Meeting facilitation is an important and valuable skill for planners. It supports the collaborative work processes that are increasingly needed in today's complex and diverse world. The planning profession can never have enough good facilitators.
Facilitation is the process of leading the discussion of a group meeting in a manner that allows the group to be productive and achieve its objectives. The facilitator serves as a kind of "traffic cop" to guide the process of the discussion so that the discussion stays on track, achieves the defined meeting objectives, and maintains civility among the participants.
Planners are often called upon to facilitate public meetings because the process of policymaking is often dependent on robust involvement of key stakeholders — residents, business people, property owners, and others.
Yet facilitation skills are rarely if ever taught in planning school, even though I have found it is the most important skill I have as a planner. Not every planner must specialize in facilitation, but nearly every planner is called upon at some point to facilitate and is generally expected to have at least the basic skills to do so.
Facilitation can be a daunting task, because often the participants in the meeting are in conflict, sometimes about matters that are controversial with very high stakes and long-term consequences. The facilitator must manage such discussions so that they are civil, productive, create positive momentum for the project, and support sustainable policy outcomes for the planning process.
While facilitation is challenging, it can also be exciting and rewarding for the facilitator. There is immense satisfaction in successfully facilitating a meeting in which the participants have begun in conflict, disagreement, and mistrust, yet ended with broad agreement and enthusiasm about how the community can move forward in harmony.
The planner-facilitator should understand several key principles:
1. The group gives the facilitator his or her authority
The facilitator exerts "control" over the group by giving it the power to control itself. The group gives the facilitator his or her authority, but power resides in the group as a whole, not one individual.
2. Show respect to all at all times
The most fundamental tool in working with any group is to show respect for all participants, regardless of a person's knowledge or personality. Like sharing power, showing respect can have magical effects in taming disruptive people and in helping all people hear each other despite differences they may have on policy, procedure, or cultural background.
3. Maintain neutrality to maintain trust
Being perceived as neutral to people and policies is critical to maintaining trust, which is essential to maintaining authority as a facilitator. The facilitator is only there to help the group work through the issues. Ideally, the roles of technical expert and facilitator are separated between different members of the planning team. But when required to balance these two roles, planners must take special care to remain neutral.
4. Actively engage people
Facilitators should be actively engaged to provide energy to the group when it wanes and provide calm when the atmosphere becomes heated. Facilitators should show curiosity and enthusiasm for the topic and the participants' ideas, without talking too much — it's the group's meeting, not the facilitator's.
5. Practice, practice, practice — facilitation is a live performance
No matter how much you study it, the only way to develop and improve your skill is by doing it. As in so many cases of professional development, you can't do it until you know-how, and you can't know how until you do it. Thus, planners just have to dive in at every opportunity. Observing and working with a skilled facilitator will allow you to learn key techniques. It took me years of facilitating many dozens of meetings before I became truly confident that I could handle any kind of meeting, regardless of the difficulty or complexity.
Top image: An asset mapping exercise held as part of a public meeting in Evanston, Illinois. Detail of cover of PAS Report 595. Photo by Mike Callahan.
About the Author
Milton Herd, FAICP
Milton Herd, the author of A Planner's Guide to Meeting Facilitation,
is an award-winning urban planner, consultant, and facilitator who specializes in collaborative planning processes for comprehensive plans, strategic plans, and zoning ordinances, mostly for local governments.