Have you ever organised a meeting, event or social occasion? Great. Then, like me, whether it’s conscious or not, you’re already a facilitator too.
Because wherever there is a group of people, there is facilitation.
I’ve never been formally trained in “facilitation”. I didn’t even really know what it meant until a few years ago.
But it turns out I’ve been practising and participating in it for years – in meetings, presentations, conferences, classrooms, off-sites, parties, functions, events, even in my weekly ice baths.
Recently, I was an observer in a leadership session of 50 people.
That night, I came home and wrote up feedback for the team. As I was thinking it through, I wanted to write a checklist for my own practice to crystallise what I’ve picked up over the years from my own experience and others’.
So I decided to publish it here.
What I’ve found most interesting in the reflection process is that the skills learned through facilitation are not confined to meetings and conferences. They apply in my family dynamics, relationships, parenting and all sorts of social contexts.
In this article I asked my go-to facilitation ninja, Alix Dunn, for feedback.
As well as being an awesome human, Alix has decades of experience in facilitating events, meetings, and conversations both in person and remote. She’s worked with Google, Amnesty International, Shopify, DeepMind and Mozilla Foundation to name just a few. She currently trains facilitators in companies all over the world to better facilitate remote meetings.
I sent my draft through to Alix, then last night we jammed on a shared doc. Her commentary and pointers are in [brackets].
It was an awesome learning experience for me including a key call out of my approach (see #20 Permission for Benevolent Dictatorship). Tonnes for me to consider for my next facilitation.
I’ve split the article into 4 sections:
We hope you find it useful.
Please let us know in the comments if you have favourite tools, tricks, tips, activities etc for facilitation.
We’d love to hear them.
What Is Facilitation?
For me, facilitation is about helping groups to:
- create a great experience for all participants,
- create better outcomes than any one individual would have had on their own,
- work with the inevitable interpersonal dynamics and disfunction.
[Alix: The most important aspect of facilitation to me is to connect this conversation with those that have come before and those that will come after*. This is actually the primary reason why most meetings are a waste of time because they are unmoored from the greater context and purpose.]
#1 Facilitation of learning
A key insight for me as I began to understand facilitation, is the letting go of having to have all of the answers. That was a huge relief.
Just like coaching, it’s the realisation that while content may be a stimulus for conversation, the real learning happens in the minds of the individuals in the group.
Facilitation helps people to uncover their own solutions, to contextualise concepts for groups and to clarify their most important next steps and action.
[Alix: I see facilitation as the creation of space that allows people to step into a new perspective.
When I work with teams on things like strategy, facilitation enables them to step outside of their day-to-day and juxtapose ideas and questions that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter or see side by side. The way they fill this space becomes a form of group expression and clarity.]
#2 Facilitation outcomes
I find these three outcomes help me to think through and plan for a facilitation session.
- Education and awareness: While content can sometimes feel like edutainment, the story telling aspect is critical. It’s how we learn and remember. So relevant examples, stories and case studies can help people connect to their own understanding and apply it for themselves.
- Peer-to-peer contextualised learning: The group takes the seed content and makes it their own, fits it into their experiences and provides hyper relevant feedback and insights for their peers.
- Peer-to-peer support/accountability for ongoing implementation: Because groups can build a shared picture or mental model of the issues and topics, this helps to build a common language and understanding for making further progress.
[Alix: I see facilitation as about divergence followed by convergence. We can’t have a shared story or shared picture until we understand how we each see things through a unique lens.
To achieve together we have to understand each other and our ideas, and support each other to set norms and direction that allows us to prioritise and move forward.]
#3 Enabling voice and contribution
I want to help the quietest speak up and the loudest to listen. This doesn’t mean equal air time, but it does mean I want to help everyone have an opportunity to feel heard.
[Alix: I see voice as a word used to mean contribution, but that is a simplification of the idea of contribution. We live in a society that prioritises the loudest, but also those that process verbally, on the spot.
Remote facilitation opens up all kinds of ways to create multi-modal contribution — chat, voice, collaborative editing, anonymous polling, prep time, silent processing, break outs, 1:1s.
Facilitation is about creating pathways for all kinds of contribution with the goal of maximising engagement across a group.]
#4 Expect Discomfort
Facilitator vs participant
I recently shared a story about a deeply uncomfortable situation of being challenged directly in group environment and how I resolved it.
