Facilitation, like so many other things in the workplace, is something that an awful lot of people do but only a few do really well. 

Most people can stand up in a room, slap a few post-it notes on the wall while the conversation goes on around them, and capture the outputs. And the truth is, if the client is too polite to say otherwise or the participants don’t know what really great facilitation looks like, then if you do this you’ll walk away thinking you’ve done a pretty good job. 

Repeat this more than a couple of times and you may well start telling people that you are an Experienced Facilitator. You might be right. But if you haven’t spent time thinking about different approaches, consciously practised new techniques, or even considered “facilitation” a specialist skill to learn, then there’s most likely room for improvement. 

This is the first of three articles that gives you some tips and prompts to consider that will help you improve, and focuses on seven things to consider before you even get in the room.

You may be great already, you may not – but tick off this list and you’ll either understand the gap or have your expertise validated.

1.     Read these tips

Well, sort of. Facilitation is a distinct skill that requires structured and conscious learning to acquire. It’s not an accredited profession and the barriers to entry are non-existent so this means anyone who can talk and listen – let’s be honest, most of us – can claim to be good at it. But you’re better than that; take it seriously and you can become an expert. 

If you haven’t spent considerable time preparing with the session owner in advance, if you’re not intensely focused throughout and exhausted afterwards, and if you think your work is done when the meeting ends, then you’re probably not taking it seriously. Reading these tips will help.  

2.     Don’t facilitate your own meeting

If you’re the meeting owner then facilitating your own meeting is probably not a good idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s quite difficult to juggle the demands of effectively facilitating a workshop with the ability to actively contribute as a participant – both should require your full concentration. 

Secondly, if you own the meeting there’s a good chance that makes you the most senior person in it. This adds a layer of complexity to the facilitation, making it potentially harder to challenge suggestions or create an open environment for discussion. Your role as leader risks tempting people to revert to normal team dynamics, and that won’t necessarily create the environment you want. 

3.     Make sure you’re independent enough

Just as you don’t want to be facilitating your own meeting, you want to ensure that you have the right degree of independence. Managing a discussion on a topic that you are well-known for having strong views on is tricky, for example. Similarly, if your boss asks you to help run a workshop for your company’s Board then your ability to call out bad behaviour by the Chairman or manage a heated debate is probably compromised. 

The easiest way to ensure independence is to hire an external facilitator. That’s not always an option, so if you’re using an internal colleague then make sure you’ve got someone sufficiently distant from the participants – or recognise the potential constraints if you haven’t. 

4.     Agree who’s taking notes

It’s the little details that matter, right? As the facilitator you’ll most likely find yourself scribbling things onto whiteboards or post-its with some regularity. But meetings and workshops often need a more detailed written output. Check with the owner in advance what their expectation is. If you’re expected to produce some sort of minutes then ensure you keep track during the workshop or agree who is doing so. Don’t get to the end to have that awkward “But I thought you were…..” moment! 

5.     Think about the flow

If there are more than a couple of agenda items in your workshop then think about the flow of activity over the course of the workshop. When will people need a break? Is there a lot of sitting and listening? Are you expecting people to be very interactive right from the start? 

This is one of the ways you can add significant value to your client before you get in the room: think about the change in energy levels, what you’ll be expecting participants to do and how this changes throughout the session. This will help you decide when to add a break, what topics belong better together, and whether you need to consider building in icebreakers or energisers to help manage the flow.

6.     Who’s coming and what are they like?

Spend a little time in advance understanding who’s coming to the session; it can pay handsomely if you know who’s likely to react violently to a hot topic or which attendee never stops talking. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to stop the CEO from overruling anyone who disagrees with them in the meeting, but if you know it’s coming then you’ll stand a slightly better chance.

And as with many of these tips, having the discussion with the workshop owner in advance might just prompt them to think more closely about this themselves, which in turn might lead to you suggesting some pre-workshop engagement with tricky stakeholders to mitigate the disruption. Which in turn is more value that you’ve added before you’ve even got in the room. 

7.     Agree what role the meeting owner wants to play 

When you’re dancing around in front of a group of people it can be easy to get carried away and forget that it’s not actually all about you. Someone else arranged the meeting or workshop, and someone else is accountable for the outputs. Talk to that someone beforehand and agree how active they want to be. 

This includes how they will open and close the workshop, and how active they want to be in positioning the various agenda items and sessions. Think in advance about the role you think they should play – if one aim of the workshop is to help build team relationships for example, then the nature of their participation will help shape their future role as the team leader – and make sure you’re both clear on how your interaction will work.  

All of the above are things to consider when you’re getting ready to facilitate a session. Not everything will be relevant in every event, but run through the list and make sure you consciously decide what to ignore. 

And consider using the tips as a way to gain the confidence of the meeting owner. Even if you think that the proposed flow of the meeting is pretty good for example, then you might still want to raise it with your client; doing so can show them how much thought you’re putting in, and that in turn can make them feel they are in safe hands. 

Preparation is an important part of facilitation. What happens in the room is obviously the critical part though, but that’s a conversation for another post.  

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