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.
Here comes facilitation 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 classic dictionary definition of facilitation, you will end up with the following result (from 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”
By researching a bit more, you will see that the keywords are centered around leading processes and creating participation while staying neutral. So 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. But let’s a take a bit less circular explanation. According to Google’s definition, a facilitator is a “person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier”.
These definitions bring closer to understanding what a facilitator does and what facilitation is, but let’s dig more into what is the actual role of a facilitator?
A facilitator has a wide range of roles to perform in order to ‘make things easier’ for people who participate in a facilitated discussion:
- Supports individuals in a group to understand their common objectives.
- Helps people collectively move to through a process.
- Structures conversations and applies appropriate group facilitation techniques to keep discussions effective.
- Fosters participation and gets people to come up with ideas, thoughts and perspectives that bring value.
- Get all individuals in the room to feel like they are in a group with a shared interest.
If we want to really understand the different angles of the facilitator role, then the following similes may help. A facilitator can be perceived as:
- A ‘catalyst’ of the discussion: she makes possible the transformation of an input (ideas, opinions) to a desired outcome (refined ideas, decisions, strategies, etc) without being an active part of the conversation herself.
- A ‘conductor’ of an orchestra: the desired result – a harmonic musical expression – is a product emerging from the complex interaction of the (expert) musicians’ using their instruments, which results from the musicians’ individual creativity and expertise. While the quality of the outcome is strongly dependent on the talents of the individual musicians, the conductor is essential to synchronise all musicians using their instruments to as optimally as possible. As the conductor guides the members to comply with the rules and norms of the system, and her efforts enable the orchestra to create something greater than themselves.
- A ‘coach’ that helps the group form a constructive way of working together, identify its needs and wishes, and help to reach the outcome they jointly would like to achieve.
An effective facilitator should ideally maintain a position of joining the discussion as a neutral party. She simply “makes the conversation happen”, or facilitate, as the name suggests.
Naturally, you will need to influence the group to help them stay on track, but avoid dictating to it. It is essential that the group feels they have ownership of the outcomes they reach, therefore the facilitator should help to guide the group to find the solutions they seek for, but not to tell them the 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 in a meeting room 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 way 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 the manager of the team invited for the session, you probably have your ideas about what might be a good strategy for your company. So do all other people in the room. A facilitator naturally has an authority over the process of the meeting. And can easily cause difficult situations when you mix together process and content authority, if you get involved in facilitating the process as a manager. Or to put it differently: as a knowledgeable expert in a group, do you rather want to spend your attention on facilitating the process, or contributing with your subject-matter-expertise to come up with a good company strategy? This is why it is useful to have a person fully dedicated to focusing on how the group members are working together, and helping them to do achieve their goals effectively, without bias.
- The higher the stakes of a meeting, the more important it is to have someone who is professional in 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 the most often, a facilitator has the following responsibilities to take care of:
- Design and plan: The cornerstone of facilitation is to understand what are the objectives to achieve with the session. 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 you might need during the event.
- Run the process and facilitate the meeting: When the session starts, it is time to guide the group through the process designed, encourage participation and help the group to achieve its goals. Some of the most important elements of what a facilitator does during a facilitated session:
- Set the context and ground rules: This is about making sure that everyone is on the same page about the goals and the agenda of the session, and everyone is aware and agrees on the rules that they will follow during the meeting (How to ensure that people respect each other’s opinions? How to handle questions? etc.)
- Encourage participation: Create an environment where all participant feels encouraged to share their opinions. This may involve breaking the ice, help people to warm up to the meeting and acknowledge contributions of participants to the conversations.
- Facilitate discussions: Staying neutral, you help kick-off and rounding up conversations, highlighting points of consensus and summarise key takeaway. Intervene when necessary and help the group to clarify outcomes.
- Hold the time and space: While you guide the group through the different steps of the process, you maintain the focused participative atmosphere. You take care of timing and that the environment is supportive for productive discussions.
- Keep an eye on the efficiency of the group work and adjust the process if necessary: Your main focus is the ensure that all participants contribute with their chips to finding solutions during the session and keep up a good momentum with the group’s work. 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 to 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 to all participants during the event.
Earlier, we learnt that the essence of facilitation is to make an action or process easy or easier. This is definition allows a quite wide application: you can facilitate a meeting to help your group to achieve goals, but you can also facilitate a training session to help a group learning new skills.
In fact, the terms trainer and facilitator are often used interchangeably, despite there are some major differences between the two position.
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.
Whereas, 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 the right 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? (Just like an efficient training should actually be designed to have a balanced interaction). Then you might be well-grounded to use the term ‘facilitating a training’ and you bridged the world of training with the realm of 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. Whereas facilitation is based on collaboration.
- Applying vs. Communicating: the trainer is really helping the group to apply the content he or she has given them. While for facilitation, it is not the role of the facilitator to reinforce concepts, but to give space for communication within the group.