In this situation, mindfulness and values were important tools to help me choose my response in the moment and then a follow up later on.
It’s also a very good reminder to myself to make sure that I understand the most important issues for a given group when we finally meet.
Note to self: Never assume the brief is right.
(I talk more about the briefing process below in the Before section.)
Participant vs participant
Another time I was facilitating I had a domineering board member in a strategy offsite day. They’d been flagged in advance by the CEO. They’d arrived late because they’d decided their exercise was more important than everyone else’s time. They became increasingly disruptive over the course of the day. The chair didn’t speak up and I avoided confrontation in the hope that they would have the self-awareness to stop.
Turns out hope was not a good strategy.
Ultimately the outcomes that the CEO was looking for were accomplished but it could have been far less painful.
It was a critical lesson for me in establishing expectations or “House Rules” (more below).
The other reflection for me was to have an escalation process up my sleeve to deal with this kind of personality.
Here’s mine for now:
- Questions to the group
- Gentle but firm reminders
- Private conversation in a break
- Escalate to direct challenge if necessary.
But personality clashes are inevitable in facilitation and in any team.
In fact, conflict, tension and disagreement can all help create better outcomes for a group provided it’s within acceptable bounds.
Note to self: It’s one thing to experience discomfort for myself, but sometimes I have to be willing to let the group experience the discomfort too.
[Alix: I think a lot of the discomfort we experience when we are addressing an issue is because we feel like we are asserting our individual needs on another person or a group.
When we facilitate it is important to be able to articulate the objectives of a conversation. We are on the hook for those objectives. When something emerges that is working against those objectives, reminding ourselves that we are there to advocate for the success of the group can make intervention something you are doing for a group rather than to a group.
Sometimes I even start with a simple exercise to force people to disagree with each other so they can get into the practice.]
#5 Importance is the antidote to discomfort
The best thing I’ve found is to get explicit, clear buy-in from the group about what is most important to them and use that as our compass as we go. I like to remind people of what’s at stake so we might be willing to work with the discomfort.
[Alix: Asking people to commit to the objectives of the conversation at the top of a meeting can be a powerful way to enlist them into your goal of achieving them.
This can make it easier to advocate for the group when you push to change direction or effect the behaviour of a single participant.]
#6 Know the key stakeholders, audience, objectives and context
Depending on time and scope this might be:
- Connect with people (aka stalk) on LinkedIn
- Review websites, news or recent content
- Phone or in person interviews
- Meet with members of the group to find out key themes, issues and topics.
- Survey data – quantitative or qualitative
In this process, I’m listening for how they describe the problems they’re grappling with and specifically the language they use so I can adapt how I engage in a workshop or meeting to increase relevance as quickly as possible.
Note to self: A few questions to remember in the process:
- What are the desired outcomes and why are they important?
- What is getting in the way?
- How can I tie content and questioning back to these?
[Alix: I really like the question: If you are thinking in a selfishly constructive way, what would you get out of this meeting?
It frees people up to think about what they want, shows them that you are working to incorporate their needs to the extent that is possible, and it also is information you can draw on to refer back to them in the session themselves.]
#7 Reduce content
In facilitation the value is created by the group inquiry process, so less content is far more powerful. Getting to discussion and exercises quickly are where the ideas are generated, interrogated and then turned into concrete actions and take aways.
Note to self: If I’m not sure that I have enough content for a day, then I’m probably at about the right amount.
[Alix: In remote, speaking for more than 3 minutes uninterrupted almost guarantees you will lose people. Practice your prompts and segues so you can be tight with how you tell people what they need to know to get into the right headspace and get going.]
#8 Vary Modalities
Keeping energy in the session is always important. Changing the modality of the facilitation is an easy way for me to do that.
In person facilitation
Standing, sitting, discussion, content, speaker, video, written, writing, thinking, whiteboard, in groups, alone.
Remote meeting facilitation
Main room, breakouts, shared doc contribution, virtual whiteboards (eg Miro and Whimsical I’ve tried and liked but there are many others.), screen share, chat, live voting (eg Slido)
[Alix: It’s proven that when we move between spaces we are better able to remember things. In in-person settings I will sometimes book a second conference room so we can move during the day.
