We’re often asked what a facilitator actually does, which is fairly easy to answer (check out our Facilitation 101 article if you’d like the lowdown). But the follow up question to that is a little trickier:
What makes a great facilitator?
So in today’s blog we’ve broken down the essential skills of facilitation into 8 categories.
This article will be helpful if you’re
- Starting to learn about facilitation and want to know where to focus
- Interested in facilitation training and wondering what skills you’ll learn and how they can benefit your career
- Curious about hiring a facilitator or getting facilitation training for your employees. Find out which skills you’ll be adding to your organization
Let’s dive in.
Skill 1: Staying neutral
A great facilitator knows that they’re the guide, not the hero. But how does this look in practice?
Explain your role clearly to participants.
Course correct if participants go off topic or scope starts to creep.
Fall into the role of judge or decision validator.
Allow your own bias to affect direction.
The balance between having a strong enough presence to guide the group and oversee progress, without influencing results in any way, takes a lot of experience and practice. And all of skills 2-8 will help you to do that.
Skill 2: Giving clear instructions
It’s the responsibility of the facilitator to make sure the whole team understands the what, how and why of what they’re doing at every point of the session.
This means planning time for explanations both at the beginning of the whole session, as well as at the beginning of each new stage.
During facilitation training, you’ll learn all sorts of tools and tricks for making sure information is conveyed clearly. Here are a couple of points to bear in mind:
To make sure everyone in the room is clear on the action plan, you’ll need to repeat it 3 times.
Studies show that 50% of participants will understand on the first time, 75% the second time, and 95% the third time.
You’ll need to get creative in order to repeat the information in a way which doesn’t sound boring – varying phrasing, and condensing into a summary for easy assimilation.
Make sure you’re clear on the ‘one way’ participants should do the exercise.
Of course there are often multiple possible methods, but by providing various options you risk confusion and misalignment if different members choose to go different routes.
Show, don’t tell
Examples are a great facilitator’s best friend. They help participants understand concepts by taking ideas from an abstract description to a concrete context. Be as ‘realistic’ as you can by actually running through an example process so the group has a demonstration to follow.
Skill 3: Asking better questions
One of the most critical facilitation skills is the ability to ask the right questions, at the right time, in the right way.
Here’s a menu of the essential types of questions you’ll need in your toolkit:
Open ended questions (never closed!)
Open ended questions allow the respondent to freely formulate and express their thoughts, without influence. These questions usually start with:
"Who...?" "What...?" "Where..?" "When...?" "Why...? "How..?"
Avoid closed questions which give limited options or sway the respondent in a certain direction. These are the ones that have yes/no or multiple choice answers. They often start with:
"Would...?", "Do/Does..?", "Is / Are ...?",
It goes without saying that leading questions – eg a statement followed by “…right?”, “…isn’t it?” or similar - are a no go.
Consider the results you might get from the following questions:
“What kind of information do we need in order to move forward?”
Closed / leading:
vs “Is everyone happy to move onto the next exercise?”
“I think we’re ready to move on now, right?”
These demonstrate that you’re both listening and interested in deeply understanding participants’ contributions. They also give extra context for the group to understand each other.
Example: “What did you mean when you said...?”
If you’re familiar with the 5 whys technique then you’ll know that probing questions are essential to really get to the root of a problem, and discover hidden opportunities and ideas.
Example: “Why is that important to you?”, “You mentioned X, could you tell us more about that?”
When an issue comes up that you know a particular team member has the expertise to help, send the question directly to that person. You can open it up to the group after you get the expert point of view.
Circling back to skill 1, these questions are a great way for the facilitator to highlight and reinstate neutrality. When a participant asks you a question, you can throw back the question to that person, or to the group as a whole. You then keep the discussion flowing and encourage active participation with probing and clarifying questions.
And of course, it’s not enough to ask great questions. You’ll also need to pay attention to the answers…
Skill 4: Active listening
This is becoming one of the most highly valued skills in any role or organization, and it’s baked into the structure and process of every expert facilitator.
In our day to day we often slip into the typical habit of ‘fake’ listening. Waiting for our moment to speak, using the time while the other person is speaking to prepare our own response – a series of turn taking rather than a meaningful conversation.
