Meetings are great opportunities to innovate, solve problems and make decisions with the collective intelligence of a group. On the other hand, meetings are also a frequent source of frustration and many people simply prefer to avoid meetings to protect their productive working hours.
This is where facilitation comes into the picture – the art of making meetings participative and effective.
So, what is it exactly, and what skills does it take to become an effective facilitator?
Let’s dive in:
If you look up the dictionary definition of facilitation, you will get the following result (from the Cambridge Dictionary): “the act of helping other people to deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved in the process, discussion, etc. yourself”.
If you research it a bit more, you will see that keywords are centered around leading processes and creating participation while staying neutral. Thus, we can distill our definition further into:
“Facilitation is the art of leading people through processes towards agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership and creativity by all those involved”
From this point, it would be an easy shortcut to say that the facilitator is the person doing facilitation. And to expand upon it, according to Google’s definition, a facilitator is a “person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier”.
These definitions bring us closer to understanding what a facilitator does and what facilitation is, but let’s dig in more into what the actual role of a facilitator is.
A facilitator has a wide range of tasks to perform in order to ‘make things easier’ for people who participate in a facilitated discussion:
- Support individuals within a group in understanding their common objectives.
- Help people collectively move through a process.
- Structure conversations and apply appropriate group facilitation techniques to keep discussions effective.
- Foster participation and get people to come up with ideas, thoughts and perspectives that add value.
- Get all individuals in the room to feel like they are in a group with a shared interest.
If we really want to understand the different angles of the facilitator’s role, then the following similes may help. A facilitator can be perceived as:
- A ‘catalyst’ for discussion: She makes possible the transformation of input (ideas, opinions) to desired outcome (refined ideas, decisions, strategies, etc.) without being an active part of the conversation herself.
- A ‘conductor’ of an orchestra: She synchronises all the musicians (group participants), optimally guiding the use of their instruments toward the desired result – a harmonic musical expression of the musicians’ complex interactions, creativity, and expertise. As the “conductor” guides the participants, a system is organically created wherein the facilitator helps every individual comply with the agreed-upon rules and norms to be followed. In this way, her efforts enable each person in the “orchestra” to create something greater than themselves.
- A ‘coach’: she helps the group form a constructive way of working together, identify its needs and wishes, and reach the outcome they would jointly like to achieve.
Ideally, a facilitator should maintain a position of joining the discussion as a neutral party. She simply “makes the conversation happen”, or facilitates, as the name suggests.
Naturally, the facilitator needs to influence the group to help them stay on track, but must avoid dictating to it. It is essential that the group feels they have ownership of the outcomes they reach – that they have been guided to find their own solutions, without being told or offered solutions.
There are several reasons why the presence of a facilitator can be important for a meeting:
- Firstly, the larger a meeting is, the more effort it takes to control and manage. When you sit down with two colleagues to quickly discuss a technical question, you probably don’t need much organisation and planning. But when you have a workshop that takes 2 days with 15 people, it requires infinitely more attention to manage both the preparation and the process.
- Having a neutral, external facilitator allows everyone else in the room to get fully involved in the conversation. Let’s take an annual strategic planning meeting as an example, where the manager of the team is present. She has her own ideas about what a good strategy might be for the company; however, so do all the other people in the room! A facilitator naturally has an authority over the process of the meeting; if the manager is also facilitating the process, it is easy to mix up their roles as a content contributor and process authority, leading to potential difficulties or tension during discussions. Or to put it differently, as a manager and knowledgeable expert in a group, would you rather want to spend your attention on facilitating the process or contributing to it to come up with a good company strategy? This is why it is useful to have one person fully dedicated to focusing on how the group members are working together, helping them achieve their goals effectively without introducing bias.
- The higher the stakes of a meeting, the more important it is to have someone who is a professional at running meetings. Having to repeat a multi-stakeholder meeting because of an unproductive first attempt is both expensive and a big loss of credit to the sponsor of the meeting.
A workshop facilitator is a person who essentially sets all the right coordinates for a meeting or workshop to take place and produce results. The process may vary depending on the situation, but most often, a facilitator has the following responsibilities:
- Design and plan: The cornerstone of facilitation is understanding what the objectives of the session are so you can work towards achieving them. Once you know the objectives, it is time to design the right group process and select the proper facilitation techniques that will help you achieve the outcomes. Having a sound agenda will help you stay confident and make adjustments as needed during the event.
