by Steve Roche

Ten things good facilitators do

1. Set targets and prepare

Help the group clarify outcomes that are achievable in the time. Prevent problems arising by agreeing ground rules and creating, from the start, an atmosphere in which everyone feels empowered to contribute. Arrange everything you can before the event so that when you get together with the attendees you have the best possible chance of achieving the outcome.

2. Maintain boundaries

Get consensus on how disagreements or conflict will be handled, clarifying your role in the process. Once boundaries have been contracted, you can remind the group of this agreement, if necessary, to bring them back on track.

3. Let go of the content

The challenge is to influence the group without dominating or imposing your will. Suppress your own solutions and ideas about the subject matter and encourage others to talk. Work with what people bring.

4. Retain independence

The main value you add as facilitator is the ability to remain neutral and objective. Ideally, you will have no vested interest in the result, but if you have strong feelings, keep them to yourself. It is essential that you show impartiality.

5. Focus on the process

Look at how people feel about taking part and at the politics and interactions between group members. Use your senses, intuition and instincts to pick up atmosphere and group dynamics. Are people enthusiastic, lively, excited? Are they sitting on their feelings or expressing them? Who is talking and who is not? Read the body language and non-verbal behaviour.

6. Be, rather than do

Doing is about the techniques you use to help the group along. Being is more about your personality and the energy you bring. To create a safe environment, one where people can be open and honest, the group needs to respect and trust you and to feel confident you are strong enough to deal with any incidents that may arise. These feelings come in response to your presence and personal style. See the topics on Rapport and Charisma.

7. Intervene when appropriate

Observe what is going on and make decisions on what to do about it, either keeping quiet and watching what happens or taking action. Intervene with speech or body language: a look, smile or nod can indicate challenge or support. Three main types of intervention are

  • Directive or hierarchical (telling the group what to do)
  • Co-operative (making suggestions and asking for consensus)
  • Autonomous (leaving the group to decide how to proceed).

The challenge is to decide which is appropriate (see Facilitation modes).

8. Assist understanding

Use your Listening Skills and do plenty of reflecting back. Use your Questioning Skills to clarify and interpret whenever people are struggling. Use examples and analogies to help them to understand. Break stale patterns by challenging predictable behaviours and procedures.

9. Confront difficult situations

It is easy to be intimidated by senior managers or by disruptive behaviour, but you can’t be effective if you are scared of making mistakes or not being popular. Develop skills and strategies to deal with difficult situations. If everyone contracted to your agreed role at the start, then you have prior permission to challenge anyone who is breaking the agreement.

10. Evaluate afterwards

At the end, participants will have a sense of where they have finished up and whether it was worthwhile. Get feedback from them. Get input from your co-facilitator, scribe or observers. Review your performance against your own assessment criteria and take the learnings forward.