Good facilitation, great results


Many of us have sat through stultifying meetings that result in little progress or less than substantive achievement. Unfortunately, they are all too common. This article suggests one solution, facilitation, and explores what it can offer your organization.

Strong facilitation brings engaged dialogue, full participation, active and effective problem solving and a focused process aimed at achieving meeting objectives. As important, great facilitation can also move a group through the less tangible aspects of working together, deepening understanding, building stronger relationships and attending to the “glue” that makes for good working practices.

Why work with a facilitator?

A facilitator brings an impartial observer’s perspective that enables strong assessment of what needs to be addressed. Facilitators create a clear agenda and process and ensure that the meeting maintains focus and momentum, while also observing, listening deeply, and being attentive to the interplay between participants and the multiple nuances in a group. Facilitators also prioritize attending to and resolving issues that block progress.They are comfortable assisting a group in confronting difficult topics, navigating prickly interpersonal issues, and moving through a safe and boundaried process of dialogue to resolution.

Facilitation should keep participants interested and engaged. Depending on the needs of a session or group, great facilitation can be fun and provocative by encouraging active participation, engaging participants in dialogue, and oftentimes, creating opportunities for experiential learning, creativity, different thinking, and working as a group in new ways.

Advantages of facilitation

Provides an impartial observer’s perspective

Creates an open and safe environment

Maintains a meeting’s focus and momentum, achieving closure and planned outcomes

Builds skill and often knowledge within a group

Strengthens relationships and good work practices

Provides empathy, compassion and wisdom to support group process

Ensures an engaging, interesting and often fun process.

The role and function of a facilitator

A facilitator’s key function is usually to work with a group to ensure it has a successful and productive meeting. A good facilitator can play multiple roles, including guide, partner, coach, teacher, problem solver and mediator. Experienced facilitators are quick to think on their feet and have the flexibility to dip in and out of various roles according to the needs of a group.

One of the key advantages of having external facilitators is that their skill set and detachment from the process enables them to look at an issue or situation many different ways and to see multiple possibilities for problem solving or next steps. These abilities translate to the group with whom they are working to help it think creatively. This freedom to think “outside-the-box” of day-to-day work can be liberating for participants.

Skills and attributes of excellent facilitators

Keen observation

Acute listening skills

Strong intuition

Cultural competency

Sense of humor and play

High emotional quotient and ability for self-reflection

Flexibility and nimbleness

Creates a container for the work

Facilitates building trust and stronger relationships

Effectively manages conflict

Understands group dynamics

Uses a broad set of tools and processes

Asks powerful questions

Stages of facilitation

Framing the session: A facilitator will assist a team in defining and clarifying a meeting’s purpose, ensuring that it has clear, strong and attainable outcomes. Here, the facilitator will also help assess who needs to participate.

Process and preparation: Attending to the following elements can produce a vital, focused and productive work session:

Determine the meeting elements, including knowing what work must be accomplished, planning next steps and actions, defining roles and responsibilities, delineating a clear decision making process and describing how information will be shared.

A strong agenda is critical for the success of any meeting, including flow of topics, presenters, time allocations and pacing, and breaks.

Tools and processes are chosen to match a meeting’s needs and move participants through different aspects of work and engagement. The field offers a diversity of innovative tools and processes, including The Circle, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and creative exercises drawing on performing and visual arts. Aspects to consider are varying activities, small or large group or pair work, and group culture.

Ground rules can be helpful at meetings and facilitators will help create them, acknowledging differences in real or perceived power, e.g., between Board members and program staff. For example, a team might want to establish a safe meeting space with open dialogue, signaling that participants can take risks in engaging each other without distraction or fear of rejection.

Logistics required for each section should be identified and someone tasked with attending to practical needs, e.g., acquiring meeting space, meeting supplies, food and beverage, audio-visual needs.

Communicating with participants before the meeting is important to provide meeting logistics, the agenda and any preparatory materials, and preparatory work that is expected from participants (e.g. reading, presenting, critical questions).

Opening: A strong start is important to get participants energized. Depending on a meeting’s focus, how well people know each other, and organizational culture, a facilitator may want a group to engage in an opening exercise. For example, with a newly formed group, a relationship-building exercise can help participants get to know more about each other and begin interacting, setting the tone for a lively, engaging session.

Listening and synthesizing: Great facilitators bring a well-developed capacity for listening at the individual and group level. When participants are heard, they can more fully participate and listen to others. Listening at the group level combines with intuition and an understanding of group dynamics to help the facilitator effectively work with the group, specifically during troublesome spots. The capacity to synthesize is important at key moments to summarize progress and test that everyone has reached the same understanding or agreement.

Decision making and closure: At a facilitated meeting, groups work through a process to achieve closure and develop solutions or goals and outcomes for future work, while experiencing effective decision making and building skills in these areas. At this stage, next steps with clear actions, timelines for completion, prioritization, and team assignments can be agreed upon and unresolved issues acknowledged for future attention.

Wrap up and reflection: At the end of a meeting, facilitators build in time for reflection to allow participants to think about and learn from the process and their engagement. There are many ways to do this, and questions such as these can be helpful in prompting reflection: What worked? What didn’t work? What might we do differently next time? What successes did I experience? What challenges did I learn from? What did I learn today about myself?

Often a facilitator’s best work is hidden behind the scenes and subtly in the room. However, these are the direct indicators of a successful session: the process has gone well and seamlessly, participants have left beaming and energized, critical decisions were made, next steps were described, individual responsibilities were clarified, relationships were improved and a new shared understanding was developed. The facilitator is content and another group has successfully arrived at its destination!

See also:

Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making

Death by Meeting

The Weave: Participatory Process Design Guide for Strategic Sustainable Development

Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators

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