by Steve Roche

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. If you mix with people as they arrive, you can certainly achieve a lot in the way of learning more about the attendees, why they have come, what they expect from the event and so on. You can also establish rapport with at least some of them so they become ‘friends in the group’ before you even start.

On the other hand, some facilitators prefer to get some space to themselves so they can refocus after what is often a last-minute rush to get things organised for the day.

Who speaks first?

Usually it will be whoever called the group together. This may be you or it may be someone else who is responsible for the event and has called on you to act as facilitator.

If you are unknown to the group and a senior person or the event owner is present, it can be very useful to have them introduce you as the facilitator. Perhaps they might do a little scene-setting and give people an idea of the outcomes they are expecting from the event.

Welcome people

If people are not already acquainted, introduce them or ask them to introduce themselves.

Safety announcements

It is good practice to make people aware of the nearest fire exit and any other safety procedures that apply to the venue, both in the meeting area and elsewhere on the site. Mention whether any fire alarm tests are expected. Be aware of disabled access.

Event purpose and goals

Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to discuss the agenda and make changes, if agreed, and even to discuss and perhaps modify the overall outcomes and goals of the event.

As part of giving people an overview of the agenda, talk about timings:

  • When is the event due to finish?
  • Does anyone need to leave before that time?
  • When are the breaks scheduled and how long are they?

If applicable, review the minutes from the last meeting. If you are facilitating a series of meetings, you will need to establish continuity between them. It may help to create a brief summary of decisions reached in previous meetings and actions that were taken as a result.

Ground rules

These are a set of behaviours agreed by everyone present in order to ensure the smooth running of the event. The process of negotiating them can itself be a helpful exercise. Having a set of rules for the way each group is run is important because it helps to

  • Set the boundaries
  • Clarify the role of the facilitator
  • Create a feeling of trust and safety
  • Provide a tool to challenge disruptive behaviour.
Examples of ground rules
  • All views have equal value
  • One person talking at any time; no side conversations
  • Turn off mobile phones, pagers, laptops
  • Anyone can invoke the five-minute rule (see below)
  • We start and finish on time
  • Silence is construed as consensus
  • All discussions are confidential to this room.

The rules will be much more effective – and more readily accepted – if suggested by the participants themselves, rather than being imposed by the facilitator. Once specifically agreed by all present, they represent a valuable way to keep direction. The facilitator gets people back on track by saying

‘I’ll just remind you here of ground rule X, which you all agreed to earlier.’

Some facilitators use coloured cards while making ground rules. The group decides what a ‘red card’ means – perhaps being banished from the room for five minutes.

The five-minute rule

If discussions are getting too detailed or straying off the point, anyone can invoke this ground rule to get the group back on track. At that point a further five minutes is allocated to resolve the issue; if it’s still unresolved, then it is ‘parked’ – taken outside the meeting or designated as an action point.

Energisers and ice-breakers

You need to pay attention to the energy levels of the attendees and how well they are mixing together and communicating. Use energisers or ice-breakers get them talking more easily with one another. These are short exercises, games or activities that help with

  • People getting to know one another quickly
  • Breaking down hierarchical, political or social barriers
  • Raising energy levels
  • Increasing motivation, commitment and team spirit.

An ice-breaker can break down the social barriers that often exist between strangers pulled together into a group. It can be something as simple as asking people to tell the person next to them a little about themselves and why they are at the event.


What exactly do you do for a living?

Each person has one minute to describe their job to the group, as if they are explaining it to a nine-year-old child.

This icebreaker is designed to help level out roles and seniority. People learn that some jobs sound absurd when stripped of their grand title. Senior people often make fun of themselves and break any hierarchical tension.

A climate-setting technique is more about encouraging a different mindset. If a group meets often at work and you are facilitating an off-site workshop where you want them to think differently, set up an exercise that helps them realise that this is not just another meeting. A simple one is to put people in small groups of three, and then have them think up alternative and unusual uses for an everyday object. Make sure you have a few samples of the object as props. Have each group report back and describe the best idea they came up with.

A wide range of these activities can be found in the resources available to facilitators in Want to know more? Most are intended to be enjoyable and serve as a ‘warm-up’. They can also be used part-way through, either to change the mood of the group or to introduce a different style of thinking, such as creativity or decision-making.