woman leading a meeting

Assertive Facilitation: The Sweet Spot in Leading Groups

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I have learned a lot about effective facilitation through trainings and readings and just plan experience. But there is a dimension of my facilitation style which was never explicitly named in the trainings or educational opportunities in which I have participated. This dimension is more about how I bring myself to the room and to the group; who am I as a facilitator? 

Sometimes we focus so much on our audience that we forget to focus on what we want to bring to the group in terms of our presence, our style, and our way of leading. 

For me, one of the most useful parts of my identity as a leader and as a facilitator is a concept I call assertive facilitation.

NOTE: This article was originally published on my Linked In Profile.

What is Assertive Facilitation?

Early in my academic career, during a consultation with the employee wellness center on my campus,  I was introduced to the term “assertive communication.” It was conveyed to me as a means for communicating with another individual that was neither aggressive (blaming, accusing, etc.) nor passive (beating around the bush, avoiding conflict, etc.). As an early professional  who was nervous about conflict, this was an incredibly valuable communication tool that helped me to approach potentially controversial conversations with more comfort and confidence.

As I began to take on the role of facilitator in various settings, I brought the concept of assertive communication to these settings and added it to my facilitation toolbox. Perhaps more of an art than a science, assertive facilitation is a strategy that helps me to deal with potential group conflict, challenging group members, or stalemates in a way that builds relationships rather than breaking them down. It also allows me to help a group move forward to achieve their goals instead of wallowing in the problem space, and to ensure that they are not leaving anyone behind.

I’m loosely defining this concept of assertive facilitation as a confident approach to leading group interactions that uses direct and inclusive language to foster productive relationships and accomplish group goals.

It is the sweet spot between: a) aggressive or forceful facilitation, which can alienate group members in favor of the leader’s priorities; and b) passive facilitation, which can allow group members to steer the group off-track.

What are the Tools of Assertive Facilitation?

  • Setting Clear Expectations: In order to achieve results, a facilitator needs to work with the group to identify the end goal(s) of their work together and processes that will help them to succeed. Goals should be specific, measurable, and appropriate for the time the group is dedicating; an assertive facilitator will meet with group representatives ahead of time to ensure that everyone is on the same page and will give feedback to the group if the goal seems mismatched to the setting or structure. Without that groundwork, a group can float aimlessly without truly understanding or achieving their task. 
  • Establishing Ground Rules: Before a group process begins, an assertive facilitator will help a group to identify the agreements they want to make regarding how they will work together (for example, expectations around: confidentiality, assuming good intentions, or being willing to explore unconventional ideas). Lacking clarity in expectations, a group can veer off track or be unduly influenced by certain members of the group; likewise, other members can feel alienated or unheard and “check out” of the group process. An assertive facilitator will actively introduce, gain buy-in for, and help to enforce group agreements by writing them in a visible place and referring back to them regularly throughout a session.
  • Using Facilitation Tools (Unapologetically): Facilitators who have extensive (or even any!) training and a toolbox of useful strategies for groups should not shy away from using their resources. Introducing a group activity with an apology (“I know we hate name games, but just bear with me”) only diminishes the buy-in of your participants and gives them permission to check out or participate at less than 100%. Dive into your structured activities like they are the greatest tools since sliced bread and remember, “if you build it they will come.” Alternatively, if you throw it into place and implement it half-heartedly, they will get off at the next exit.
  • Naming Potential Roadblocks: It can be tempting as a facilitator to steer clear of potential conflict, gloss over distracting comments, or set aside big challenges that cannot be solved. Doing so is a sign of passive facilitation; these issues will influence the group’s success even if you attempt to ignore them. An assertive facilitator will pause the conversation as necessary, ask a group to name potential roadblocks, acknowledge moments of conflict, and save space for challenging problems.  Deciding how to deal with them should be a transparent process with the group, whether you choose to put them in a “parking lot,” add them to the group’s to-do list, or make them a significant priority for the session.
  • Intervening Early: Underlying conflict can quickly throw a meeting or conversation off-track; naming potential roadblocks, as mentioned above, should be done as soon as possible in order to avoid wasted time. In addition, assertive facilitators should intervene early if personal or intergroup conflict seems to be arising in a session. While such conflict cannot always be dealt with in the moment, it may be possible to take a moment during a break to engage the group representatives or leaders to explore why such conflict is arising and how they want to manage it.
  • Identifying Limitations: As important as it is to identify important roadblocks and exciting opportunities, it is also important for a facilitator to give feedback to the group when they are reaching beyond their agreed-upon goal or getting off-track. In order to effectively intervene and identify limitations, a facilitator may need to strongly but respectfully interrupt a conversation or train of thought. I try to do so in a direct way, but naming what I am doing: “I hear you saying that you want to explore this issue, and I can understand why, but I want to remind the group that our agreed upon goal for day didn’t include this issue and trying to address it might take us off track. Can we set it aside for now? If not, does the group want to adjust its goal and what would be the consequences of doing so?”
  • Suggesting Productive Solutions: In its purest terms, being a facilitator could be interpreted as simply providing the structure and flow in which a group explores its own issues, questions, and opportunities. However, this diminishes the role of facilitator to an overpaid “traffic officer.” It is useful, and in fact imperative, for a facilitator to use active listening skills as well as their ability to make sense of complex situations to help a group discover ideas and solutions. An assertive facilitator will save space during a session to reflect back to the group what they think they are hearing and illuminate solutions that seem to be arising from the group discussion. This may also include providing a report following a group session that summarizes what was explored, achieved, and decided including themes that the facilitator identifies as important to the group’s progress. 
  • Celebrating Success: After any group process, whether it is a one-hour workshop or a three-day retreat, a group can be feeling any level of emotion – from fatigue to an excited adrenaline rush or anything in between. One of the most important roles of an assertive facilitator is to make time both throughout the day and at the end of the day for the group to reflect on and celebrate the progress that they have made. An assertive facilitator will track and make note of both small and big successes throughout their facilitation and actively name them to the group, or prompt the group to think about and name their own successes. 

Too often, people who are invited to group retreats or planning sessions bemoan the invite. They understandably tire of sessions in which no progress is made, the same ideas are repeated over and over, or groups veer off track. This need not be the case if effective assertive facilitation is in place, and in fact it is one of the primary reasons I often suggest to groups that they seek an external facilitator. 

When a facilitator is available to attend to group agreements, interactions, progress, and goals without being deeply engaged in the topic at hand the group can be supported to make the progress they desire. I believe that assertive facilitation is an essential tool for making that kind of progress.

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