The Actor’s Way – How to Become a Great and Effective Facilitator

The thing I remember most about my Six Sigma training was the facilitator. An engineer in his late 50’s, he had white hair and a wrinkled shirt. I remember walking into the room and seeing something I had not seen in many years – an overhead with a large stack of acetates next to it. Oh boy, I thought, this should be fun. Well, about an hour into it fun was the last word I would use to describe him. He spoke in a monotone that makes Ben Stein look exciting and expressive. It got to the point that one woman in the group actually fell asleep there and, with her head cocked back and open, started snoring. I kid you not. This woman in the middle of the class was snoring. How did it affect the facilitator? He just kept droning on and on. At the break I went over to him and asked him if he noticed the woman sleeping. “Yes,” he replied matter-of-factly, “it happens to me all the time. Doesn’t it happen to you?” I replied that it never happened to me and, if it did, I would throw something at her (an orange) and get her to do something.

The engineer really knew his material. He was an expert in statistical analysis and a brilliant engineer. He was there to share with us his great knowledge and insight. However, being a subject matter expert did not make him even remotely interesting. I literally cannot remember a thing that he tried to teach us that day because I was bored and disengaged. I literally spent all of my time simply trying to stay awake instead of absorbing his knowledge.

The question then is – what makes a facilitator good. Certainly a well-designed course that applies accelerated learning techniques and games is a huge help to the facilitator. There are certain basics that are important for any facilitation. They are:
· Understanding the material
· Setting ground rules
· Keeping people focused and on-track
· Resolving conflict in the group

However, there is still something else that differentiates the good facilitators from the bad ones.

1. Breathe
Although I am aging myself a bit (I am after all as vain as anybody), I will tell you that as a very young man I was in the last class of the great acting teacher Lee Strasberg. For all of you not old enough to remember Lee, he was best known for playing Hyman Roth in Godfather 2. However, what he is most famous for is that he founded the famed Actor’s Studio and invented method acting as we know it. His students included Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Ed Asner, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, etc. At one point over 70% of all Academy Award winners had studied with Lee. Marilyn Monroe left Lee her entire estate and was his devoted pupil.

The one thing I remember Lee emphasized was breathing. He said that breathing equaled charisma. If you could understand the breath of the character, you could understand how the character thought and behaved. In fact, if you could control the breathing the entire group they would be like putty in your hands.

Breathing does not mean yelling. In fact it is the opposite. When you breathe, you give your voice inflection and command attention. I recently was doing something at my daughter’s Sunday school and we had 400 teenagers who were all yelling and screaming. The person was trying to get their attention by yelling in a very cheap microphone. I told him to go away and I stood on the stage and said nothing. Then in a very mellow voice, I said asked if I could have their attention and that I could stand on the stage all day long as I did it for a living. I then stood there and breathed, sometimes repeating my line. The table then next to me suddenly looked up at me and got quiet. Then the table next them and it was like a wave as suddenly 400 teenagers stopped talking and just sat there looking at me standing on a stage.

I always say that the most difficult thing in facilitation is to stand in the front of the room, say nothing and still be interesting. Breathing allows you to do 2 things that are critical to facilitation – stay centered and take control of the space. It is your space and you must be able to control it. When you breathe and stay centered, people will naturally copy your breathing and will then have control of your space.

2. Use stories
You can use your own stories to illustrate what you are teaching. Stories have a wonderful way of helping people to learn and engage their thinking. By using stories, you are not just sharing information but how the information is applied in the ‘real world’. Also by using metaphor and stories, you are able to engage those learners who are more intra0personal and linguistic oriented (see Gardner's Multiple Intelligences).

Ask your students to share their stories. There is no better way to help people learn than have others in the group share their stories and how they have applied the content you are using in their own lives. The participants have stories and by using them and the providing a debrief, you will create a powerful punch.

3. Emotion engages!
The use of humor is an emotion – people are laughing. You do not, however, have to be funny to be a facilitator. If you are not a naturally funny person, then using humor can be a painful experience for both you and the participants. In addition, the use of humor may be totally inappropriate to the content you are facilitating. Work within your comfort zone as well as the group’s to engage them not just to think but to feel what they are learning.

4. Be interactive – let the participants do the work!
Great facilitation is a dialogue, not a monologue. One of the jokes I make in workshops is to tell people that I learn more from them than they learn from me. However, I will still collect the check and take all the credit! Let them create the content, share their knowledge and debrief the points. All you need to do then is to tie it into the learning. There is an saying that if, after the end of a workshop, you are exhausted then you have worked too hard and the participants have not worked hard enough! It is their learning, let them do figure out what it means and how it can be applied.

Remember, you are a facilitator and a facilitator facilitates conversation and learning. It means that you may be acting simply as a referee to creating and engaging great dialogue.

5. Be an active listener
This does not mean being silent. What it does mean is asking questions. Active listening is when we explore what others are saying. Ask them questions about what they are saying and then summarize their information for others. By summarizing, you are helping to provide both debrief and controlling the flow so that it fits into what you are facilitating.

The most important aspect of being an active listener is to be in the now. You have to be focused on what the participants are saying and what is going on in the room and not off somewhere thinking about what you want to teach later or where you want to go.

6. Be encouraging
By encouraging participants to share their knowledge and ideas, you are engaging them. Even if they go off tangent, try to find something positive that you can use and build on. If you have to cut them off because they are going on too long or off tangent, bring it back with a positive so that the person does not feel shut down and then withdraws and disengages because they have been negated. The most powerful thing here is to be authentic. If you it is a phony encouragement, you can come off very easily as condescending.

Too many facilitators are focused on the agenda and what they have to ‘get through’. What they forget is their purpose. Remember, you are there for the participants and not for yourself. They cannot absorb the wonderful knowledge that you have if they are so disengaged from you because you have not connected with them.