The Power of Silence: How to enhance your facilitation skills

Posted 21 Mar 2018 | Blog | How To

One of the things I love about Pilotlight is that, at its core, it’s an organisation about people and learning. Before I became a Project Manager here, I was working at a London-based education charity delivering programmes to young people between the ages of 7 and 19. I didn’t know very much about business strategy and hadn’t worked with adults before, so joining Pilotlight was a big learning curve for me. That was 8 years ago. However, I now find myself in a similar position. I’ve come back after 9 months maternity leave to an organisation that has seen a lot of change in the last year. My job at Pilotlight is a big part of my identity so taking time off to have my first child was a big decision. Once again, I’ve been spending my time with children, raising my son. I was ready to come back, but nervous: would I have forgotten everything?

I was delighted then that I’d been signed up for facilitation training in the first few weeks I’d returned to work. I’ve participated in a few facilitation courses over my career and I’ve run training in-house several times. I love learning and it was a great way to get to know some new members of my team. I was a bit daunted when in one of the exercises I was put on the spot to facilitate a ‘mock’ meeting around some rather delicate issues. I was also given live feedback from peers and colleagues which was both terrifying and comforting in equal measure. Reassuringly, in the end, it was more of a refresher for me rather than learning anything new (it was good to know I hadn’t totally forgotten everything while I’d been off!). I did pick up a few very handy tips that I want to share, as they may help your own facilitation practice:

  • Don’t immediately become a rescuer

We were taken through the drama triangle (where participants in a discussion may become the ‘rescuer’, the ‘victim’ or the ‘persecutor’ depending on the discussion). The tip I was reminded of was, as the facilitator, your job isn’t to jump in and rescue someone from a difficult conversation. As a Project Manager at Pilotlight you facilitate a lot of delicate conversations, as our Pilotlighters (our skilled-volunteers who coach the charity) may challenge the status quo of an organisation they’re coaching. In the same way, a charity CEO may feel that they need to drive a point home. In either situation, as a facilitator it’s important to let the discussion run and serve all sides of the conversation –as soon as you jump in as ‘rescuer’, one party becomes the ‘victim’ and the other the ‘persecutor’. This can lead to further drama and an escalation in tension. 

  • Try ‘Yes and’ rather than Yes but’

Another good tip I was given was, if you need to move the conversation on, use the words ‘yes and’ instead of ‘yes but’. Using ‘Yes but’ (which I must admit is something I use quite a bit) can sometimes make the person who may be labouring a point that you want to move on from feel that you’re trying to shut them down, rather than building on their point and evolving the discussion. If participants at a meeting feel that they aren’t being listened to, they’ll switch off or come back to their point with a fuller force later. The key here is to build on debate and evolve viewpoints. The Pilotlight Programme uses collaborative coaching (where there are four Pilotlighters working with one charity leader), so it’s important to keep discussion focussed and make sure all the expertise in the room is going to good use. This is a tip I’ll definitely be using in future project meetings.

  • Silence really is golden

My biggest take away from the training however, was around the active listening exercises we did and the work on our own presence in the room. To be a successful Project Manager at Pilotlight you have to create a safe space where the charity leaders we work with can be challenged. Charities often come to us explicitly because they want to have those sensitive discussions that having an external eye on their operations can solicit. Being an active listener, keeping receptive to any underlying tensions in the room and holding the silence can be very powerful. As the facilitator in a meeting you can have a greater impact by being quieter and slowing down your speech. Leave silences. Even if it feels excruciating to you. Let someone else fill them. If you do this, you’ll also not fall into the trap of being a ‘rescuer’, and it may help move on the conversation naturally rather than even having to say ‘yes and’.

I’m excited to put my sharpened skills into practice over the coming weeks. It’s so great to be back at Pilotlight and I’ve been very inspired by how far the organisation has come in the year I’ve been off. I’m also looking forward to nurturing the facilitation talents of my team so everyone feels like they’re getting the most out of their work.

If you lead a charity that could benefit from participating in our Pilotlight Programme join us now.