How to Become an Effective Facilitator

A facilitator is someone who facilitates a group of people so that they can make progress.  

An effective facilitator remains fully independent of the group. They do not influence or lead the group to an outcome. Thus, if you are a facilitator, you will need to put aside your views and lead the event from an impartial standpoint.

A facilitator will encourage participants to discuss all the issues openly, increasing the chances that the group will agree on a way forward. 

An effective facilitator uses a facilitation process. A good facilitation process can help you prepare for and deliver a facilitation session. It can also help you to guide the session to the desired outcome.

What a Facilitator Does

An effective facilitator can aid a group to:  

  • Come to a consensus.
  • Deal with difficult issues.
  • Participate on an equal footing.
  • Build positive relationships.
  • Make decisions.
  • Find new ways forward.
  • Generate new ideas.

People Who are Not Facilitators

Sometimes people involved in education, or training, call themselves a facilitator. They help the participants gain some understanding of something they didn’t know before. Because they are delivering information to the audience, they are not a facilitator.  

Other roles that are not facilitation include:

  • A presenter runs a public event or broadcasts information. This is not the same as facilitation.
  • A trainer delivers specific knowledge to teach skills. This is not the same as facilitation.
  • An arbitrator judges a dispute. This is not the same as facilitation.
  • A mediator intervenes to help people resolve a dispute. This is not the same as facilitation.
  • A negotiator conducts negotiations to reach an agreement in their best interest. This is not the same as facilitation.

The Five Stages of Facilitation

The central role of a facilitator is to run a group meeting to reach a consensus, but there is a lot that happens before this meeting can happen.  

The facilitation process consists of the five stages shown in the diagram below:

The Facilitation Process: How to Become an Effective Facilitator

The five stages of the facilitation process are:

  1. Scope: An assessment of what is needed to make the event successful.
  2. Design: Designing the structure of the meeting and creating an agenda.
  3. Prepare: Organizing the event. 
  4. Facilitate Event: Running the event.
  5. Capture Value: Documenting the relevant session outcomes.

Note that in the diagram above, items in yellow represent things which happen before the event, and items in green represent things which happen during or after the event. Each step of the process will require you to call on other skills, such as your communication skills and interpersonal skills.

Let’s examine each of the five stages of facilitation in a little more detail.

1. Scope

To avoid going off-topic, you need to define the scope of the event. To set the limits for the event, you will need to talk to the people involved. Find out what they think is important to them. You can use this information to define what topics should be included or left out of the scope.  

Having boundaries makes it easier to run the event. Sometimes people will come to a meeting with their own agenda. When you clearly define the scope, you can easily manage this type of problem. 

Some key questions you’ll need to answer in this stage are:

  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What is the objective of the session?
  • What are the obvious conflicts between stakeholders?
  • How will you ensure you stay on track?

2. Design

You need to design the event structure and then outline a proposed agenda. As things don’t always go to plan, keep the schedule flexible to allow for changes during the event itself.

Consider an appropriate way of delivering the session to suit your objective. For example, brainstorming sessions can help generate ideas, whereas a workshop can help solve problems.  

Some key questions you’ll need to answer during this stage include:

  • How will you deliver the event? 
  • What will the agenda be?
    • Include timings and don’t forget to include refreshment breaks.
  • How will you measure the success of each part of the agenda?
  • How long will the session take?

3. Prepare

To prepare for the event, you will need to organize all elements of the session, including logistics, venue, attendees, and supplies.  

It is a good idea to meet at a neutral venue and to check well in advance that everyone is available to attend.  

Key decisions that need to be made during this phase include:

  • Decide on the venue and ensure that everyone can attend.
  • Organize catering and refreshments.
  • Organize any materials and resources you need to run the event.
  • Plan on arriving early at the venue to ensure you have time to prepare it for the session.

4. Facilitate Event

It’s time to run the event. Get the group engaged straight away by explaining the agenda. Describe the objectives of the session and set the ground rules to ensure individuals engage productively. An icebreaker session gets people warmed up. To frame the big picture, invite key people to outline important background information.

Then it’s time to start the discussions.  