- Run the process and facilitate the meeting: When the session starts, it is time to guide the group through the designed process, encourage participation and help the group achieve its goals. Here are some of the most important elements of what a facilitator specifically does during a session:
- Set the context and ground rules: This is about making sure that everyone is on the same page concerning goals and the agenda of the session and ensuring everyone is aware of, and agrees upon, the rules of the meeting (Rules are created about respecting others’ opinions, how questions will be answered, etc.).
- Encourage participation: Create an environment where all participant feels encouraged to share their opinions. This may involve breaking the ice, helping people warm up to the meeting and acknowledging contributions of participants to the conversations.
- Facilitate discussions: Staying neutral, you will help kick-off and round up conversations, highlighting points of consensus and summarising key takeaways. Intervene when necessary and help the group clarify outcomes.
- Hold the time and space: While guiding the group through the different steps of the process, maintain a focused and participative atmosphere. Take care of timing and keep the environment supportive to ensure productive discussions.
- Keep an eye on the efficiency of the group work and adjust the process if necessary: Your main focus is to keep up a good momentum of the group’s work and ensure that all participants contribute to finding solutions during the session.. If you notice that cooperation falters or the process is stuck, it is your responsibility to find the right techniques to adjust the plan and help get the group back on track.
- Record results: Agreements made, points of consensus, decisions and action items – these all need to be recorded and preferably kept visible for all participants during the event.
Earlier, we learnt that the essence of facilitation is to make an action or process easy or easier. This definition allows for quite a wide application: you can facilitate a meeting to help your group achieve goals, but you can also facilitate a training session to help a group learn new skills.
In fact, the terms trainer and facilitator are often used interchangeably despite some major differences between the two roles.
Traditionally, the focus of training is on learning. Therefore the primary job of a trainer is to teach new concepts and skills and to pass on knowledge to the training participants.
In contrast, the focus of facilitation is on thinking. Therefore the primary job of a facilitator is to help the group achieve its goals by guiding them through an efficient and productive process.
Traditionally, the world of ‘training’ is much more associated with presenting information than the world of ‘facilitation,’ which is associated with interactivity. But what if a training session is done very interactively? (An efficient training program should actually be designed to have a balanced interaction). Then you might be well-founded in using the term ‘facilitating a training,’ bridging the worlds of training and facilitation.
Yet, even in such cases, there are some fundamental differences between process facilitation and training facilitation, as highlighted by Barbara MacKay
- Learning vs. Thinking: Training is about passing on learning, and process facilitation is about helping the thinking in a group
- Hierarchical vs. Collaborative: Training is a hierarchical model where the trainer is the teacher and the learner is the student who is supposed to know less than the trainer. Facilitation, on the other hand, is based on collaboration.
- Applying vs. Communicating: The trainer is supposed to help the group apply the content he or she has given them. In facilitation, it is not the role of the facilitator to reinforce concepts but to give space for communication within the group.
- Linear vs. Flexible: From a design perspective, training occurs more often in a linear form the trainer’s outline, while facilitation often has a more flexible agenda, as you cannot exactly predict what is going to happen within the group.
- Longer-term versus Immediate results: A trainer is often focused on achieving a longer-term outcome, while as a process facilitator, you’re looking for short-term insights and, often, immediate results.
Since training is about teaching new skills and concepts, and facilitation is about helping the group in thinking, trainers and facilitators need to have different, if overlapping, skill sets.
As a trainer, you need to put more emphasis on learning design skills and possess more knowledge about adult learning principles. Also, even in an interactive, well-facilitated training session, you will spend a significant proportion of time presenting concepts, as you need to provide certain theories and information to deliver the core content of your training.
Alternately, as a facilitator, you would put the emphasis on process design and group interaction techniques in order to come up with a sound process. You need expertise in verbal and non-verbal facilitation skills in order to keep the group thinking and on the right track.
Still, the two worlds do overlap when it comes to speaking in front of a group and managing group conversations. The ability to communicate clearly, both verbally and non-verbally, is extremely relevant to both trainers and facilitators alike.
No one is born an expert facilitator. It is important to work on certain skills that will help you become an effective facilitator.
