Ten Tips for Better Facilitation

Facilitation is the art of guiding but not leading, bringing learning but not lecturing, engaging but not directing. Coming from the Latin facilitar meaning “to make easy” the role of the facilitator is not to do for others but to bring out the ability of a group to accomplish a goal. There are books and manuals on facilitation, yet like many proven business tools, the role of the meeting facilitator is not explored enough. Beyond the basics, and even with facilitators advanced and skilled in their practice it is not hard to fall into patterns that are counterproductive. Stepping into a facilitator role again recently, I caught quite a few of my own failure modes. Since then I have collected a few more as I observed or coached other facilitators, to make this list of ten tips for better facilitation.

1. Unpack the agenda. As a time-management tip, leaving room for discussion, questions or extra exercises is usually a good idea within a scripted facilitation session. Even for meetings, too many items on the agenda is a sure formula for all talk no action. Leaving some space for learners who learn at different paces or in different styles, reflection, discussion, or hands on exercises is useful for facilitating workshops designed to “learn and do” such as kaizen events.

2. Avoid the back to back class drawback. Don’t be the professor rushing to her next class, or the trainer who scrambles to rearrange the chairs in time for the next group. Sessions should be at least 20 minutes apart, provided minimal set up and clean up of the room is needed, or unless you have help for these things. Who are we kidding when we plan back to back one-hour meetings in this age of non-instant transportation? Constraints force us to be more effective. Limiting the usable time for meetings by having a time to get set helps us start and finish on time, bringing professionalism.

3. Practice image training. Just as athletes simulate the race, fight or game in their mind in advance, preparing their neural pathways across their body for the real thing, a professional facilitator should close their eyes and mentally walk through the session. More often than not, one will recall a detail or two that may have been missed on a checklist. Image training can include considering difficult situations and practicing how to handle them calmly, rehearsing jokes or stories, or simply imagining how the facilitator or the group smiling. When it comes time to execute the facilitation the mind is ready.

4. Respect the PowerPoint Power Law For every PowerPoint slide after the 10th one, attention and interest drop off precipitously. This is a made up law but in practice seems to work as a good rule of thumb. One approach is to put less information on each slide and thereby make the slides flow more quickly, but ultimately in a facilitation situation the visuals should be organic, on the fly, and fit to the purpose of the situation rather than prepackaged.

5. Just stop by the jargon junction. The role of the facilitator is to make it easy for people to speak naturally but also for others to understand them. This may require paraphrasing or asking clarifying questions for the benefit of the group. The facilitator should also be careful to watch out for and manage the use of jargon. Jamming a lot of technical terms, acronyms or $10 words into a meeting is a sure way to make people feel less valuable in a group situation. The “jargon junction” is a section of white board or a large sheet of paper in a high-traffic, highly visible area that becomes the home of new jargon, acronyms and technical terms as they are introduced.

6. Make lists. Perhaps this is a personal obsession, but organizing the thoughts of the group into a numbered set by saying “Let’s review. I hear you saying 3 things…” or giving the objectives for the next hour in numbered fashion gives people a sense of order and time. Many times these lists are reusable from group to group, or even best practice tips…

7. Put the agreement in writing. This is always good advice in business. In facilitation, this means that when the group comes to consensus on a point, it is valuable to have them write it down in their own words. Seeing it in black and white allows everyone to see clearly what was agreed or proposed, and triggers either closure or the verbalization of disagreement as some fully grasp what is written. The written agenda, so-called rules of the road such as no cell phones or laptops, and the parking lot for topics that sideline discussion are all examples of putting it in writing. Even for small group discussions this is very effective. When the group is required to write down their thought process visibly, it becomes less of a discussion between a few vocal members and more a team discussion.
8. Body language blindness. In communication, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The longer and more information-rich the intended communication, the more this tends to be true. Someone listening and watching you speak may tune out of the words and tune into the language, especially in difficult facilitation situations. It is important to be aware of body language and the role of non-verbal communication. A facilitator should practice and exhibit positive and appropriate body language. However, as a facilitator a certain degree of body language blindness can come in handy. What is common is for experienced and sensitive facilitators to pick up on tense body language or tone of voice and react to that situation or that individual, rather than letting the situation play out naturally. This is not to say ignore body language, only to greet a certain amount of crossed arms, scowls and shaking heads with equanimity and smiles.

9. Talk less. Facilitators and trainers, thankfully, aren’t paid by the word or it would be a disaster. Facilitators need to activate the group, and then shut up. Facilitators should re-rail derailed conversations, then shush. Facilitators can ask questions, point to people who deserve their turn at answering, and then let the group members carry the discussion. The more that facilitators speak, the more they expose themselves. The more the group members speak, the more they expose the issues.

10. Take and use feedback immediately. While meeting evaluation forms have value, the “you won’t hurt my feelings, please tell me a few things I can do better next time as a facilitator” can be a humbling growth experience, if accepted with an open hard. Ask for the last 3 minutes of the group’s attention and don’t miss these opportunities.
Please share your feedback and experiences with facilitation.

2 Comments

  1. Ron Pereira

    April 19, 2010 - 6:37 am

    When teaching in person I aim to make people laugh, or at least smile, every 10 minutes.
    I have some “canned” techniques I can always fall back on if needed… but I normally try to let the fun come on its own.
    Sadly, I find MANY facilitators – especially those that ‘know their stuff’ – to be extremely boring people and, as such, feel like stabbing myself in the neck after about 9 minutes.
    With this said, I have also known people to be great joke tellers but terrible teachers. Sure it can be a fun way to spend an hour… but at the end of the session you realize you’ve learned nothing.
    So, I guess the trick is to have fun AND learn. Sometimes easier said than done.

  2. John Santomer

    April 20, 2010 - 12:11 am

    Dear Jon, I’ve met a lot of facilitators and speakers. Some worth remembering and some well…I’ve met one who has a knack of leading all the participants to use the rudiments of the course and work on scenarios he has presented rather than dumping all the details of the lesson at once. One can only remember soo much…And yes its true, as Ron said – learning is easier and fun to do when you are jolted from time to time by a good laugh! Although not as good when done at the expense of learnng…It’s also nice when participants can actually relate the lesson to their work experience and found practical applications as this is one of the major reasons why most have come to attend the course.