In remote facilitation, moving between platforms or documents can help to crystallise what people are hearing, learning, and thinking.]
#9 Be clear on exercise instructions
I really struggle with this. I tend to repeat facilitation exercise instructions. Often it’s because I know the exercise well and know what to do. But I really need to sit down in advance and consider it from a first timer’s point of view to make sure they’re clear.
[Alix: Lean into different learning styles by typing out your prompt instructions, practice them verbally, and share them in chat if you are remote. Saves repetition and improves the quality of your prompts.]
#10 Facilitator or Participant?
I’ve often tried being a facilitator and a participant in the same meeting. It’s possible and it’s what most of us do, most of the time.
Leaders facilitating in groups always impact the group dynamics – it can’t be helped. And because leaders are so often the facilitator in their own meetings, they have to watch the clock/agenda/logistics as well as try to contribute.
While that’s the norm, it’s a juggle. Having an outsider facilitate meetings allows everyone to participate.
In my experience, the more important the meeting (by factors like duration, group size, importance of decisions, collective salaries, opportunity costs etc), the more valuable it is to have the external facilitator.
[Alix: When you are wearing two hats, be clear which you are wearing and be mindful that your power as a facilitator means it will be more difficult to disagree with you or tell you to stop talking if you are stifling engagement by over contributing.]
#11 Facilitation Agenda Template Structure
My go-to structure or story arc for a facilitation agenda is past > present > future. I’ve found this leaves a group with a sense of closure, momentum and clarity of next steps.
Critical point: Participants should be doing something more than listening as soon as possible.
Here’s a more detailed agenda breakdown:
- Mindfulness – a brief mindfulness exercise helps to bring people into the present.
- Welcome & Why – Purpose of meeting, Why people are here today, Why do they want to commit? Expectations of each other. Particularly with an external facilitator, it’s important that a leader “hands over trust” by explaining the “why”. [Alix: in groups smaller than 20 in person and 10 remotely, everyone should speak. A low stakes go round with introductions and a question to get them warmed up and in the ‘room’ can get you started off right.]
- Progression – Where are we in the process? (particularly if there have been multiple sessions.) What is the agenda for today?
- Past/Reflection – Where have we been? What have we learned? What might we do differently next time? This helps to tie up the loose end and free people to focus on the issues at hand.
- Present – Where are we now? Updates? This provides the data we’re going to use to move into the Future section to make sure we’re all on the same page.
- Future – Where are we going? How are we going to get there? This builds on the insights from the Past and Present sections to focus on future options and resulting ownership of actions personally and collectively.
- Wrap – Any aha moments? Key takeaways from the time together?
In a work setting, I’ll often run some kind of personal reflection activity too (here are some reflection templates).
One activity I love is Nourishers, Drainers, Looking forward to:
- Nourishers – what has given you energy?
- Drainers – what has drained your energy?
- Looking forward to – what are you looking forward to in the next period?
- Share and discuss what you feel comfortable with.
These should be at least every 90 mins. Revise content and activities until they are.
[Alix: In remote, you should be clear that people can turn off video whenever they need to relax physically, and breaks should be every hour.]
#13 Allocate relationship building time
One of, if not the, most important outcome of any group facilitation is relationship building. In work that’s the opportunity to break down silos, increase trust, share experiences and just fundamentally enjoy the process of being with your team.
Tactically this might mean longer lunches, or specific activities. If a group doesn’t know each other well, I prefer to increase structure with questions and activities to reduce awkward moments.
[Alix: In remote, for longer sessions or sessions with groups that will work together longer term, I will set aside 15 minutes for extended introductions or 1:1 social time.]
#14 Preparation for participants
Everyone performs better with preparation. No exceptions.
So wherever possible, I try to seed questions, share objectives and agendas, provide preliminary content, gather data, ask for input prior to the event. This creates the space for deeper thinking without the social and time pressures.
The comms in the build up to an event are critical.
Note to self: Don’t skip this step.
[Alix: Some preparation can undermine meetings if we focus too heavily on process and not enough on story, or if we prepare people to operate from a script because we get them too focused on what they want to get out of a conversation rather than what success looks like for the group.]
I ran a workshop once in a venue with no windows. We were inside all day. The food was brought to the room too, so there wasn’t even that excuse to leave. By the end of the day I felt awful.