We have collected below the most important skills that a facilitator needs, divided into two parts of the facilitation process:
- Designing the group process
- Guiding the group through the process and adjusting the process as needed
Let’s review which skills are required for a facilitator to perform effectively in each step of the process:
- Asking the right questions
- Process design
- Agenda planning
- Communication with stakeholders
- Organising and project management
- Create an inclusive environment
- Communicate clear guidelines and instructions
- Group dynamics (and group management)
- Active listening
- Verbal skills to facilitate conversations
- Conflict management
- Manage timing
- Gauge the energy level of a room
- Staying neutral
- Recording outcomes
The general rule of thumb says that preparing a group process / group facilitation usually takes twice as much as the actual net meeting time where the facilitation takes place. So, for a one-day group process, one would need at least 2 days of preparations, although more days may be needed to deal with complex requirements, such as a controversial topic with multiple stakeholders or a large group workshop where parallel work and a whole team of facilitators are required.
Now let’s see what specific skills you will need for the process design:
Any meeting or workshop needs to have a clearly defined goal, and as a facilitator, you need to be clear about the objectives. Ask questions to understand the underlying motivation behind a meeting, and develop a consensus with the client about their goals.
You might go further during needs assessment to understand what the different stakeholders of an event might want in order to come up with a solution that meets your client’s needs.
When you know the outcomes you want to achieve, it is time to find the right process for that. But what does it mean to “find the right process’?
- As a facilitator, you are helping the group think. So, finding the right process is about finding the structure that will help the group to think effectively. This may be an open discussion, or a structured one, where you as the facilitator use different techniques to help the group to exchange viewpoints, analyse issues, generate ideas and make decisions.
- A common structure for facilitated discussions is to apply Divergent and Convergent Thinking: First, you help the group broaden their horizons and generate new ideas or solutions. Then you help them narrow down the set of options they have created to make a final decision.
- Finding the right process should be done from the viewpoint that participants must be kept engaged throughout the event..
- Often times you will elect to use specific facilitation techniques to keep your session interactive and keep participation high.
- Keep in mind the desired outcomes so you can design a suitable process.
- If you (and the group) have multiple desired outcomes, make sure that you have a clear process to reach each of them.
Congratulations, you have a process! Next, you need to make sure that your process is works with the reality of time constraints, logistics, group dynamics and the natural attention levels of flesh and blood people sitting in your workshop room.
There are several factors to consider when planning a workshop agenda:
- Time constraints: A session has a start time and an end time, and participants usually expect you to respect the end time.
- Breaks: If you session spans longer than 90-120 minutes, you should likely include some breaks in your session, for instance, coffee breaks or a lunch break.
- The number of participants: Group discussions have a natural limit. Above a certain group size, it gets difficult to have a discussion where everyone is involved. If your group is bigger than a certain size (this will vary by type of exercise or discussion), you will probably need to split your participants into multiple groups and run some exercises and discussions in parallel. Naturally, this takes an increased amount of time. If you have bigger groups, consider clarifying:
- If you want breakout sessions to run parallel tracks in your session
- How different sub-groups will report back to the whole group
- Break the ice: Are participants familiar with each other or not? This, and the nature of your sessions, determines how much effort will be needed to break the ice and allow people to get to know each other.
- Interaction mix: There are different types of interaction, ranging from one-to-many forms of presentations to individual work, small group and large group discussions. A healthy balance of different interaction types throughout your session will help participants to stay engaged.
- How will the room and environment support active participation? Plan proper room and seating arrangements and remove barriers in the room.
- How will one topic of the meeting flow into another one?
- Closing and wrapping-up: How should the sessions be properly ended?
In most cases, it is necessary to inform the client about the process that you are planning, and, in general, to maintain steady communication to make sure that all preparations go smoothly.
Most of the time your client will have a natural interest in knowing the process and agenda for your meeting. They will have a number of people attending the workshop – meetings and workshop can be particularly expensive if you consider the time value of the people present – and they want to be assured that the group will be in good hands. Therefore, it is important to keep your clients updated throughout the design process for their peace of mind. This also offers a chance to get further insights about the goals and the group, helping you to come up with the right session design.
Getting the room properly set up for a meeting is important. Have catering arranged so food and drinks are available during breaks, and have the right workshop equipment at hand. There are a myriad of minor tasks and to-dos on the logistic side of preparing a workshop. In some cases, you may get a helping hand from the client’s side, and someone will help you to have everything arranged as you have designed and requested. In other cases, you might need to do this alone step-by-step, checking that everything is going fine with the logistics and pulling the right strings when something is needed.
