by Steve Roche

In a nutshell

1. Why facilitation?

People at work are frequently involved in meetings, conferences, away days, brainstorming sessions, inter-departmental talks or impromptu get-togethers.

Most of the time these events function well enough. But there are situations where it is essential to have someone with an objective eye who can

  • Stop people wasting time
  • Get them out of routine
  • Get things moving forward
  • Help people to avoid ‘groupthink’.


2. Who is a facilitator?

Facilitation is about process (how you do something) rather than content (what you do). It is about movement: moving something from A to B. A facilitator guides a group towards an agreed destination and makes it easier for them to get there.

  • A facilitator is a process guide; someone who makes a process easier or more convenient.
  • Some facilitators are appointed to the job, while others are not, but do it anyway.
  • Some will have undertaken specific training in facilitation skills, and many will not.


3. Preparation

Any event you facilitate will always require some preparation. For a simple meeting that is held regularly, the preparation will be minimal, though still important. For a larger, formal meeting, it could be considerable and you will need to

  • Decide who the event ‘owner’ is
  • Clarify the goals
  • Consider the costs
  • Clarify your role with the owner
  • Set the time and date
  • Choose the attendees
  • Prepare the agenda
  • Choose the location


4. Opening the event

Some facilitators maintain that the opening starts when the first attendee arrives, even if this is some time prior to the actual kick-off. Some facilitators prefer to get some space to themselves to refocus after what is often a last-minute rush to get things organised for the day.

  • Who speaks first?
  • Welcome people and perhaps get them to say a little about themselves.
  • Give safety announcements.
  • Are you going to use energisers and ice-breakers?
  • Explain the purpose of the event and its goals.
  • Establish ground rules (consider including the five-minute rule).


5. Providing a process to complete tasks

As a facilitator, you will be providing process at two different levels. At the macro level it is about the structure of the event, while at the micro level it is about small interventions to keep things running smoothly. These are some of the things a facilitator does at the macro level to provide process:

  • Set the agenda
  • Work with the group to set goals or outcomes
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Establish breakout groups to encourage creative thinking
  • Role-play relationship problems
  • Create a list of issues as a way of handling questions and challenges that might otherwise throw the group off course
  • Keep an actions list.


6. Managing people’s states

Part of your job as a facilitator is to keep people in the right mood or frame of mind to participate effectively in the event. This is really about managing their states.

  • The way a person feels, both emotionally and physically, including their mood and their energy levels, makes up a person’s state.
  • As a facilitator, you can help people with their states so that they are contributors to the event and get more from it.
  • What state would be most likely to move the group towards the event outcomes?
  • What state(s) are they actually in right now?
  • You can change the state of a group with anything that creates activity.
  • Another way to change state is to get people thinking about something different or to think in a different way.


7. What to do when things go wrong

If you notice any of these signs, what you are doing may not be working:

  • Lots of side conversations – or a stony silence
  • Increased restlessness, with people in and out of the room
  • Signs of boredom, tiredness, fidgeting
  • Excessive argument, taking longer than expected.

Admit that things are not going well and confront the issue. Check with people, for example:

  • Can we review what we have achieved and if we are still on track?
  • I feel this approach is not working, what do you think?


8. Managing the space and environment

The atmosphere and comfort of environment can play a crucial, if unobtrusive, part in the success of any meeting or workshop.

  • People’s tolerance to temperature variations varies greatly and what is warm to one person will feel cold to another.
  • Temperature tolerance also varies after meal times and activity breaks, so notice how people are in the room: are they putting jackets on or taking them off?
  • If you are facilitating at a conference venue, ask what other events are scheduled for the same time so you can judge the level of noise they might generate.
  • Be aware of possible noise from building works and nearby road works.
  • Check that lights are working.
  • Keep lunch menus light, to avoid people dozing off!


9. Facilitator style

Being a good facilitator is both a skill and an art. It is a skill in that you can learn techniques and improve with practice. It is an art in that some people just have more of a knack for it than others. Each facilitator leads a group in a unique way. This is a result of the mix of their values and norms, psychological make-up, degree of skill and development, plus the objectives and composition of the group, and the cultural context.

  • Good facilitator training helps to develop your individual style through teaching you to assess your strengths and weaknesses, giving you examples of good models to follow and a chance to practise.
  • Facilitator styles run from hierarchical (remaining in control), to co-operative (sharing control and holding back on offering solutions, through to the less useful autonomous role and abdication of all responsibility.
  • The chief faults of bad facilitation are lack of preparation, insisting on imposing your own beliefs and agenda, and lack of follow up.


