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The Art of Good Facilitation

Have you ever been in a workshop or a meeting that has been derailed by poor facilitation? Watched your agenda get ambushed and overrun by meaningless dialogue and debate? Good facilitation is quite an art, and the benefits of effective facilitation are extensive. For those of us that are time poor and outcome-driven, I've shared some thoughts and research around the topic and also some insights that we can use to become more effective facilitators and in turn enhance productivity and workplace satisfaction.

What is Facilitation? To facilitate is “to make easier” or “help bring about.” The facilitator guides the dialogue and attempts to maximize participants’ time and involvement by keeping the discussions on track. Facilitation encourages all members to participate in some way, shape or form. By recognising and utilising the unique and valuable contributions of each member, an effective facilitator increases the collective value of the discussion. What Makes a Good Facilitator? Competent facilitators have both personal characteristics and acquired skills that make them good at what they do. Many good facilitators make a difficult process seem natural and intuitive. Good facilitators tend to;

  • Communicate well

  • Be process-oriented

  • Be ‘quick on their feet’ and logical

  • Be impartial

  • (Most importantly), they value people and their ideas

What are the Group Facilitator’s Responsibilities? As a discussion group facilitator, you want to include some basic steps as part of your responsibilities during the meeting.

  • Prepare in Advance - Good facilitators make their work look effortless and natural, but prepare in advance to be effective. Take into consideration the “who, what, why, and where” of your meeting or event to help you figure out the “how.”

  • Re-state the objectives at the beginning of the session

Participants will be much better prepared to contribute and help you meet the objectives if they know what they are. Your job as a facilitator is to ensure that the group understands what needs to be accomplished. Some Tips to Make Sure You Facilitate Well Create an inclusive environment – some suggestions

  • Allow participants to introduce themselves

  • Be clear up front about expectations and intentions amongst participants and the facilitator

  • Use inclusive language

  • Ask for clarification if unclear about a participant’s intent or question

  • Treat participants with respect and consideration

  • Provide sufficient time and space for participants to gather their thoughts and contribute to discussions.

Keep discussions constructive and positive

  • Clarify the goals of each session to the group.

  • Establish ground rules: e.g share personal experiences rather than generalisations, ask dominant participants to allow others to speak

  • Try to keep the group on task without rushing them.

  • If the group starts to veer in the direction of negativity and/or pointless venting, ask them how they would like to address this.

  • Step back when a group is functional/functioning

Encouraging participants

  • Writing participants’ comments on the whiteboard.

  • Asking follow-up questions, and paraphrasing the comments for everyone to ponder

  • Asking the contributor for further clarification and/or elaboration

  • Re-visiting past contributions and incorporating them into subsequent discussions

  • Encouraging others to add their reactions or ideas to build on someone’s comment

  • Don’t be afraid to admit to not knowing something and asking for more clarification

  • Silence and thinking time are ok, but be ready to re-frame.

Some potential issues or problems in small group discussions The participant who talks too much

  • Redirect the discussion to another person or another topic

  • Re-frame their comments

  • Ask one or more members of the group to act as observers for a few sessions, reporting back their observations to the group.

  • Break the group down into smaller groups.

The Participant who will not talk

  • Provide opportunities for smaller group discussions or pair-share discussions

  • Ask opinion questions occasionally (e.g., “What is your view on this?” or “How do you feel about this?”)

  • Have participants write out their answers to a question.

The discussion that turns into an argument Some tension and constructive conflict may be a good thing. If it derails the discussion then here are some tips;

  • Refer back to facts or data - If the solution depends on certain facts, the facilitator can ask participants to refer to that data or the text that holds the facts

  • Refer back to method - If there is an experimentally verified answer, the facilitator can diffuse and stay on track by referring the method by which the answer could be determined

  • Reflect on the values underlying the debate - If the question is one of values, the facilitator may use the occasion to help participants become aware of the values involved

  • List both sides - The facilitator can list both sides of the argument on the board.

  • Moderate - The facilitator can take a position as moderator, preventing participants from interrupting each other or speaking simultaneously.

Unclear or hesitant comments Ask for clarity and perhaps restate The discussion that goes off track Return to agenda - Some facilitators keep discussions on track by listing the questions or issues they want to cover on the board or summarizing the discussion on the board as it proceeds. Stopping and asking a participant to summarize where the discussion is at the point it appears to go off track may also help. The participant ‘has a go at’ the facilitator Some participants might be inclined to argue for the sake of argument. Don’t take the bait. Participants who ‘have a go’ often want attention, so simply giving them some recognition while firmly moving on can oftentimes keep things moving and satisfy the driver in the detractor. It may be that the participant is trying to embarrass the facilitator, so they may seek to make the facilitator defensive with such comments as, “How do you really know that…?” or “You’re not really saying that…?” Such questions can be handled by playing boomerang. The facilitator might say, “What I’m saying is…, but now I'd like you to share your perspective.” Turning the question back to the questioner leads them to take responsibility for his or her opinion. Some other ways to handle these situations include:

  • Active listening - Facilitators can paraphrase the message they heard and check out the accuracy of their assumptions before responding. ”So to check for my understanding, you are saying …”. This tends to buy some time and diffuse.

  • Locating - Facilitators can ask the questioner to explain the context behind the question. “Interesting question, but can I ask you walk us through the thinking behind that question?”

  • Re-framing - The focus can be on clarifying the assumptions behind the person’s argument and then inviting her or him to see alternative possibilities.

  • Confrontation - Facilitators can confront the questioner with their reactions to his or her behaviour. “I’m uncomfortable with the imprecision of your questions. What I really hear you saying is...”

  • Deferring – In some instances one strategy is to invite participant to meet after the session and arrange for a time to talk about the disagreement further, and then move the discussion on to another topic.

Remember the principals of effective communication -

  • Remember that 70% of communication is non-verbal. Stay tuned in and aware.

  • ‘Assume positive intent’. Try not to be defensive, stay as positive as you can and deal with what is actually said.

  • Communicate thinking about self-esteem. Look for things to say that will make people feel better about themselves.

  • Listen, listen, listen. Listen to understand not respond. Focus on what people are saying and how they are feeling. Recognise feelings.

  • Be open about how you feel about things, share your own thoughts

  • Ask for others views and involvement. Be encouraging.

  • Offer support and assistance but don’t take control unless asked or it is the right thing to do … ‘What support, if any, would you appreciate?’

Incorporate Psychology is in the business of good facilitation. Give us a call if we can assist you or your team today (07) 3852 2441 or email me at Reading list

  • Handelsman, J., Miller, S., & Pfund, C. (2006) Scientific Teaching: Diversity, Assessment, Active Learning (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.)

  • Brown University - Facilitating Effective Group Discussions: Tips

  • Steinert, Y. (2004) Student perceptions of effective small group teaching. Medical Education, 38:286-293.

  • Tuckman, B. & Jensen, M. (1977) Stages of Small Group Development. Group and Organizational Studies, vol. 2, pp.419-427.

  • University of Queensland: Designing Culturally Inclusive Environments, accessed July 2008.

  • Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment: How to Improve Quality, Productivity, and Employee Satisfaction Paperback – November 11, 1997 - by William Byham (Author), Jeff Cox (Author)

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