After proper preparation, the most exciting part of a facilitator’s work is actually running and managing the session and guiding people through the process. Let’s see what skills effective facilitators need here:
Participation from all group members is essential for a well-facilitated meeting. One of the most important things you can do as a facilitator is to create an atmosphere that encourages participation. This comes partially from your session design: include ice-breaker and get-to-know games to help people open up and start speaking. The other part is ensuring that the room’s setting supports active contribution from people. Meaning, make sure everyone can see each other and remove barriers from the room.
While you designed the agenda for your session, you probably clearly envisioned how group members will act during the activities you planned. Now that you are in the room with the group, you also need to clearly explain what you are asking from them. Here are a few practical tips to help:
- Explain why certain activities are useful.
- Clearly and sequentially explain the steps participants will take.
- Be clear about time constraints.
- If possible, show an example of the type of output you ask them to create.
- Show instructions so they can refer to them as necessary. (For example, pre-write instructions on a flipchart paper or on a powerpoint slide.)
Each group has its own dynamics with the specific and sophisticated interrelations between its members. As a facilitator, you want to create a participative atmosphere where everyone is involved. Paying attention to the dynamics of the group and how individuals participate is important. You will need practice to master the skills of picking up on the atmosphere, measuring the emotional temperature, and helping the group achieve its potential. For all of these, empathy is an essential skill.
Conflict-ridden topics will stir up emotions in participants, and arguments are a natural part of a discussion; however, not all people get heat equally. While guiding the group toward solutions for the issues they want to solve, it’s important to pay attention to how individuals within the group may be feeling about the course of things., Make sure that people are not left behind or left out of the flow of the discussions.
A basic condition for an effective conversation is that people feel they are being heard and listened to. Practise your active listening skills as a facilitator, and encourage all participants to do the same. Also, basic verbal tools, such as paraphrasing, referring back and summarising help a lot to show the group that their thoughts are being heard.
Speaking of simple verbal tools, there are a number of basic techniques that a facilitator should be able to use confidently at meetings in order to facilitate discussions, engage participants and to make sure everyone is involved:
- Probing: Probing is used to determine the mood or general opinion of the group about a certain topic or point in the discussion. Just asking for a “thumbs up- thumbs down” survey can be enough to get an impression of the general opinion of the group.
- Paraphrasing: Paraphrasing means to express the same content that was just stated before but in your own words in order to check that both you and the others have the same understanding.
- Redirecting questions or comments: Redirecting a question to the group helps get participants more involved in the discussion. In addition, it also encourages group reflection.
- Bridging and referring back: This helps the group follow the discussion and to connect ideas by recalling earlier discussions or ideas.
- Shifting perspective: If the group gets stuck at some point in the discussion, try to shift the perspective and look at the problem from a different angle.
- Summarizing: Repetition promotes understanding, and summarizing what has been discussed so far will help the group build upon the conclusions they have already made.
- Giving positive reinforcement: It’s important to encourage people, especially those who are less assertive, to state their opinions. Therefore, when someone brings up a good point, say so, thus showing his/her participation is appreciated, and later on he/she will feel confident enough again to bring up another idea.
- Including quieter members: Encourage less talkative members to contribute to the discussion. Ask directly for their opinions and ask if they have any questions.. At the same time, keep in mind that people do have different learning and thinking styles and may not feel comfortable if they are ‘encouraged’ too much.
The ability to handle and diffuse tension is a skill that sets expert facilitators apart from the others
Remember, the group has a goal, and individual differences will need to be handled to achieve that. Given the time and scope of the session, not every interpersonal difference can or should be resolved; however, it is important that you know the right techniques and group processes for diffusing tension. Sometimes this might mean breaking up the work into smaller groups, taking a break, shifting perspectives or changing the scenery, etc.
Dealing with conflict-stacked situations are among the biggest challenges to effective facilitation. Often, there are underlying conflicts behind disagreements taking place in a conversation.
You might also encounter “difficult participants”. People have reasons for behaving as they do, and if you don’t make an effort to understand their stance, they might keep playing hardball in the session. However, you still need to keep in mind that the group has its own goals, and one person hijacking all the attention is a dangerous track. At certain times, you may be better off trying to confront that person in private to discover what drives them, and at minimum, give feedback to help them understand how their behaviour affects the group.
