree and some consensus building strategies. Even the use of weighted scoring in arriving at building consensus is discussed.

Chapter Eleven – The Secrets to Energy: Those of us who’ve been involved in running any form of facilitated session know how important it is for there to be high energy in the room. Low energy can mean that the participants don’t get engaged in the facilitation process. In this chapter the author discusses the importance of understanding the impact of energy from the perspective of how it affects a topic, how it engages the participants, and how it can elevate the facilitator. You will also learn about ways to project energy from the start of a session, adjusting to times when energy drops and maintaining energy during the session.

Chapter Twelve – The Secrets to Agenda Setting: Surprisingly this chapter deals with agenda setting. One would have expected it to be part of, or close to chapter three which focuses on preparation. Customizing the agenda, using standard agendas, and developing an agenda from scratch are topics discussed. The chapter has a lot of sample agendas for different types of facilitated sessions.

Chapter Thirteen – Applying the Secrets to Special Situations: This last chapters presents some short examples of how the facilitation secrets can be applied. The examples used are:

  • Applying them to very small groups
  • Applying them to very large groups
  • Applying them to designing a conference
  • Applying them to a conference call
  • Applying them as a consultant  or subject matter expert
  • Applying them as a meeting participant

This is a book which at times feels like heavy reading and the continuous use of the word ‘secret’ can become tiresome, but nevertheless it is an insightful book. The use of real life examples and well set out techniques means you will definitely learn something from the book. There are a lot of techniques discussed in the book so don’t expect to learn all of them. And no doubt some of the techniques you will already be familiar with. But I think the best way to use the book is as a reminder of crucial things that need to be planned into a session. It can also serve as a refresher about certain things you may have stopped doing. Listed below are some of the top learning points I got from the book:

  • Understanding what a facilitated session is
  • Seeing the 11 principles for facilitating a session at a glance
  • The seven ways to gather information
  • How to close a session
  • How to manage dysfunction

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