Without client – no facilitation?

What if contracting with the client was the single most important intervention in the facilitation process? Over the years we have been facilitating hundreds of groups. We have noticed the enormous benefit of having a client to collaborate with before, during and after a workshop. Where there is no client existing or present, facilitating becomes much more difficult. For facilitation to work at its best, there three key roles. The facilitator, a group and a client. The client being the role where the outcome ownership and accountability lies. 

So what is at stake if there is no client to collaborate with? Or a client with very little engagement before, after and during the sessions? There are examples of sessions without a client presence. For example focus groups or workshops where people are invited to share opinions on a subject. Or, workshops where a group get together to inspire each other and grow. 

There are occasions where there is weak client engagement. For example, when a leadership team decides that the whole department with many teams should go through facilitated sessions on a common topic without any of the leaders participating in the room. This being very like sending people to a training session.

From our experience, the facilitated sessions themselves can be awesome. Participatory, dynamic discussions, creative with an plenty of innovative thinking. The difficulties usually come at the end of the session, when agreeing actions and next steps. The “Who will do what, how and when?”. And the answer in the room is then usually: “We don’t know, really…” 

What sometimes happens is that the facilitator steps into the shoes of the absent client. They start to describe next steps and time-plan. Even sometimes committing to the group how he or she will take the outcomes from the session further. All with a positive intent of helping the group, but in a danger zone when it comes to taking over the role of the client. So, if the client is not present in the room during the session, at least he or she needs to come back at the end. This can take place in many different ways. F2F or virtual, live or recorded, the important thing is that it happens. 

Below, we have summarised some of our best tips for creating collaborative client relationships. Including what you can do as a facilitator.

The client meeting – where magic must happen!

One of the IAF Core Competencies is to create collaborative client relationships. It starts with the contracting meeting. This is the meeting that takes place after you have signed the business contract with your client. We should not confuse the two. In this meeting you and the client discuss the outcomes, deliverables and the process. This is also the meeting where you start to build trust. Where the facilitator understands the context the client operates in. Where a determination of the key stake holders takes place. And where both client and facilitator analyse enabling and restraining forces for change

In this meeting, you are not a facilitator! You are establishing a working partnership with the client. Where, later on, you will be the facilitator and the client will be – the client. But in this meeting, your role is best described as being a consultant. You are there to help. You do that by providing your professional knowledge and expertise in reaching outcomes. By designing a process that delivers. But that doesn’t mean you start by imposing a process or methods on the client without hearing them out. Understanding their needs is key. When you know enough about context and expected outcomes, then it’s time to use your professional expertise and suggest a process. And most likely you will have to go back home and think a bit about it before you suggest what to do in upcoming sessions.

Playlist for the client contracting meeting

All clients are different, and thus all contracting meetings are different as well. But our contribution to a dialogue guide to use in a contracting meeting might look something like this:

1. Context: Tell me about the context you and the team work in? What are the most important deliverables from this team in their current work? Key stake holders? Why do you need facilitation support – how does this intervention fit in?

2. Outcomes: What do you want to achieve in the upcoming session(s)? To be even more specific, how would you define the outcomes? By the end of this session, the team will have (for example) discussed, defined, created or decided… what?

3. Participants: Who will take part in the session(s)? How many? Roles? Why these people? What have worked well in this group before? What are they challenged by?

4. Process: What decision-making dynamics or process do you have in mind? What mandate does the group have? Methods you have positive experience from?

5. Roles and responsibilities: How do you and I split up what we do? What do you expect from me? And this is what I need you to do!

6. Practical questions: What pre-work is needed/possible to do? What does the room look like? Or if virtual, what platform to use? What kind of documentation from the session(s) do you need/want? Who will do what, how and when?

7. Post session work: What happens after the session(s)? What commitments do you expect at the end of the session? When do you and I meet to discuss outcomes and learnings?

What communicative skills do I need in the contracting meeting?