- Linear vs. flexible: In a design perspective, training is more often in a linear form in a trainers’ outline, while facilitation often has a more flexible agenda, as you cannot exactly predict what is going to happen within your 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.
These differences imply that there is a difference in the set of required skills for a trainer and a facilitator:
Since training is about teaching new skills and concepts, while facilitation is about helping the group in thinking, trainers and facilitators need to have some different skills.
As a trainer, you need to have more emphasis on learning design skills and more knowledge about adult learning principles. Also – even in an interactive, well-facilitated training session – you would spend a significant proportion of the time on presenting concepts as you need to provide certain theories and information to deliver the core content of your training.
Whereas, as a facilitator, you would have the emphasis on process design and group interaction techniques in order to come up with a sound process, and then more of the discussion facilitating verbal and non-verbal skills in order to keep the group thinking on the right track.
However, the two words also overlap when it comes to speaking in front of the group and managing group conversations. The ability to communicate clearly, both verbally and non-verbally – is extremely relevant both to trainers and facilitators alike.
No one is born as an expert facilitator. In fact, there are certain skills that you can work on that will help you to become an effective facilitator.
We 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:
Facilitation skills for process design:
- Asking the right questions
- Process design skills
- Agenda planning
- Organising and Project Management
Facilitation skills for facilitating the actual meeting:
- Create an inclusive environment
- Communicate clear guidelines and instructions
- Group dynamics (and group management)
- Active listening
- Verbal skills to facilitate conversations
- Conflict management
- Consensus-building skills
- Manage timing
- Gauge energy level in the room
- Staying neutral
The general rule of thumb say for that the for 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 net 2 days of preparations – although this may increase if you deal with complex requirements (for example, a controversial topic with multiple stakeholders, or a large group workshop where parallel work and a whole team of facilitators are required).
So let’s see what skills you actually 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. It asking the right questions involves to understand the underlying motivation behind a meeting, and a develop a consensus with the client about the goals.
You might go further in the 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.
If you know what outcomes you want to achieve, it is time to find a right process for that. But does it mean’ finding the right process’?
- As a facilitator, you are helping the group to 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: at first, you help the group to broaden their horizon and generate new ideas or solutions, and then you help them to narrow down the set of options they created to make a final decision.
- All this should be done with a viewpoint to keep participants engaged throughout the process.
- 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 have multiple outcomes, make sure that you have a clear process to reach each of them
Great, you have a process! Next, you also need to make sure that your process is translated into the reality of time constraints, logistics, group dynamics and attention level of flesh and blood real people sitting together in your workshop room.
There are several factors to consider when you are planning a workshop agenda:
- Time constraints: Your session does have a start time and an end time – and participants usually expect you to respect the end time.
- Breaks: You may have some fix breaks in your session, for instance, a lunch break
- The number of participants: group discussions have a natural limit. Above a certain group size, it is getting difficult to have a discussion where everyone is involved. If your group is bigger than a certain size (this vary by the type of exercise or discussion you may want to run), 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, you might want to clarify:
- Do 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 you need 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 form of presentations to individual work, small group and large group discussions). A healthy balanced of different interaction types throughout your session will help participants to stay engaged.
- How will the room and environment support active participation? (Planning proper room and seating arrangement and remove barriers in the room)
- How will one topic of the meeting flow into another one?
- How to properly close and wrap-up the session?
In most cases, it is necessary to inform about the design process that you are planning, and in general to maintain a steady communication to make sure that all preparations go fine.
Most of the times your client will have a natural interest in knowing the process and agenda for your meeting. They will summon a bunch of people to the workshop (meetings and workshop can be particularly expensive if you consider the time value of the people being present), and they want to be assured that the group will be at the right hands. Therefore, it is important that you keep your clients updated throughout the design process, so they have a piece of mind, and you may get further insights about the goals and the group that will help you come up with the right session design.
Getting the room arrangement set up for the meeting. Have catering arranged so food and drinks are available during breaks. Having the right workshop equipment at hand. There are a myriad of minor tasks and to-do-s on the logistic side of preparing a workshop. In good cases, you may get a helping hand from the client’s side and someone will help you to have everything arranged as you designed and requested. In some other cases, you might need to make more effort to gradually check if everything is going fine with the logistics, and pull 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 important things you can do as a facilitator 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 to open up and start speaking up. The other part is ensuring that the room setting is supportive to active contribution of the people: make sure everyone can see each other and remove barriers from the room
While you design the agenda for your session, you probably clearly imagined 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 ask from them. A few practical tips to help:
- Explain why do they do a certain activity
- Clearly, sequentially explain the steps you ask people to do
- 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 it (for example, pre-write them on a flipchart paper or on a powerpoint slide)
Each group has its own ways to interact, with the 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, how individuals participate is important. You certainly need some practice to master the skills of picking up the atmosphere, measure the emotional temperature, and help the group to achieve its potential. Empathy is an essential skill here.