10. Objectivity

Maintaining objectivity can be tough, especially if you are part of the relevant work area.

  • As a facilitator, while you have every right to your opinion, your thoughts and feelings need to be put to one side.
  • One good way to do this is to listen carefully to what is being said and reflect back what you just heard: ‘So what I’m hearing is...’


11. Facilitator as translator

Sometimes you need to act as translator, interpreting or reframing in a way that other people can understand. A useful phrase is ‘So what you’re saying is...’ because what people mean and say is often different from how they are heard. There are several ways you may need to translate:

  • As an expert in the subject matter
  • As a tour guide helping people experience the way others see the world
  • As a translator of sensory language
  • As a translator of stories


12. Ten things good facilitators do

  • Set targets and prepare
  • Maintain boundaries
  • Let go of the content
  • Retain independence
  • Focus on the process
  • Be rather than do
  • Intervene when appropriate
  • Assist understanding
  • Confront difficult situations
  • Evaluate afterwards


13. What makes a good facilitator?

It takes a special skill to see with fresh eyes every time you work with a group: a skill often present in a good mediator or chairperson. It’s about creating a non-judgemental and objective environment, one in which people feel they can air their opinions without getting shot down or humiliated. Necessary skills include

  • Listening and questioning skills
  • Flexibility
  • The confidence to deal with difficult people
  • Clear thinking
  • A high level of energy


14. Rating your skills

It takes many skills to facilitate a group successfully. The real art is knowing how and when to use them. Assess your skills and rate them alongside the statements below: ‘How often do I...’

  • Move the group consistently towards the agreed outcomes?
  • Bring to light unstated views, undercurrents and conflicts?
  • Ensure insights are shared between group members?
  • Provide feedback to the group and individuals?
  • Involve the group in deciding how to move forward?
  • Help the group draw parallels and draw conclusions?


15. Becoming a facilitator

Good ways to move into the facilitator role include:

  • Undertake formal training specifically in facilitation
  • Volunteer for scribe roles to watch experienced facilitators in action
  • Work as a co-facilitator (for example, running syndicate groups)
  • Gain direct experience on the job (in at the deep end)
  • Build the right skill set through other relevant training and experience
  • Become known as a facilitator within your organisation, in other words volunteer
  • Seek opportunities to develop your skills outside the organisation
  • Join professional bodies, attend user groups and conferences to network with and learn from your peers


16. Selecting a facilitator

If an event must be run at short notice it may be best to hire an experienced facilitator. Choose someone who

  • Specialises in facilitation or at least has relevant training and experience
  • Can be objective, impartial, and dedicated to achieving the best outcome for the participants
  • Has an appropriate level of subject knowledge
  • Has no vested interests in the outcome, which helps engender trust.


17. The facilitated workshop

The facilitated workshop is a proven technique for problem-solving, used successfully throughout industry. Business workshops are typically used

  • To scope projects
  • For action planning
  • To capture requirements for information systems
  • To form a business or technical strategy.

Once people are gathered together physically in the same room, it is easier for them to agree common goals. This is valuable for those who otherwise have difficulty getting together for reasons such as geographical separation, time pressures, organisational or political splits. Senior people are always short of time and will want an effectively structured workshop to get them a result as quickly as possible.


18. Setting up a facilitated workshop

You need plenty of notice to properly prepare and set up a workshop – ideally at least two weeks, so plan well in advance. Be sensitive to people’s states, depending on what else is going on. For example, if redundancies have been recently announced, morale will probably be low and support for a workshop lessened. You need to put careful thought into such matters as

  • Deciding whether to hold the workshop onsite or somewhere else
  • Choosing who should attend
  • Identifying the owner
  • Constructing the agenda


19. Output from a facilitated event

The output from an event is any material that needs to be captured and kept, usually so that it can be distributed after the event. Output may take many forms, including ideas, questions, decisions, outcomes, issues, actions, plans and designs. Questions to ask include

  • What kind of output will this event produce and who will need to see it?
  • What are the best techniques for capturing it?
  • Who is the best person to do this – who can act as scribe?
  • What is the appropriate format in which to present documentation and who will be responsible for compiling and distributing it?


20. A case study

A simple case study to give an idea of the overall process.


21. Sample forms

A sample agenda and a sample feddback form.