The facilitator must do exactly the opposite. Actively listen in order to observe progress and guide the group, and also give outward signals to make team members feel heard and understood.
This includes verbal signs such as:
- Paraphrasing and mirroring, to show that you’ve understood group members’ comments by repeating them back
- Follow up questions (see skill 3!)
- Summarising to end discussion phases, to align the whole group on what’s been discussed and give a foundation for moving to the next
As well as non-verbal:
- Eye contact, to show encouragement and interest
- Removing distractions, and signalling full attention – no clock or phone checking!
- Open posture towards the group and/or the person speaking
Skill 5: Time management
This is a big part of ensuring productivity and tangible results in any group session. Luckily a lot of the workshop structures and processes facilitators learn in training are based on the idea of time boxing. Design Sprint is one of the best examples.
However, it’s important to be flexible and realistic. It’s never possible to stick to your plan down to the last second. Remember to include buffer time for each phase, as well as practicing techniques and tricks for cutting circular discussions and moving on when progress stalls.
Skill 6: Energy management
Less measurable than time, but just as fundamental to a facilitator’s success is managing the energy of the group. A few tips:
Stay on schedule – hand in hand with skills 5, timing is important for maintaining motivation too. It can feel easier to let an exercise continue longer than expected, but it’ll leave the team feeling drained before they reach the following steps.
Communicate the agenda and set expectations for how participants might feel at different points. Knowing when they’ll be able to take a break, and when they’ll need to be more active will help put people at ease.
Have some tricks in your bag – music is one great tool for creating an upbeat / focused / calm ambience, depending what you need in each moment. In facilitation training you’ll learn all sorts of useful exercises you can use as ice breakers, re-energizers or reconvening after a break. This is our workshop playlist that we normally use during the group work where everybody works on their own ideas in silence. Music can help get into the deep work.
Skill 7: Dealing with challenging participants
While most groups are enthusiastic and just as invested in the success of the session as the facilitator, inevitably we all come across a challenging participant at some point.
They often don’t deliberately intend to disrupt the session, but it can happen for many reasons – if they come from a different background, have a different level of experience or a clashing personality type.
It’s useful to bear in mind the 4 personality types and their needs, so that you can cater to them as you plan a session.
The leader – power driven
The expert - knowledge driven
The team player – process oriented
The disruptor – resistance oriented
Depending on the context, any of these types can potentially become a disruptor, so it’s good to mentally prepare how you will deal with any uncomfortable moments before they arise.
- Setting expectations, ground rules and agreeing on them as a group is always a winner, so you can gently remind participants of these at any time.
- If you do identify a potential disruptive participant, give them easy responsibilities or tasks that align with their type, keep them occupied, and make them feel involved (writing the sticky notes, drawing the map etc)
- When an unrelated or unhelpful suggestion threatens to take the session off track, some handy answers are:
“That’s a big topic/question! Let’s park it for later to make sure we give it proper consideration. Let’s finish this step and come back to talk about it later.”
“That’s a great question! It’s outside the scope of this exercise, so could you write it on a sticky note to make sure we come back to it later?”
- In the rare case that someone asks a question that’s clearly aimed to sabotage, Skill 3 comes into play. Redirect the question at the asker, and probe further:
“That’s a really interesting question! Can you tell me what made you think of that?”
“Are you thinking of a specific situation?”
“What do you mean exactly? Can you tell me more?”
The main way to avoid disruptions is to perfect skill 8….
Skill 8 - Creating an inclusive environment
A critical aim of every facilitator is to foster psychological safety in every session.
Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, described psychological safety, as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, they feel they can speak up and share their ideas without fear of judgement, embarrassment or loss of status.
This skill is essentially a round up of all of the ones we talked about above. If you manage to do points 1-7, you will be creating an inclusive environment, where everyone feels included and valued.
Again, setting ground rules, expectations and an agenda that the whole group decides collaboratively is key. If everyone is invested in the same goals, results will flow.
And our final tip for creating an inclusive and comfortable environment? Be yourself!
When members feel the facilitator, the group guide, is acting authentically, they’re encouraged to do the same.
We hope you picked up some useful techniques and tips in today’s article. If you’re keen to learn more, check out our next facilitation training dates – remote and in-person options.
Or why not propose a Training Sprint for your team? Contact us and we’ll get right back to you with the details.