Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

He walked in late, looked around, and took a seat.

I didn’t recognize him, but the late-comer seemed quite at home. I continued facilitating the group, but wondered why the stranger wasn’t participating. Finally I sent a question his way. “What do you think?”

“I really don’t know what you all are talking about,” he replied, “but I like the way you consider what others might have to say.”

We quickly determined that the latecomer was in the wrong place. The group he was looking for was meeting down the hall. Their topic was not remotely connected to what we were discussing. When I jokingly invited the stranger to stick around he jumped at my invitation. The party crasher brought smiles to our faces and fresh perspectives to our discussions. His observation – “I like the way you consider what others might have to say” – underscored my role as the group’s facilitator.

Most businesses schedule retreats, staff meetings, team-building exercises or brainstorming sessions to take a close look at themselves. The sessions are great ways for employees and employers to share thinking, challenge the status quo and explore new strategies.

Mutual respect and understanding is strengthened through candid discussions covering everything from leadership and building brands to leveraging customer loyalty and generating new business.

Often an outside facilitator is brought in to keep everyone engaged, focused and on track. Basically, the facilitator’s task is to ensure that everyone has ample opportunity to express his or her views. That entails everything from keeping conversations flowing, sharing current industry information germane to discussions, providing accurate minutes and summarizing conclusions for follow-up actions.

I’ve been involved in numerous retreats and team-building sessions, sometimes as a participant, sometimes as a facilitator. Agendas and formats vary, but most session organizers have to deal with these considerations:

  • Some people are ready to participate. Some are just there for the coffee and donuts.
  • Kicking off meetings with ill-conceived “ice breakers” will have people squirming in their seats or looking for an exit. It’s important to have fun in a professional setting but respect boundaries. No one should be made uncomfortable or be singled out for unwanted attention.
  • Productive sessions are predicated on clear agendas. Without guidance as to why the session is being held, participants may stray far afield. Instead of focusing on business, they may end up speculating that John Elway may throw a Hail Mary by bringing Tom Brady to Denver.
  • As meetings progress, big plans and lofty goals are advanced. Excitement is stirred. There are expectations that changes will be coming down the pike. That doesn’t always happen. Without discussion about follow-up and delegation of responsibilities, participants may be left wondering if anyone was really listening.

To address these considerations, many businesses bring in an outsider. They rely on a facilitator to draw out those hesitant to speak out, to amplify points that need further consideration, to maintain pace and focus, to gently re-direct when diversions intercede, to ensure the session is time well-spent and to assure that everyone hears what others have to say.

The misplaced man who wandered into the meeting I was facilitating was a welcome addition to the group. He was a breath of fresh air and a fountain of new perspectives. He didn’t know what we were talking about, but he liked the way we were considering what others have to say.

At all the retreats, business meetings, and team-building exercises I’ve attended since, I always keep an eye on the door.

I’m secretly hoping that another misplaced stranger will crash our party.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
Visit www.comm-concepts.com or call 303-651-6612.

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