Whether you’re in-house or independent, rookie or veteran, running a 1-hour onsite meeting or 3-day workshop retreat, working with 3 or 300 attendees, these basic tips can help sharpen your facilitation game.
1) Be Clear on Goals and Expectations. Much of the advice on facilitation opens at the point of contact with a group, once you’re in the thick of things; however, it’s the little, unchecked assumptions prior to accepting a gig that can lead to major missteps or getting blindsided further down the line. Even if you don’t carry around a 50-Question Client Scoping Checklist, you should have some basic idea of what you’re in for. What is the purpose of the meeting? What are the outcomes? What specifically does success look like? Is there a predetermined agenda or can you craft your own? What is expected of you / what is your role? To whom are you accountable?
2) Understand the Group and the Business Context. Some of the questions you may wish to consider asking yourself or the client: How many in the group? Who are they / what do they do? How long have they worked together? What is the quality of their relationships? What are the power dynamics at play? Have they done anything like this before? What are they used to? Are there any likely troublemakers? What values and cultural boundaries are important? How does the team / department / company operate? What else do I need to know about the group's situation?
3) Loose Agenda. Start with the non-negotiables. In other words, what MUST be covered? Work backwards to develop a general outline of activities / exercises around your key priorities, but don’t demand exactitude. Quite often the best things to come out of a session aren't planned for and will deviate from the main agenda. The only thing you should NEVER mess with: breaks (every 1.5 - 2 hours).
4) Flexible Approach. The best facilitators can tell when the energy in the room is falling or when tension is rising, when an activity is faltering and needs to be tweaked, reworked on the fly, or left in the dust, and when to sacrifice segments of time to make room for the unexpected. At the heart of the art, it’s about knowing when to stick firm to core parts of the agenda, when to step back, when to speak up or remain silent, when to challenge or push the group, and when to totally blow up your best-laid plans and venture into the unplanned, unknown.
5) Preparation, Lots of It. About 80% of success as a facilitator comes down to preparation. Some facilitators will recommend two to three hours of preparation for every hour of facilitation; others recommend anywhere from five to ten as a general rule of thumb.
Things to consider:
Materials: e.g., name badges or name tents, flipchart paper, butchers paper, post-it notes, tape, pens, notepads, activity sheets, workbooks, feedback forms, videos, case studies, toys, etc. Seating: U-Shape set up for smaller groups; round tables for larger groups. Signage to help attendees find the room. Test the audio-visual equipment in advance. Have a back-up plan in case the AV fails. Arrive 30-60 minutes before start time. Don’t book another event immediately after the session. Allow 30-minute buffer. Personal hygiene. (Breath mint, antiperspirant, etc.) To ensure you’re rested the night before, plan accordingly.
6) Know Thy Venue. Beyond being organised with your agenda, materials, and routine, don’t underestimate the effect of seemingly small venue issues: room space, catering, temperature, lighting, noise from other rooms, and quality of bathroom facilities all have the potential to impact group dynamics. It pays to be familiar with the venue, its staff, and the way they do things.
7) Warm Welcome / Hello Email. While by no means it is always possible, desirable, or necessary to make contact with a group before the first face-to-face encounter, making contact via email is, in most cases, a very good idea — even if it’s just a quick hello. We recommend sending a warm introductory email around 1-2 weeks prior to meeting, and a reminder email 2-3 days out.
8) Pre-Work. By prework, we mean getting participants to undertake exercises ahead of time (e.g., reading, research, brainstorming, tasks, surveys, etc). Prework is one of the single most underrated methods for getting meetings to flow smoothly and efficiently, getting minor but time-consuming tasks out of the way and allowing the group to cut straight to the most important priorities.
9) Rethink That Icebreaker. Although icebreakers and energisers are popular facilitation tools, too many serve no strategic purpose whatsoever. More experienced groups can feel that icebreakers are forced, clichéd, and a waste of time; newer groups may experience awkwardness and anxiety about having to share personal details or provide a creative answer. The advice here is not to avoid “fun” all together, but rather to think carefully about how the group is likely to respond and in what way the icebreaker actually adds value to meeting.
10) Establish a Safe Environment. In many cases, the single most important role you play as a facilitator is creating a safe, trusting environment. If people don’t feel safe to look stupid in front of the group, if they suspect that egos/politics are at stake, if they’re afraid to question others’ opinions, or if they have concerns that someone might steal their ideas, the team is just not going to be able to have honest debate and undercover the best thinking. Setting the right tone by encouraging vulnerability and assuring confidentiality can make a big difference.
