Facilitating Better Critical and Strategic Thinking

Facilitators are responsible for many things in an effective meeting: organizing productive work processes, making sure everyone is heard and keeping people on track and on time. After a recent spate of facilitation assignments of different types, I realized at my best I am also coaching people to be better critical and strategic thinkers.

By guiding people to analyze their world through multiple frameworks or lenses, I coach them to consider issues and options they might miss in their rush to share familiar ideas and opinions. The frameworks remind them to develop a systems understanding of what is happening. If they cannot immediately see the possibilities, I share an analogy from another industry or profession that faced a similar issue.

When they get stuck, I open up a more strategic conversation with a provocative question. As I am often the visitor to their world view and experiences, I can ask naïve questions that make it safer for people to challenge their assumptions.

The conversations can be fast-moving and people have different capacities to synthesize what they are learning. Since I am always mapping the learning in my own mind, at key intervals I summarize the emerging themes. This gives people an opportunity to revise and affirm what the group is learning and what it could mean.

To coach people to be better critical thinkers, you have to make sure they examine multiple possibilities. Sometimes this is making them aware of the full range of stakeholders. Sometimes it requires helping them see interconnections and complexity. Quite often it is countering with other plausible interpretations for what they are seeing.

To coach people to be better strategic thinkers, you have to sharpen their awareness of opportunity. When people gather to talk about something they care deeply about, strategic opportunities always surface. If the group doesn’t pounce on a promising idea immediately, I find all I have to do is ask if this is a strategic opportunity to get people to take a serious look. Ultimately any group has to decide which strategic opportunities make the most sense. My job is to make sure none of their good insights slip away before they can make this choice.

Facilitating is the most fully present work I do; it’s exhilarating and exhausting. To use a good sports quip, every time I aim to leave everything on the floor. In facilitation, that everything is profound learning, deep analysis and wise decision making.