Your job is to help the group achieve the objectives in the available time. A common challenge is to surface unknown needs that lead the discussion toward your objective. One approach is to break the group into smaller teams to brainstorm and discuss elements of the topic, then hold a feedback period for group representatives to report ideas to the room. You can ask questions to draw out further insights that the group may not see for themselves.  

Finally, prioritize the points that support the session objectives. Make sure that any decisions agreed on by the group are recorded.  

Some key things to think about for this phase:

  • Use the agenda as a guide for the day.
  • Remember to take a neutral position.
  • Explain the behaviors and attitudes required by everyone for the session.
  • Give clear instructions.
  • Actively listen to what’s being said (or not said). Paraphrase or mirror back to everyone understands what’s being said and agreed.
  • Encourage the participants to adopt shared ownership of the outcomes.
  • Manage the timing of the workshop.
  • Adapt as needed to drive the session towards a successful conclusion.

5. Capture Value

During the session, you need to document the main ideas and decisions. The idea is to capture the story of the session. Close each stage by referring back to agreed points to confirm that everyone agrees.  

If you have access to an assistant, ask them to document the session as it proceeds. This will help you concentrate on your job of ensuring the meeting is progressing and staying on track.

Some key things to remember to help this phase run smoothly include:

  • Ensure the event is recorded effectively. 
  • Seek agreement of critical points with the group.
  • Record the flow of the meeting as a record of what happened.
  • Note the key ideas and words that keep recurring.
  • Distill the main points from what’s said and not said.
  • Identify ongoing actions and who should own them.
  • Note who was present at the event.

Common challenges (and how to deal with them)

Likely, your session will run differently than planned. An effective facilitator adapts to proceedings as they go. You need to be flexible to keep the flow going and manage the time. An effective facilitator uses a range of skills to handle difficulties as they come up during a session.  

Here are some quick tips on how to handle common situations that arise during facilitation sessions.  

1. Lack of engagement

When a person in the group appears distracted or disinterested direct questions to them to get their active participation. 

2. Difficult people

Some people are disruptive. There are always people who disagree. Give people a chance to express their views, so they are heard, but keep discussions in line with the session rules. If needed, take disruptive people aside and set things straight.

3. Clashing group dynamics

It’s natural that during a group discussion, individuals’ views might clash. Everyone is entitled to their viewpoint. Remember, your job is to help the group find common ground. Frequently paraphrase or mirror back what is said. This helps to filter out the main points amongst the noise. Continuing this approach will keep proceedings flowing toward the session objective.   

Ask probing questions to elicit views. Use breakout groups for difficult topics to be debated and brainstormed. Try put individuals with varying points in similar discussion groups.

4. Unresolved differences

Sometimes the end of the event arrives but unresolved issues remain. These may or may not be relevant to the objective of the session. Determine how these issues will be dealt with after the session. Ensure everyone in the session agrees with the approach.

5. Type As in the room

During the event, all participants are on a level playing field. It is natural for leaders to seek control of the proceedings. If your session includes subgroup work, you could try giving Type As a leading role to meet their needs.

You can also limit the amount of time each individual gets to speak, to ensure that each individual gets the opportunity to speak.

6. Low energy

If the discussion has gone on for a while, and energy is flagging, it’s a good idea to have a quick break for people to refresh.

7. Interrupting

People who persistently interrupt likely have something useful to share. You can handle this in two ways:

  • Demonstrate your role as an effective facilitator by repeating the rules for engagement.
  • Offer the person a later timeslot to share their views. That way they can express their views in full rather than repeatedly interrupting.

8. Going off track

Your session might go off track. If you are running short of time:

  • Remind people of the scope of the meeting.
  • If necessary, agree on a revised agenda with the group to bring it back on track.  

9. Running out of time

It’s very common to run out of time. Some there won’t be the time to discuss all issues during the session, so park them for later and assign someone to take responsibility for them.  

Effective Facilitator Summary

Following the 5 stage facilitation process will help you to be an effective facilitator.   

The five stages are:

  1. Scope.
  2. Design.
  3. Prepare.
  4. Facilitate Event.
  5. Capture Value.

Taking time to do the necessary background research and planning will ensure you have the information to design a good process for the session. Following the facilitation process will give the group the best chance of reaching your intended meeting outcome.