Plants, light, fresh air – the science is well and truly in on the role environment plays in performance.
Some basics, like a window, can go a long way. Decent food helps too.
[Alix: This often happens when we focus on the time allotted and a list of things to do rather than the objectives and experience. If you get clear on that and the importance of impact over quantity of hours, the faster we let go of the ‘hustle’ agenda mentality and the less likely we are to end up in basements.]
#16 Materials, notes and actions into existing workflows
A good workbook is an art form all its own. But so many end up on shelves and in drawers.
If I can, I love facilitating a workshop so people capture notes and actions into existing workflows. Even if it means simply allocating time at the end to summarise them from a workbook.
I try to design for time and activities for people to pull out laptops or phones to have the notes searchable, accessible and useable after the event.
Having a designated scribe can also help. Ideally someone who is not participating so note taking is their sole focus.
[Alix: This is where remote wins. Documentation is more natural to produce in the course of our conversations. That said, be mindful of the power dynamics of who is documenting — if it’s all junior people of marginalised races and genders doing your note-capture, you’ve got a problem.
Elegantly designed takeaway prompts are also a great way to lift up the signal from the noise. Prompts like: What’s one thing you’re still thinking about from that session? What is an open question you still think needs to be resolved? What’s one door you closed in that discussion?
Answers to these questions will help you create high value notes rather than high volume reportage.]
Leading Facilitation On The Day
#17 Room Set Up
Make sure everyone can see screens and speakers. Change table and chair config as necessary.
[Alix: In remote turn on closed caption, let people know if the meeting will be recorded, and ask in advance if there are any accessibility requirements people need to participate fully.]
I nearly always start any presentation or facilitation session with mindfulness. This is just as much for me as it is for the participants.
My go-to activity is 3 x 4-7-8 breaths (breathe in for a 4 count, hold for 7, out for 8). I’ll use variations of that again after breaks to help people refocus on the work at hand.
[Alix: I’m stealing this.]
#19 Holding space
I found this idea a bit woo woo at first.
But if I think of the purpose of facilitation as being the enablement of others (rather than subject matter expertise), then I can visualise the space and the participants in it.
My aim then is to try to maintain a global view of interactions and responses within the group and make choices about where to focus my attention to support the group in finding their own solutions.
[Alix: I like to think of facilitation as creating structure within which serendipity can happen. When things are too random, or messy, or noisy, it’s really difficult to relax, and when we’re not relaxed and stressing about being interrupted, or wondering what comes next, we can’t show up creatively and empathetically.
Holding space is about creating psychological and strategic safety to take risks together.]
#20 Permission for benevolent dictatorship
It’s the delicate dance of giving a group enough space for discussion and yet having the ability to interject, cut people off. The best way I’ve found is to make this an explicit request.
Is everyone ok if I have to interrupt from time to time to make sure we stay on track?
Some people present this as House Rules such as:
- I’ll be asking people directly to give comments and feedback on different sections so you’ll need to pay attention.
- Dichotomies like : Judgement off, Curiosity on. Devices off, Videos on. (Hat tip Byron Rienstra for this one.)
- Doors will be locked at the start time and will not open again until the next break. (This was from a friend of mine who did a course at London School of Economics. If you’re late, you’re locked out until the next session. No exceptions.)
- Confidentiality statements.
[Alix: A dictatorship implies you’re doing what’s good for you. A facilitator is working to do what’s good for the group. I will often say at the top, I may use sharp elbows so we keep on time, or I am time-boxing this conversation for 10 minutes so we can make sure we cover the other things we want to discuss.
I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling them that is going to happen so they can trust that if someone is talking and talking, someone has taken responsibility for addressing it and they don’t have to.]
#21 Music to direct attention
It sets the tone as people walk or sign in.
It helps differentiate between thinking time and activity time.
It also makes a space – virtual or in person – feel less lonely.
Crank the music volume for attention. Moving people in and out of activities and spaces for breaks can be excruciating. Thank goodness for enforced closing of breakout rooms online! The inherent conflict is that so much of the value is created in those interactions. But I’ve seen music volume used like a scalpel to signal expected behaviours and direct attention.
Choose music wisely. I once had a participant ask me pretty frankly to turn it off when a classical playlist I’d used headed into a somewhat screechy violin piece.