Your most important skills in the contracting meeting is the ability to listen actively and to ask high quality questions. To use “pulling” skills; build rapport, listen, reflect back, ask questions, paraphrase, reflect feelings you notice. It’s also important to dare to challenge your client. To reflect back discrepancies or ask about things you find challenging or provoking. And to use “pushing skills” such as suggesting and proving, or sometimes even being assertive. 

Assertiveness means that you state your expectations. It means for example saying simple things like “I need you to open the meeting”. Or, “I expect you to role-model good meeting behaviour by being on time and letting everybody speak”. It’s important that you state what you expect in this meeting, as well as listening to the clients expectations. Unclear communication, roles and responsibilities between the two of you will have a damaging effect. 

Can I bail out?

You aim for a high degree of transparency and trust in the client meeting. But what if you find out things that don’t match your ethics or code of conduct as professional facilitator? For example, if the client shares with you that they have already made a decision on what actions to take. That all they need you in the room for is to make people feel that they have been heard. 

On a positive note, it’s better to find out about things like this before rather than during the facilitated session. In the contracting meeting, you can explore and find out more, you can use probing questions and you can reflect back what you hear the client saying. Many things can be discussed and you come to a common understanding with your client. And sometimes, there are things that you can’t compromise on. And often the best solution is usually then to not go ahead with the facilitation session.

Is the client the client, or is the group the client?

The answer is: Both! Your client is the person or small group you have the contracting meeting with. Your client is also the group you meet later in the facilitated session. Some of the group members might have been involved in the contracting meeting. For others, it’s the first time they will have met you. So we need to have a process for contracting with the group that we are going to facilitate, as well.

We always ask the client we have had the contracting meeting with to open the facilitation session. Always. That’s how the whole dynamic of how facilitation works. There is a client who has invited you, the facilitator, to help the group with something. The client needs to express, with his/her own words, why this session is important. What the outcomes are and why these specific people are in the room right now. And then the client introduces you, the facilitator. Then you can start the contracting process with the team. 

We usually start by introducing ourselves, reminding again about the outcomes. Then inviting all participants to introduce themselves. In most sessions, we would do the introductions by asking them for their name, role, something others here don’t know about them. We are also curious about how they hope to contribute to the outcomes and what is most important for them to achieve in the session(s) ahead. In larger groups, we tend to ask fewer questions for small teams to explore. Followed by a quick sharing from each team.

And then over to the contracting itself: How can we create the best possible environment for this workshop? What behaviours do we expect to see from each other? We usually do this in smaller teams, we give the teams around 10 minutes. We ask the group to come up with as many suggestions as they want. The important point is of course that they are willing to stick to what they suggest themselves! Together the team builds the contract, and the facilitator checks so that everyone is OK with it. Very seldom is there disagreement between group members. If there is, it’s usually around telephone rules…

The difference between the contract you make in the initial client meeting, and the contract you make with the group, is that in the first meeting, you contract and focus on outcomes. In the contracting with the group you are going to facilitate, you contract around ways of acting and working in session(s). If the team doesn’t agree with the outcomes, they are in the wrong room. Or, your client has not done their homework properly. We almost always ask the client to share the expected outcomes with the group before the facilitated session. Then make adjustments with the team well ahead of when we meet them. 

How do I get the client to meet with me after the session?

That’s easy. You schedule the follow-up meeting in your contracting meeting. Many facilitators complain about clients not wanting to follow-up. We find this is a bit strange. Why would you not want to check the outcomes, and discuss with a professional partner on how to proceed? In our view, it’s very much about how you position this meeting. If it is a part of the process you suggest; before, during and after facilitation session(s), then it’s very rarely skipped. But, if you call the client two weeks after the session and say: “What about a follow-up meeting?” it comes across as a bit out of the blue and usually neglected. Our advice is: Plan for the process you want to work with – before, during and after facilitated sessions!