Different points of view naturally emerge in a discussion. It is the job of the facilitator to help the group find common ground among different opinions, simultaneously helping the group arrive at a decision that is accepted by everyone. Consensus, in this context, does not mean that everyone must agree with the final decision but that everyone gets an opportunity to share their opinion with the group, and that people are aware of the reasons why a particular decision was made.
In other words, this is called creating a transparent process. For instance, if you choose to use simple dot-voting as the technique to come up with a set of the most preferred ideas after an idea generation activity, then everybody should be made aware why only those most popular ideas will be considered further. In that way everyone understands the process that leads to a final decision.
Meetings have time limits. This is especially true in effective and productive organizational cultures. A carefully crafted agenda must take into account how much time can be allocated for each activity during a session.
Part of the facilitator’s role is to guide the group in timely conversations and decisions. It is important that you are aware of the passing time during a meeting and that you let participants know when time is running short for an activity.
In general, effective facilitation assumes efficient timekeeping, with only well-grounded exceptions for going overtime in discussions. Remember, if something takes more time than planned, it usually comes at the expense of some other item on the agenda.
Some activities require more attention from participants, some require less, but no individual will maintain the same level of attention and energy during a full day workshop. And that’s alright. As a facilitator, you should have a good eye for spotting when the group’s attention level as a whole is getting critically low.
You can make sure to design sessions with varying group activities to keep people engaged, and give regular breaks every 90-120 minutes at least. Secondly, use some energiser activities to instill energy in the room when the energy level is lower than it should be for productive work.
Planning a good process for an event will help you immensely. Being prepared means you will confidently be able to handle unforeseen situations and adjust the pre-planned process more easily as necessary. Usually, activities and discussions end up taking more time than initially planned: the group might need more breaks; new agenda items may pop up; and so on.
As a facilitator, being able to adapt on the fly is an essential skill, and it is also necessary to communicate and confirm the potential changes to the agenda with the group. At the end of the day, as a facilitator, you are helping a group achieve the common and agreed-upon objectives they want. So, if there are any change in the desired outcomes, they should be agreed upon by the group.
“Staying neutral on content while being an expert on process.”
This is the natural credo for a facilitator. It’s not about your ideas, it’s about supporting the group in achieving what they want.
However, there are situations when a facilitator does have a natural interest in the content. After all, one cannot bring an external neutral facilitator for every single meeting in the world. If for any reason you are not content-neutral as a facilitator, you should be clear about this with the group from the beginning. Try to make explicit when you are wearing your ‘facilitator hat’ and when you are using your ‘participant/content-expert hat’.
Recording key takeaways of a conversation is essential for keeping group progress on track and avoiding circling back to the same topics. As a competent facilitator, you should make sure to capture and highlight the key messages – whether that is via visual recording (i.e. arranging post-it notes, sketches, etc. made by participants), or written records (i.e. writing up conclusions). All the insights recorded will provide a useful baseline for action-setting and follow-up.
It’s probably needless to say, the best way to get better at facilitation is to practice, practice, practice! Over hundreds of hours of meeting facilitation, you will encounter a myriad of different situations in group dynamics: heated debates, opinionated participants, power dynamics between people, etc. The broader your facilitation toolbox is, the more skilled you will be in applying the right processes to guide each unique group in its thinking.
However, there are a few ways you can accelerate your learning in the realm of facilitation:
- Co-facilitate with experienced facilitators: On-the-job learning from seasoned veterans is probably the most effective way to level up your skills. Strive to design facilitation processes together with other facilitators, and you will encounter different perspectives on how to design an effective group process. Co-facilitate discussions, and you will gain first-hand experience in observing how different strategies work to manage conversations.
- Learn new tools and techniques: Keeping an open mind and staying ahead of the curve is important. Find time to learn and experiment with new tools and techniques to stay up-to-date. Read books, watch videos, look up online facilitation toolboxes and share best practices with colleagues.
- Get trained (and potentially certified): You may consider attending a general facilitation training, or get trained in specific facilitation frameworks.
At the end of the day, facilitation is more of an art than a science. The more you do it, the more sophisticated your skills will become!
Are any important facilitation skills missing from the list above? Do you have questions about something not covered in this post?
Let us know in the comments!