Facilitation skills are generally thought of as those needed to run workshops and/or away-days.
Most facilitators will tell you that, in fact, their skills range much more widely and are generally about supporting processes, which may include team building, project management and change management.
It is possible, although perhaps more difficult, to facilitate a process from within, that is, as an insider or even the manager of the process.
However, most often, organisations or teams will bring in an external facilitator to support the process, with all the advantages of neutrality.
What is Facilitation?
Facilitate v.t., to make easy or easier. From facile, easy, working with ease.
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition
Starting the Process of Facilitation
Most good facilitators, brought in to support a process, will start by asking ‘What do you want to achieve?’
This question, which is often surprisingly difficult to answer, is at the heart of good facilitation skills.
It is very easy for teams or organisations to get caught up in the idea of having a workshop, or running a team-building exercise, without having a clear vision of what the process is designed to achieve.
And, as our page on Strategic Thinking clearly shows, it is very hard to get to the right place if you don’t know what the right place looks like, or where it is.
The job of the facilitator is to support clients in getting to the right place for them.
It doesn’t matter if the facilitator agrees with the strategic aims of the client. The facilitator is there to help the client to articulate, and then reach, their aims, not the aims of the facilitator.
One of the first crucial skills of facilitation, is to ask the right questions to help the client develop their aims and objectives.
See our pages on Questioning Skills for more information.
The Heart of Process Facilitation
At the heart of process facilitation is an understanding that the facilitator is there to support the process.
The facilitator is not a subject expert.
Whatever the facilitator's views on the subject are, they are not there to give them. Facilitators therefore should have no input into the content of the discussions, events or work more generally.
Work that may be required to support the process includes:
Supporting the building or maintenance of relationships, including mediating in disputes if necessary. You may find it helpful to look at our pages on Difficult Group Behaviours, Conflict Resolution and Mediation Skills;
Managing participants, especially those who tend to try to express their opinions more often than others and ‘hog the limelight’;
One facilitator’s trick for managing participants who try to ‘hog the limelight’ is to offer them a toffee. This will make it hard for them to talk for a while, and if offered in the right way, may even raise a smile and a wry awareness of the issue.
Ensuring the process runs to time including, for events, coffee and lunch breaks and sessions starting and finishing at the right time, and for longer processes, that each step is concluded by the deadline. See our pages on Organisational Skills and Time Management for more.
Encouraging participation and involvement of all possible stakeholders.
Ensuring that work is appropriately delegated, especially in a longer term process. See our page on Delegation Skills for more.
Many people feel nervous about the prospect of facilitating workshops.
Workshop facilitation skills have many similarities to presentation skills, many of the steps involved in giving a successful presentation or talk are equally important to successful workshop facilitation. Good preparation including knowing the audience and what is expected can help alleviate some of the nerves.
See our section on Presentation Skills for more information including our page Coping with Presentation Nerves for some tips on how to reduce and control feelings of nervousness.
Tips for Successful Workshop Facilitation:
1. Remember that you’re there by consent
You’re not a teacher, and you don’t have to make the group do what you want.
Actually, you’re there to help them do what they want. If they don’t want to do a particular exercise, or to do it differently, then that’s fine. They’re adults. They can go and have a cup of coffee if that’s what they agree to do.
The process of agreeing to take a break could be as important for the group as anything that you can organise.
2. Watch out for tipping points
There are natural tipping or turning points in every event and every activity.
Use these tipping points, don’t fight them. If you’re running a game for the group, and it’s getting a bit out of hand, then call a halt.
Use the natural point at which it would tip into chaos to tip it into another activity instead, perhaps a summing-up.
3. Ask members of the group to help
Remember, you don’t have to carry the whole process yourself.
It’s quite acceptable to ask others to help, for example, to write points up on the board, or to move tables and chairs about. And if it’s not working, or what you’re doing is very definitely falling flat, ask the group why, or what they’d rather be doing. It is, after all, their event and their time.
4. Use your physical position in the room
Your physical position has an impact on your effect in the group.
Think about it. If you’re standing, and everyone else is sitting, you’re in a position of authority.
If you need to tell the participants something, for example, explaining an activity, then stand up at the front of the room.
If you want the group to discuss something without you leading the discussion, sit down or move to the back of the room.
If you want to stop a discussion, stand up and lean forward, putting yourself into the group.
See our page, Non-Verbal Communication for more about body language.
5. Use a variety of activities, table layouts etc.
Everyone likes variety. It keeps us interested, aiding concentration.
Give workshop participants plenty of different things to do, and keep them moving about to keep them awake and focused. By all means get them to move the tables into different layouts for different exercises.
Try getting them to use both left and right hand sides of the brain by introducing some elements of drawing or making into the proceedings. You and participants may both be surprised at what emerges from a process of making something.
Playing a game is a great way to consolidate the learning in a fun way.
6. Prepare thoroughly
Do not underestimate the importance of thorough preparation. People will be able to tell if you haven’t prepared properly, and so will you.
Once you’re a very experienced facilitator, you might occasionally get away with a shortage of preparation if you’ve run very similar workshops before, but don’t expect to be invited back if you try to do it too often.
You do need to do your homework. Know your audience, find out what they want to achieve from the session in advance, and make sure that you have activities planned that will help them to do this.
Facilitation skills are as much about preparation before the event as they are managing the event.
7. Ask questions to keep a discussion going
If a discussion is flagging, have some prepared questions to drop in that might stimulate further discussion.
Also be prepared to accept that a discussion may reach a natural end-point before the planned end of the session, and if so, the group may want to go for a coffee early.
8. Develop a portfolio of ideas and activities
It’s a good idea to experiment with new activities and ideas whenever you can, so that you build up a repertoire of group exercises or games that you like to use.
For future events, if you’re under pressure to produce a new activity from nowhere, you’ll have a go-to list of tried-and-tested workshop activities that you can adapt for almost any situation.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.
Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.
A Cautionary Conclusion
Although you can learn a lot about facilitation skills by reading and studying, this can only go so far.
More than many other skills, facilitation skills are best acquired through practice, preferably alongside an expert practitioner who can give you feedback and support you if the process does not go to plan.