Building Consensus: A Case for Face-to-Face Planning

Posted on October 8, 2012 by

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Online Communication

The term facilitation is often equated with the business world. It refers to the manner in which one handles group meetings aimed at problem solving, consensus building, or even sharing ideas and knowledge. However, facilitation occurs in our everyday lives from planning an event, learning, and solving disputes. The facilitator, or meeting leader, is the impartial person who helps the group arrive at their objective by directing traffic within the discussion. If you have ever served as the mediator between two friends, gathered a group of loved ones to plan an anniversary party, or taught a class, you have acted as a facilitator. A great deal of our daily communication occurs online, through e-mail, social media messages, or texts. Yet, how efficient are these technology-based mediums for reaching a decision and encouraging participation from all group members?

If, for example, you decide that your best friend should ring in her 30th birthday with a surprise party and you want to organize a meeting with several individuals to decide on the details, your first inclination may be to send a group Facebook message. Participants reply with venue suggestions, theme ideas, and dates. As the organizer, you remain impartial and attempt to encourage the group to wade through the suggestions and reach key decisions. Some individuals are more vocal and active in the discussion than others. As the group begins to set concrete plans, a few key decision makers become lax in their replies. The friend’s mother who offered to pay for food and drinks has suddenly dropped out of the conversation.

Some friends take the mother’s lack of participation as a slight and this causes discord. Yet, you know that she may not be familiar with Facebook and doesn’t sign in often. You call her and find that this is the case and the two of you go over plans via phone. You are then stuck directing the group’s conversation and relaying the mother’s messages. Information is misconstrued, there is confusion over plans, and you are fielding all of the questions and concerns. This scenario sounds inefficient. Would an hour face-to-face meeting with an agenda have worked better? In most cases, the answer is yes.

In a paper for the International Association of Conference Centers, professor Richard Arvey stated, “Group processes and outcomes that require coordination, consensus, timing, persuasion of others, etc. are less effectively accomplished using computer mediated communication modalities.” He argues that when the communication is mostly about providing information, in this case if the party was planned and you were disseminating the place and time, technology-based mediums would be appropriate. However, because the situation requires quick responses, a consensus must be reached, and individuals roles and tasks need to be assigned, a face-to-face meeting is preferrable and more efficient.

Face-to-face meetings allow participants to engage in verbal and nonverbal communication. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are important for clearly interpreting messages. The meetings also occur in real time. Feedback is immediate, technical delays are eliminated, misunderstandings can be rectified on the spot, and decisions can be made quickly. By having human contact, the members of the party planning group will actually enjoy the process and feed off one another’s energy.

As the facilitator of a face-to-face interaction, you are able to keep participants on task and redirect them to the agenda should disputes arise. Each member has the opportunity to engage in the conversation and contribute. The group can work together to assign specific tasks and create reasonable deadlines. Offline, in-person conversations hold everyone accountable. Those not familiar with online forms of communication or individuals overwhelmed by the volume of messages, will be more likely to become involved in the conversation. The facilitator can intervene or allow the group to come to a conclusion if dominant personalities arise.

Many individuals will ask, what about those that cannot attend the meeting? Research indicates that a blend of communication styles is also more effective than solely communicating online. Including certain participants through Skype or another video conferencing system will still allow them to be present and makes faciliation easier. Face-to-face meetings allow for richer communication and enhanced productivity.

Have you ever acted as a facilitator through technology-based communication or face-to-face meetings? Which method did you find more useful?

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