Guiding Conference Sessions

Of course a prime task of the facilitator is to guide the discussion after all presentations are made. This means that attention must be paid to whether one person is talking too much or too often, whether a group of people of a particular gender/age/race are dominating the conversation at the exclusion of others, and whether questions and comments are being directed at only one or two or the session participants.

For example, if questions and comments are coming from men only, maybe five or six in a row, it might be possible to inquire of the group: “I notice only men have spoken thus far; is it possible that women have points of view on this as well? Is there a reason for the silence?” The same could be said if only a certain ethnic or age group has dominated the conversation.

If no questions or comments are directed at one or two of the presenters, the facilitator may offer a question to promote discussion. The facilitator might call attention to the topic of these presenters and ask if anyone has questions or comments regarding them.

It is a honed skill indeed but each facilitator should seek to foster a tenor during the discussion where all feel free to speak, where no one feels threatened by the comments of another. If someone “attacks” another, the facilitator should intervene but in an non-invasive way so that the “feel” of the session is maintained.

Staying On Theme

The facilitator should draw conversations that go off in tangents back to the issues at hand, while allowing leeway for creativity. Sessions do seem to have their own “vibes” and an effort should be made to maintain the energy “vibes” to the extent possible. If there are tangential items that some participants express a continuing interest in, a “parking lot” of such items can be created that interested individuals can go back to at the Breakout Session later in the day.

Stating And Restating Questions

Facilitators should remind those present at the session to speak loud enough for all in the room to hear their questions or comments. If the facilitator senses that the commentator has not spoken loud enough, she or he should restate the question or comment for the entire group.

Sometimes the facilitator might achieve clarification and avoid participants going off to tangential directions by restating the question or asking a session participant to restate her or his question for the group or simply ask whether this is what is meant, and then restating the question.

Summarize

At certain points it might be worthwhile for the facilitator to summarize a specific issue for a moment and ask the group and the presenters whether that is their understanding. Always the focus should be on issues never on personalities. If there is a “sticking point” the facilitator should suggest a way to move forward, perhaps add a particular item to the parking lot.

Ending The Session And Evaluation

The facilitator should be aware of how much time is left in the session so that sufficient time is left for wrapping things up. The facilitator should avoid having the session end in a cliff-hanger or stop the session with an abrupt “Time’s up.” It might even be possible for the facilitator to issue a summarizing statement as well as offer an informal evaluation of the session.

The facilitator should encourage those who have unanswered questions or who wish to delve deeper into the issues of the session to meet with the presenters at a later time, at lunch or a hospitality session.

Finally, the facilitator should encourage presenters and those who come to the session table, courteously of course, to continue their conversations in the lobby or foyer of the hotel or conference setting. This will make it possible for subsequent sessions to begin on time.