Seven lessons for an evolving facilitation practice

Standing at the front of a room, all eyes are on you. The group might have only five people, or more than fifty. They bring a range of perspectives and knowledge and maybe a broadly shared goal, though it might be subject to different interpretations and personal interests. You have no formal authority in this situation. You’re just somehow the person at the front of the room. Your task is to bring them together, forge a common goal, and make productive use of your time together.

In a word: Facilitate.

Many of us have found ourselves in variations on this scenario throughout our work. It could be an internal meeting with team members who know each other well, a workshop with a loose coalition of partner organizations, or an open-door session filled with community members. The situations vary, but the core question is the same: How can I help this group come to a meaningful outcome?

Facilitation is one of those general professional practices—like communication, analysis, or management—that isn’t just one skill, and isn’t applied in just one situation. Successful facilitation in any context requires a mix of concrete techniques, soft skills, personality traits, and relevant content knowledge.

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Pro tip: Chaotic isn’t bad. (Photo credit: Me, taken at the Doing Development Differently workshop in Cambridge, Oct 2014.)

Like those other professional practices, the only way to learn facilitation is to do it, alternated with opportunities for reflection and feedback. Seeing others facilitate is also helpful, as you can notice what works well.

My colleague Panthea Lee recently wrote a great blog post about a co-creation process that our team helped facilitate (along with a team from CIVICUS) in Istanbul last November. That co-creation was focused on innovation for civil society, but reading her description of our process reminded me of a few general aspects of my own facilitation practice.

Seven broad lessons stand out from my experience facilitating sessions with a variety of goals and in a range of contexts.

1. Facilitation is about shaping space…

This is fairly obvious: constrain the conversation too tightly and the participants will rebel; leave it too loose and they’ll lose interest, not to mention fail to accomplish anything. A bit more nuance comes into the practice of shaping the kind of space, rather than just the size: what blend of fun, serious, exploratory, critical, free-wheeling, cohesive, sub-divided, formal, etc. will you create together? Let participants help shape the space too. Agendas become adaptive frameworks, ground-rules become soft bumpers, and barriers within the group become permeable.

2. …and allowing participants to fill it.

Once you’ve created space, resist the urge to fill it yourself. This often means holding back your own knowledge. Don’t answer your own questions. Be okay with long pauses until others respond. The group must provide the content and the insights, or the whole thing falls apart.

Facilitation can be intimidating, but it can also be oddly liberating. If I’m going into a conversation where I don’t know the topic well, I’d much rather be the facilitator! Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have some amount of content knowledge. Just that sometimes, it’s best to not be the expert in the room. In fact, it can be very tough to play both the role of content person and facilitator.

3. Pay attention to starting points and expectations…

I once heard a community organizer describe how you need to meet people where they’re at, so you can bring them to where you’re all going. In facilitation, this shows up most clearly in energy levels. We’ve all seen the awkward result when an overly excited facilitator jumps up in front of a post-lunch crowd suffering from food coma, and the group just doesn’t respond. You need to match the current energy of a group, then start to raise it or lower it, depending on where the space needs to go. More broadly, you need to match expectations first, including cultural norms, which helps to establish a common identity among participants.

4. …and then violate them.

If you only give participants exactly what they expect, you’ll only get back what they’re predisposed to give. There will be no transcendence and no “aha!” moments. They’ll leave the session thinking, “That was fun, but I basically knew all of it already.” You need to push them outside of their common practices. Understand the expectations and norms, so that you can break them in the right ways.

Be cautious of how you do this. I’ve seen stodgy Kenyan government ministers jumping around giddily during an energizer—but only because it was Kenyan youth, not me, who led that energizer. You can only get people to transgress in one or two dimensions at a time.

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Pro tip: Whoever uses the most sticky notes wins. (Photo credit: Reboot, Apr 2013.)

5. Think outside the session.

Facilitation is a practice that follows Eisenhower’s dictum: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” We create plans so that we can adapt them. The amount of preparation needed depends on a number of factors. Assume you’ll need more preparation if you have: large or diverse groups; vague or broad goals; complicated sessions; unclear expectations from participants; or high expectations for concrete outcomes. On the other hand, if you have a homogenous group and the only expected outcome is knowledge exchange, then you can probably jump right in with no prep.

On the other side of the session, follow through is critical for your credibility as a facilitator. If you’re only creating a good experience for the participants, then no further steps are needed. If you aim toward some change in the world outside the workshop room, then you’d better have a general idea of the next steps before you even bring people together.

6. The little things matter.

Room flow, name tags, coffee breaks, enough markers, working AV equipment, and so on. These can add to participant comfort (or, strategically, discomfort). Every facilitator has a mental checklist, largely drawn from things that have gone awry in past sessions.

Don’t get carried away with this, though. I’ve seen wonderfully productive sessions in far-from-ideal spaces, and nothing spurs creativity like a technology failure.

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Pro tip: Dress to match your visuals. (Photo credit: Me, at the launch of the Global Delivery Initiative in Berlin, Dec 2014.)

7. Your toolkit can always be better.

An infinite number of techniques, exercises, structures, and games can be brought to bear on facilitation. These range from your in-the-moment responses to various scenarios (e.g. different ways to move a stalled conversation forward) to the structured activities you use to build trust, bring out new ideas, or spark insights. Your experience and observation of other facilitators will be the best guide for all of these.

If you want more ideas, check out a resource guide like Robert Chambers’ Participatory Workshops or, for something a bit more off-the-wall, Dave Gray’s Gamestorming.

Then again, nothing pushes your practice like facilitating other facilitators: when your session is full of participants with facilitation experience, and who could just as easily be the facilitator, you face new pressure to make deliberate and defensible facilitation decisions. And if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll certainly share their ideas!

Header photo credit: Reboot, Nov 2014.