3.3 Facilitating without Words
THE FAST FACILITATOR Facilitating without Words 139
As a facilitator, you must be sensitive to what people
are not saying, understand the power of silence, and
pick up on the nonverbal signals that people give
off. This is what facilitating without words is
all about. Mastery of this important set of skills
can add immeasurably to your effectiveness
and presence.
Body Signals
Let’s say you are working as a facilitator in a meeting
and you need to help the team come to a decision.
By reading body signals, you can see who is sitting
back, who is banging the table, and who is sitting
on the fence. These everyday terms have a physical
expression. People who are sitting back will often be
leaning back in their chairs with their arms folded,
or sitting on their hands. Fence sitters will often be
fidgeting in their chairs as they are persuaded first
by one argument and then by the other—they look
as uncomfortable as they are.
By noticing these signals, you gain insight into
the unspoken attitudes of the team and team
members, and can use this information to intervene
and break the pattern. (“I see you’re sitting back,
John; I wonder if you have views that you haven’t
shared yet.”) This sort of intervention can bring
people into the meeting who might be important to
the decision-making process; by focusing on their
physical characteristics, you are highlighting where
their energy might be stuck.
Another signal that you will undoubtedly pick
up on as a facilitator is the tendency of some people
to direct questions or comments to you during a
debate or discussion. Imagine, however, that you are
trying to empower the team, rather than leading it
authoritatively. How can you respond to these
unspoken requests for leadership? The trick here is
to notice the gaze of the person as they leave their
question or demand hanging in the air and “pass it
on” by deliberately looking to the person next to
you as if they might have an answer. By passing on
the look, you are communicating nonverbally to the
team that you are not always going to provide
answers to their questions—that this is an area
where they are able to take responsibility for their
own solutions.
Attentive Silence, and What Isn’t Being Said
Another important aspect of facilitating with-
out words is to be comfortable with silence (see
Activity 58).
In today’s world, work and silence seem like
polar opposites. After all, there is so much
communication at work—so many phones, so many
meetings, so much busyness. Perhaps it is because of
this frenetic activity that attentive silence has so
much power. It slows down the usual pace of the
task, and helps people see what is getting in the way
of the objective.
Whether you are working with a team or group
or on a one-to-one basis, you need to be able to sit
with silence. This doesn’t mean closing your eyes
and drifting away. On the contrary, it is about
watching and observing and waiting with expectant
Silence will quietly but effectively put the
pressure on people to say what is going on in the
here and now. Your ability to wait for them to say
what is happening encourages them to say what
often remains unsaid.
Within every team or group, there are things
that aren’t spoken about. Take the example of
gender differences: although this might be a real
issue of concern in some teams and groups, unless
140 THE FAST FACILITATOR Facilitating without Words
it is brought up as a specific topic within, say, an
equal-opportunities context, it is typically not
discussed openly. Yet you can bet that within any
mixed-sex team, there will be unspoken thoughts
and feelings about who gets on best with whom,
and why.
Sometimes you will need to challenge the un-
spoken culture of the team (see Activity 57). Be sure
you do not punish people for what they don’t say;
instead, encourage people to reflect on how the
team is working together. You can probably expect
a stormy or passionate debate, so beware: people
stay quiet for good reasons. But if you are looking
to serve the team, it can be helpful to focus on
what is not said. In my experience, once these
issues are out in the open, they lose much of their
dramatic charge.

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