How to be a better facilitator

Facilitation has evolved into a distinct discipline that is used at every level in organisations, to help people to reach decisions, resolve problems or generate creative ideas. 

As training involves facilitation, people will expect training and development professionals to have these skills, so you may be asked to facilitate meetings where team members need to pool their expertise; you may be asked to facilitate senior managers who are discussing a new strategy or a group of peers discussing a change in the direction of a project.

There are a number of potential stumbling blocks. Lack of preparation or understanding of the organisational context and lack of clarity about objectives, desired outcomes and the facilitator’s role between the facilitator and the group can be damaging. Lack of trust, hidden or conflicting agendas, indifference and low morale can spell disaster, as can closed minds, fear of talking out of turn, lack of time, poor facilities and ‘group think’. Disruptive people  who won’t listen or try to dictate proceedings can add to your problems.
Here are seven top tips to ensure effectiveness.

Set boundaries
Those new to facilitation often skip this step but you should always begin by setting the ground-rules and the objectives, even if these are open-ended. Having an outline structure for the meeting, with appropriate time for reflection, is also helpful, although the need for flexibility and the ability to respond to the situation and the group must be emphasised.

Start by helping the group to clarify an outcome that it is reasonable to aim to achieve in the time available. Try to reach a consensus about how disagreements or conflicts will be handled and explain your own role in the process. Make it clear what you are going to do and not do. Aim to foster an environment of trust, openness and confidentiality. 

Once the boundaries have been set, you can keep bringing the group back to this agreement to see whether they are on track or not.

Remain impartial
One of the biggest barriers to successful facilitation is the over-involvement of the facilitator, which can obstruct the process. ‘Charismatic’ facilitators who want to perform or be the main player are their own worst enemies.

When facilitating, it can be difficult to remain impartial. Try not to have a pre-determined outcome that you want the group to reach – that is not facilitation: that is manipulation.

The challenge is to influence the group but not to dominate. You have to suppress your own ideas and encourage others to talk. It is important to restrain any impulse to control or desire to express impatience with other people. This is harder than it sounds. Novice practitioners often fall into the trap of trying to steer the discussion in a particular direction.

Yes, you sometimes have to push the group to consider new ideas but your role should be one of detached involvement.  Guide rather than dictate. Try to help the group reach a consensus or decide on a course of action.
Holding back can be exhausting but the participants must feel that they achieved the outcome themselves.

Understand the group’s dynamics
Instead of focusing on the subject matter of the meeting, pay most of your attention to the process level, which sits below the content and relates to how people feel about taking part.  This is the key to unlocking the group’s potential because it is where you get the politics and the interaction between group members.

Use your senses, your intuition and your instincts to pick up the atmosphere and the group dynamics. Do people sound enthusiastic, lively, excited? Are people expressing their feelings or sitting on them? Keep your finger on what is happening in the group. Who is talking? Who is not talking? Use questions to challenge and clarify the situation. Concentrate on the emotional temperature and try to read the body language and non-verbal behaviour. 

The size of groups that can be facilitated has become almost limitless with the advent of large-group engagement processes such as Open Space Technology, Future Search, Real-Time Strategic Change and Appreciative Inquiry. You may be asked to co—ordinate events like these. Essentially, they involve many of the same skills that are used to facilitate smaller groups but require more rigorous planning and preparation.

Use your personal style
The role of a facilitator is more about being than doing. ‘Doing’ refers to the techniques you use to help the group move on. ‘Being’ is more about the energy you bring and your personality. Who you are – your style, presence and strengths – has a considerable impact on how you facilitate. 

To create a safe environment where people are going to be open and honest, you need an empathic personal presence and group members need to respect and trust you. They also need to feel confident that you are strong enough to deal with any incidents which may arise. All this comes as much from your personal style as from anything you might say. 

Remember, where you sit, whether you look in control or flustered, how animated you are – all the non-verbal clues – give you a sense of presence, as does your tone of voice. Try to adapt your style to the group. For example, if the group is task-focused, they will expect you to speak with certainty and be dynamic. If you do not meet that expectation, you will not fit in.

Intervene when needed
As a facilitator you should be noticing what’s going on and making sense of it. Then you can make a decision about what to do about it. You could keep quiet and watch what happens or you could intervene and say something. 

Your own body language can be a powerful intervention – with a look, a smile or a nod, you can indicate support or challenge to what is going on. The issue of challenging the group is particularly important if you are acting as an internal consultant. In this case, when something radical is called for, you should be more challenging. You may need to ask difficult questions which are fundamental or which draw attention to difficult process issues which the group may find uncomfortable.

Sometimes the facilitator is there to surface the grit in the oyster, or maybe to be that grit themselves.

Handle tricky situations
Often facilitators feel intimidated about intervening with more senior managers or with people exhibiting disruptive behaviour but you cannot be effective in the role if you are afraid of making a mistake or of not being popular. You need to develop skills and strategies to overcome these barriers. Dealing with difficult people and handling conflicts are two of the biggest challenges.

With conflict, it is often not the apparent disagreement but an underlying conflict which is the real problem. There are tactics and skills you can learn to respond to these situations ‘in the moment’, and these are important because the success of the meeting could be determined by how the issue is addressed.

If a difficult situation arises, you could suggest taking a break, having a coffee, changing the scenery, working in pairs or brainstorming the particular issue. If there is a disruptive individual, you may choose to confront that person – within the group or in private – and give them feedback on what they are doing and the effect it is having. If you agreed your role at the outset then you already have ‘permission’ to challenge anyone who is breaking a golden rule.

There is no such thing as perfect facilitation. You are constantly making decisions about what to do in every situation: some you get right, some you get wrong. But the skills involved: observation, listening, reading body language, understanding human be-haviour and stepping out of the content, all improve with practice.

How to spot a good facilitator
Writer and trainer John Charlton identifies five characteristics of a true professional. When we are in the presence of a competent facilitator:

  • Participation is high, goals and objectives are set and are clear and the process moves along at the right pace
  • Good facilitators lead without appearing to
  • They know the topics under discussion well enough to comrehend and contribute to discussions
  • They also know how to trigger and control group dynamics such as discussion and participation
  • Above all they are able to lead groups to their agreed objectives in a style that is characterised by humour, firmness and timeliness


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