Arguments are a natural part of a discussion, however, not all people take equally the heat of arguing. Conflict-ridden topics may also stir up emotions in participants of your group. While you need to guide the whole group to find good solutions for the issues they want to solve, it’s important to pay attention how individuals may feel about the course of the event, and to make sure that people are not left behind or out from the flow of the discussions.
A basic condition for an effective conversation is that people feel they are being heard and listened to. This assumes use practise your active listening skills as a facilitator, and encourage all participants to do so as well.
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 confidently use at a meeting 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 towards 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 with your own words in order to check that both you and other members of the group have the same understanding.
- Redirecting questions or comments: Redirecting a question to the group helps to involve participants more into the discussion. In addition, it also helps the reflection of the group
- Bridging and referring back: This helps the group to follow the discussion and to connect ideas by recalling an earlier discussion or idea.
- 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 perspective.
- Summarizing: Repetition promotes understanding, and summarizing what has been discussed so far will help the group to build on the conclusions they have already made.
- Giving positive reinforcements: It’s important to encourage people (especially less assertive ones) to state their opinions. Therefore, when someone brings a good point, state it, in order to show his/her participation is appreciated, so later on he/she will feel confident enough to bring another idea into the discussion
- Including quieter members: Encourage less talkative members to contribute to the discussion. Ask directly for their opinions and ask if they have any question to ask. 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 distinguishes expert facilitators from the mediocre ones.
Remember, the group has a goal: some differences need to be handled to achieve that. But not every interpersonal difference can and should be resolved – given the time and scope you have for the session. It is important that you have techniques how to diffuse tension by using the right techniques and group processes. (Such: breaking up the work into smaller groups, taking a break, shifting perspectives or changing the scenery)
Dealing with conflict-stacked difficult situations are among the biggest challenges to effective facilitation. Often, there are underlying conflicts behind the apparent disagreement taking place in a conversation.
You might encounter people you label as “difficult participants”. People tend to have a reason to behave 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 views naturally emerge in a discussion. It is the job of the facilitator to help the group finding the common ground among different opinions, and also to help the group to arrive to a decision that is accepted by everyone. Consensus, in this context, means not that everyone must agree with a final decision, but rather 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 clearly announce to the group that you will use a simple dot-voting as a technique without discussion to highlight the most preferred ideas after an idea generation activity, then everybody should be aware of the process leading to a decision.
Meetings have their own time limit – at least in an effective and productive organizational culture. Your carefully crafted agenda must have already taken into account how much time you allocate for certain activities during the session.
Now, during the session, you also need to guide the group for timely conversations and decisions. It is important that you are aware of the passing of the time during the meeting and also remind your participants before time is running late for an activity.
In general effective facilitation assumes efficient timekeeping as well, with only well-grounded exceptions for going overtime in discussions. Remember, if something takes more time than planned, then it’s usually at the expense of some other item on the agenda.
No individual will maintain the same level of attention and energy during a full day of workshop. And that’s alright. Some activities require more attention from participants, some require less. As a facilitator, you should have a good eye to spot if the group’s attention level is getting to a critically low level.
At first, you can make sure to design the sessions with varying group activities to keep people active, and apply regular breaks every 90-120 minutes at least. Secondly, if you might 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 immensely help you… to be confident when you will need to adjust it during the sessions. But usually, certain 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 also, to communicate and confirm with the group the potential changes in the agenda. At the end of the day, as a facilitator, you are helping the group to achieve the objectives they commonly want. So if there is any change in the desired outcomes, it should be agreed by the group.
Staying neutral on the content, and staying an expert of the process. This is the natural credo for a facilitator. It’s not about your ideas, it’s about to support the group achieve 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 in front of the group: Try to make it explicit when are you using your ‘facilitator hat’, and when are you using your ‘participant / content-expert hat’.
Recording key takeaways of a conversation is essential to keep a group progressing on track, and to avoid 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 graphical recording, arranging the artifacts (post-it notes, sketches) made by participants, or writing up conclusions. All the insights recorded are also providing a baseline for action setting and follow-up.
Probably it’s needless to say, the best way to get better in facilitation is to practice, practice and practice. Over hundreds of hours of meeting facilitation, you will encounter a myriad of different situations in the group: heated debates, opinionated participants, power dynamics between people. The wider your facilitation toolbox is, the more skilled you will be to apply the right process to guide the 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 meet different perspectives on how to design an effective group process. Co-facilitate discussions and you will have the first-hand experience to observe how different strategies work to manage a conversation.
- Learn new tools and techniques: Keeping an open mind and staying right ahead of the curve is important. Find time to learn and experiment with new tools and techniques every once in a while is a good way to achieve it. Read books, watch videos, look up online facilitation toolboxes and share best practices with colleagues – start with what comes easiest.
- Get trained (and potentially certified): You may consider attending a general facilitation training, or get trained to facilitate along certain frameworks.
At the end of the day, facilitation is rather an art than a science. The more you do it, the more sophisticated your skills will become!
Did you miss any important facilitation skill from the list above?
Let us know in the comments!