Improv tip of the month: the one skill all master facilitators know and live by

Barry Edwards
Category : Improvisation May 29, 2013

This month’s can’t-miss tip is from Barry Edwards, Improv Contributor.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to work with a master facilitator, you know first-hand that great facilitation is more art than science. To be masterful, you must learn to lead in the moment and dance with the dynamics of the group.

Here’s the great news: any leader can learn and apply the one skill that all engaging facilitators know and live by. Read on to discover what it is, along with specific ways to build your own muscle.

The facilitator’s conundrum: 100% responsibility, zero authority

In the book, 10 Steps To Successful Facilitation, published by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), a facilitator is defined as “a person who has no decision-making authority within a group but who guides the group to work more efficiently together, to create energy, to generate ideas, and to gain consensus and agreement.”

In other words, a facilitator cannot rely on positional power or direct control; instead he must use what is in the room to move the group toward its goals. (Which, by the way, is also true for today’s organizational leaders.) For this reason, the one skill that all master facilitators know and live by is improvisational leadership. In one way or another, the specific competencies required to be masterful (and there are six of them, according to the International Institute for Facilitation, or INIFAC) all contribute to this one catch-all skill.

Prepare to improvise

Working in the moment” does not mean master facilitators skip planning and strategizing. On the contrary, this is where your competencies of assessment, communication and consistency come into play. Invest significant time listening to the client in advance, ask about team dynamics, research the organizational objectives, and develop a meaningful agenda. While it may seem like an oxymoron to “prepare to improvise,” this advance work is what creates the confidence you need to master the moment.

Having done your homework, you’re ready to employ the rest of your core competencies: express an engaging presence, control the direction of the conversation toward healthy and productive goals, and ensure minority voices are engaged and protected. Anything can happen, and when it does, it’s important to be ready to leverage that energy to move the group forward.

Work your improv muscle

Master facilitation shares many of the same skills as improvisational comedy: reacting in the moment, actively listening, thinking on your feet, and confident decision-making. Even the preparation part applies, since the best improv comedians practice their craft over and over again.

Try this exercise from the world of improv as a way of developing your own comfort and facility with improvisational leadership:

1. Gather four colleagues.

2. Set up five chairs in a semicircle.

3. You (playing the role of facilitator) sit in the middle chair with your colleagues on each side.

4. Pick a topic for conversation. It can be anything, such as your company’s dress code, the importance of work/life balance, or the benefits of social media. Just be sure to choose something everyone can react to.

5. Next, assign each of your colleagues an emotion, representing a mixture (i.e. anger, fear, excitement, sarcasm).

6. For a set period of time, invite each individual to react to the topic in the character of the emotion. For example, if the topic is the company dress code:

Anger might begin by saying, “This dress code makes me crazy!”

Fear: “I’m afraid what I’m wearing doesn’t fit the dress code”

Excitement: “This dress code is awesome! I can’t wait to come into work tomorrow.”

Sarcastic: “Great. Another brilliant company policy to follow.”

7. As the facilitator, concentrate on developing empathy for each participant, reacting in the moment to their statements. Respond directly with statements that acknowledge what you’re hearing. For example:

To Anger: “Oh! Crazy-making! Noted.”

To Fear: “Sounds like you have some concerns.”

To Excitement: “I’m hearing some real enthusiasm on your part!”

To Sarcastic: “Hmmmm … (with sarcasm) so you’re really excited about this new policy.”

8. Give the exercise time to breathe. Give your colleagues the opportunity to “feel” their roles, and give yourself the opportunity to feel their responses.

9. Before moving on to another topic, take a moment to debrief. What did the group learn about the topic? About emotion? What did you observe about yourself as a facilitator? Which emotions were easy to empathize with? Which ones were harder?

10. Try it again, with a new topic and new set of emotions.

Practice makes perfect

Master facilitators are not born; they are developed by having the courage to leverage the moment—to dare to improvise. One way to become masterful is to practice what it takes to respond to the unexpected. And then, practice some more.

Because a little practice goes a long way towards increasing levels of mastery.

Originally published by BossaNova Consulting Group, Inc.
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Barry Edwards

Barry Edwards

What gets me out of bed in the morning is the opportunity to really engage people—whether I’m coaching an executive, leading a workshop, or facilitating a meeting. That’s because I believe engagement is the key to workplaces that make a difference. I’m also an improvisational comedy performer, teacher, and overall enthusiast. I’ve led dozens of workshops (and written a series of blog articles) on how to bring the art of improv to the business world.

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