An excellent facilitator

Yesterday and the day before I attended a forum hosted by the Family Action Centre and facilitated wonderfully by Julie McCrossin. I find it fascinating watching a great facilitator like Julie at work – I can learn so much.

She was engaging, quirky, energising and insightful. Some of her strategies or skills I particularly appreciated included:

  1. She used humour to keep participants engaged and energised.
  2. She drew lucky door prize at the start of most sessions, to encourage everyone to be there on time.
  3. She was very attentive to the process and content. She really helped keep the forum on time, she asked lots of pertinent questions and clearly understood the discussion.
  4. She used her natural curiosity effectively to draw people out more.
  5. She controlled the microphone very closely. When participants were asking a question or making a comment, she held the mike (and wouldn’t let it go) to ensure they could be heard clearly (the forum was being recorded) and it also helped her stop people talking too long.
  6. She made sure we were all aware of the purpose of sessions, how they fitted together and the overall flow of the forum.
  7. She used a variety of strategies to create energy (e.g., humour, showing a short video clip, running from one person to the next when holding the microphone).
  8. She always seemed to be genuinely interested and was very natural and approachable.
  9. She was very positive, enthusiastic and affirming.

She really was inspiring to watch.

Being a fan of participatory processes such as World Cafe and Open Space, at times I felt the forum could have benefitted from more small group discussion. The focus of the forum was “Outreach and Integration in Family Services: Enhancing the Capacity of the NGO Sector”.

Julie’s facilitation had a huge influence on the success of the forum, but also probably had an impact on the forum outcomes. She asked lots of questions which were insightful, but at time they were leading questions that influenced the direction of the discussion. While this is the role of a skilled facilitator, I wonder if at times it would have been better to have spent less time on questions and comments in the whole group, and to have spent more time in small groups.

Over the two days we only really had small group discussion for around 30 minutes. (There was another 45-60 minutes where there were small groups but these were more for poster or PowerPoint presentations in small groups rather than small group discussion.) I would have been interested to see if the outcomes would have been different if we had used either World Cafe or Open Space more during day two to explore three of the aims of the forum:

1. To identify key challenges and barriers to integrated outreach and how to overcome them.
2. To explore a range of strategies for enhancing the capacity of the NGO sector to improve and extend their work of this kind with families, including how to guide and manage change.
3. To identify future priorities for taking this agenda forward in policy, practice and research and who may take the next steps.

The speakers set the context for exploring these questions well but, with around 50-60 people, I felt the focus on large group discussion limited the conversation. If we had explored these issues in small groups, there would have been many more conversations and some great ideas might have surfaced. This approach can lead to the problems of how to report back and to synthesise main themes, but I think we could have created a process for doing so.

Julie’s facilitation style really suited the format of questions and comments in the large group. I would have also liked to see her approach to more small group work.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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