11) Agree on Ground Rules. You have 3 main options: you set all ground rules; the group decides on all ground rules; you set some basic ground rules and let others add to the list. Generally, things work best if the group “owns” some or most of the ground rules. This activity shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. You may also like to have attendees “sign off” on the ground rules to gain increased accountability.
Example ground rules:
Phones on/off; laptops on/off. Courtesy and respect at all times, even if you strongly disagree. Disagree with ideas, not people. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Wait until it’s your turn to speak. Don’t interrupt. What is said in the room stays in the room. No heckling, eye-rolling, finger tapping, or mocking others. No “celebrities” or “hermits”; everyone contributes. Please! No side conversations. Please! No doing other work. Please! Be conscious of time. PLEASE! Don’t take it personally if the conversation is redirected.
12) Review and Agree on Goals. In some cases, this may seem like a redundant or unimportant step if you already think the attendees will know what meeting is all about. NEVER assume everyone is on the same wavelength. (This step will also become important later for when you need to redirect conversation towards a shared goal.)
“The reason for today’s meeting is…” “My understanding is…” “We’ve got X hours together to cover…” Check for agreement.
13) Short Bursts. A good rule of thumb is to chunk activities into 10 - 20-minute segments before returning to have a group discussion or time for processing what was discussed / discovered / achieved during the activity. This will keep the energy up.
14) Variety is the Spice. Try not to rely on one type of activity all the time. Consider all the different methods available: Split people in small discussion groups, have a large group debate, use brainstorming and mindmapping, walk people through a problem solving framework, move people around the room, show a video, offer a reward, run a break out session, etc.
15) Get Ready to Redirect. Expect that conversation will drift off track as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. All facilitators should know basic redirection phrases. How you say something usually matters at least as much as what you say, so it’s important to learn phases that work specifically for your unique personality and facilitation style. Where possible, it’s a good idea to affirm what someone has said before redirecting the conversation, otherwise it can leave someone with the impression that you are being dismissive. For example, it would be better to say “Okay, let me write that up with the other ideas; let's come back to…” instead of saying “Actually, I think we should focus on…”.
16) Use the Parking Lot. Many facilitators use a “parking lot” or “parking space” which may be devised as a simple flipchart on the wall that comes into play when an idea doesn't quite fit and may need to be revisited later. It’s a good tool to affirm people’s ideas, without the risk of getting sidetracked.
17) Use Time. Another great way to steer a meeting back on the rails is to use time to your advantage. “I recognise that’s an important topic, however we only have 20 minutes left. Since we’re pressed for time, let’s try to get as much done on…”
18) Stay Neutral. Facilitators are sometimes described as “content neutral parties,” meaning that their role is not to advance their own opinions, take sides, or get drawn into debate, but to enable and encourage communication and collaboration in pursuit of a shared goal. In other words, facilitators concern themselves with the process of moving the group in the right direction, rather than having a stake in the final decision. Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.
19) Acknowledge When You’re No Longer Neutral. When the facilitator would like to advance a viewpoint, it’s best for them to acknowledge that they are temporarily stepping out of their role as the facilitator to put forward an opinion.
20) Deal With Troublemakers. Obviously it’s important to involve everyone and not let one or two people dominate the conversation. The issue of spotlight hogs and prima donnas can usually be dealt with by setting crystal clear expectations in the ground rules stage, but sometimes during the day it will be necessary to actively intervene. You may need to redirect from one person to another (“That’s a lot of great input you’ve provided. Let’s bring in someone who we haven’t head from in a while…”); or you may need to pull the individual away from the group and discuss the problem behaviour privately. Only as a very last resort should you ask a disruptive influence to leave the room.
21) Write It in Their Words, Not Yours. When you are writing down people’s ideas, write what the person said in their own words, or as close to their words, as possible. If you rephrase it or alter the grammar to sound “better,” it shifts away ownership of the concept.
22) Give Choices. You may be in charge of managing the overall process, but it’s really their show. Where possible, try to pull them into the decision making process. For example:
What would be the best use of our remaining time? Do you want to break at 12.30 or 12.45? We can continue conversation for 10 minutes on the topic or start on [new topic]. Which would you prefer?
23) Clarify, Summarise, Restate. Sometimes a point will be made that confuses you. Sometimes, you may understand what’s being said, but notice others seem confused. Sometimes, people will have a point that needs a metaphor or emphasis to make it clearer. Some phrases that can help:
Just to clarify… Can you provide an example? What I’m hearing is… If I’m not mistaken, that’s similar to… How would convey that message if you were sending a Tweet?
24) End with Actions. One of the biggest issues with meetings is that people may walk away feeling excited and that progress has been made, but nothing actually gets done after returning to work. A simple but deadly effective tool for getting clarity around actions is the 3Ws technique: What will be delivered? Who is responsible? And by when?
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