Have it in offline, downloaded playlists. (Beats banking on the wi-fi working.)
Always take my own speaker. Never bet on facilities.
[Alix: This is really fun. I always feel judged for my music taste but should probably get over myself. One of the coolest moments at a remote event I facilitated was a participant played piano for us as we closed the sessions each day. Live music was a whole other level of connection and risk.]
#22 Questions and silence
Because my job as the facilitator is to help people learn for themselves, questions and silence are two of my most powerful tools.
A facilitator is a bit like an event MC – you’re not there for the spotlight, you’re there to make everyone else look (and feel) good.
Deflecting questions to other group members I’ve also seen work really well.
“Thanks for the question John. Jane, what do you think of that?”
[Alix: In remote, silence feels like the oxygen is being sucked out of the airlock. Count to 5 in your head before you rush to fill it. Be sure to incorporate silence in your agenda as people use silence to process information and non-stop talking can make it really difficult to engage meaningfully.]
#23 Be ruthless on time
Time is a non renewable resource for everyone. The implication of someone not being careful with other people’s time is that theirs is more important.
Everyone appreciates an early mark. That may mean cutting out content or reprioritising discussion. But always finish on or before time. Lots of conversations can be had later.
[Alix: In remote meetings, people are often ending a meeting right as they are beginning their next one. I start meetings at :05 and try and end at :55.
What you get out of the last 5 minutes is never worth the rushed feeling of people zooming from one calendar invite to the next feeling like they’re on a treadmill of sameness and anxious because they’re late.]
#24 Physical movement
In work settings especially, it can be really common to be seated all day. Some things I’ve seen work really well:
- Create opportunities to change tables
- Set up activities in different sections of the room to force people to move
- Stretching exercises
- Stand and gather around a whiteboard
- Use the space as a continuum so people can respond to a question by physically positioning themselves in a room. How much of your potential is being used? All of it on one side, none of it the other side of the room. Stand where you think is appropriate.
- Give permission for people in virtual settings to stand up and move about.
Aligning the movement exercises with the agenda is really powerful to have people move after breaks (especially lunch).
[Alix: In remote, frequent breaks are important. I have a friend that starts sessions with body work, where people stand up video off and touch their toes, reach of the sky and do a few breathing exercises. Video off is important too — we weren’t meant to have perfect posture for 90 minutes at a time.]
#25 Silent Brainstorm
To minimise the impact of power dynamics and personality types, one of my favourite activities is to have people brainstorm in silence (or with thinking music). Ideas and notes then form the basis of the group discussion.
[Alix: Just one upping the comment above about silence being a scary but critical aspect of remote work. Silent reflection followed by a non-verbal share in a document or in chat can open up ideas and space for new things to emerge that wouldn’t have come out in a space of shouty sharing.]
Whole books are written on gathering feedback. The Ultimate Question by Fred Reichheld is a ripper and is the basis for the Net Promoter Score or NPS. Feedback can be extremely sophisticated.
I use a simple survey tool like Google Forms, Typeform (bit nicer) or Survey Monkey with the 5 questions below. The wording for these are precisely chosen to align with a mix of evidence based approaches like the Net Promoter Score.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this [event] to a friend?
- Why did you give that score?
- What worked well?
- What could be improved?
- All your comments
If possible allocate time for feedback as a part of the agenda.
In my experience “feedback as homework” has atrocious completion rates and people quickly forget the specifics that will help me get better next time.
[Alix: I encourage my facilitation students to ask at least two participants 1:1 to talk to them about what they got out of the meeting and how it could have been better. This gives you textured feedback and helps you hone ‘speculative empathy’ which is a technique I use to review, reorder, and redesign agendas based on what I anticipate people will experience if I subject them to that agenda.
Feedback is important, but you might get as many different pieces of feedback as you have participants so don’t get discouraged if a few people weren’t 100% satisfied. That is the nature of designing things for a group.]
#27 Follow up
The aim of follow up is really to make sure everything has been wrapped up.
If there’s anything remaining, be clear on what is left to complete. I try to make it the responsibility of the group to compile and send notes, take photos or export exercise outputs.
Thank you notes/emails/gifts are great. Choose what’s appropriate for the situation.
[Alix: I tell students to share after every meeting: Why we got together, what we did, and what comes next.]
You can find Alix at:
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