Having a skilled, effective facilitator guide a meeting or a workshop can make a world of difference to the meeting's outcomes and team's efficiency! A skilled facilitator can get a group to focus on the challenge at hand and help them make better decisions faster.
Best of all, anyone can become a great facilitator if they have the right tools, techniques, and skills down.
Which skills are those? That's exactly what we'll be covering in this article. Let's dive right in.
Who is a facilitator, and what makes a good facilitator?
A facilitator (or a Workshopper, as we like to call them!) is the person who guides a team through a process, helping them unleash their potential, do their best work, and avoid the usual pitfalls of collaboration: groupthink, a lack of outcomes, and team politics (to name just a few!)
Facilitation is all about helping the group do efficient, meaningful work. It's about making sure everyone in the room gets heard, without falling prey to 'design by committee', and making sure there's an actionable outcome every time a group comes together.
A good facilitator's goal is to encourage participants to think productively and ultimately to articulate critical ideas, ask vital questions, uncover variables, find solutions, and identify productive actions, NOT to solve the team's challenge.
A skilled facilitator can supercharge a team's performance by eliminating the friction of group collaboration and providing a process for the team to follow.
So what ultimately makes a good facilitator?
- Unbiased perspective. There is nothing worse than a biased facilitator who drives the discussion to a preplanned (and obvious to all) conclusion.
- Commitment to collaboration. Collaboration can be frustrating. And all too often, there's the temptation for people to take on the teacher's role and take charge, rather than the role of facilitator and guide. However, a good facilitator knows that they're the guide, not the hero. They're in the room to help the team do their best work, not to show off how smart or cool they are.
- A sense of timing. A good facilitator knows when a discussion has gone off-topic and needs to be brought to a close or when team members are done with the exercise and ready to move on.
- A robust toolkit of effective exercises for every occasion, be it decision-making, problem-solving, or ideation. The more exercises you learn, the more flexible you are, and the better your workshops will become!
- Workshop recipes, meaning a set of exercises that go well together and produce strong outcomes when combined. An example of a workshop recipe is something like a Design Sprint or a Lightning Decision Jam
- Strong facilitation skills. A good facilitator has tools and tricks up their sleeve that can stop a circular discussion in its tracks, help them deal with troublemakers, and make sure their group is engaged and switched on (which is EXACTLY what we'll be focussing on today!)
The facilitation skills you need to master to become a great facilitator
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what makes a good facilitator, which might stop you in your tracks before you’ve even had a go at it. Or worse yet, negatively impact your facilitation abilities by making you focus on all the wrong things!
Learn to confidently facilitate any meeting or workshop
Trust us, if you want to really ace it as a facilitator, you don't need to be an extrovert or a subject matter expert. Instead, focus on developing these skills:
Mastering the facilitation mindset is key to becoming an effective facilitator and is also the thing MOST facilitators (novice and experts alike!) get wrong.
If you want to be an excellent facilitator, you need to live and breathe the facilitator's mindset, which is:
Be the guide, not the hero.
Or, to put it bluntly, don't try to show off how good or smart you are, and instead, focus on helping the team do their best work.
This will make you a more active listener and take the pressure off of you because you don't need to worry about solving the challenge yourself and can instead focus on observing the group, tuning into their needs, and making sure the workshop moves along swiftly.
It will also help you master the art of questioning or asking the group members to develop their own ideas rather than overpowering them with your own.
A good facilitator should be able to move the group along and keep the momentum going throughout the workshop. And one of the most helpful skills to do that is time management!
Not only do you need to allocate just the right time needed to complete the exercises, but you also need to make sure you're moving according to schedule or be able to adapt in case some exercises are running over-time.
A great way to start effectively managing time in your workshops is by implementing a time-boxing technique. For example, if you're running an ideation exercise, set 10-15 minutes for it, and after the time's up, move on to the next steps.
This approach forces you and the team to think more efficiently helps cut out circular discussions, and ensures your workshops always stay on time.
Shortcutting circular discussions
Circular discussions are one of the main reasons conventional meetings are such a drag to be in. They drain the group's energy, waste time, and don't bring you any closer to finding a solution.
As a facilitator, it's your job to nip circular discussions in the bud and make sure the group moves on. But this is easier said than done! If you need a few tips on how to gently but effectively keep the workshop moving, try implementing these:
Keeping the energy levels high
Energy is a KEY component in facilitation. Making sure your participants are engaged and switched on ensures they can bring their A-game to the workshop!
The workshop attendees will have to work hard to keep their concentration for long periods of time, take in a lot of information, and then put it into practice, so it's 99% likely they'll feel overwhelmed at a certain point during the workshop. So as a facilitator, you need to watch out for when that happens and make sure you incorporate energizing activities into your workshop.
Here are some of our favorite ways to keep a room energized:
Curbing team politics and groupthink
No matter the team or company size, team politics and groupthink ALWAYS creep up. Raise a hand if you've ever been in a meeting or workshop where one person (usually the loudest or most senior) is doing all the talking, discussions spiral out of control, and everyone understands the job to be done differently.
Without a set of tools and processes in place, ALL your workshops will inevitably slide off-topic and devolve into endless discussions.
It's your job as a facilitator to design your workshop in a way that will allow the participants focus on the challenge at hand instead of on navigating team politics.
Our two favorite tools to do just that are the Note&Vote technique, and 'together alone' working method.
Working 'Together alone' means that you're collaborating on the same problem in real-time, but instead of discussing ideas openly or brainstorming, you're silently noting them down on a sticky note–making it impossible for circular discussions to spark up!
Learn how to design your own custom workshops
The Note & Vote technique simply means that each team member writes down their idea or solution on a sticky note, and after all ideas have been stuck up on a wall or whiteboard where the entire team can see them, a round of silent dot voting takes place. With a Note & Vote, everyone gets to express their opinions, and you will reach a decision and an actionable outcome much faster than you would with an open ramble.
Effectively dealing with troublemakers
Frankly speaking, it's not a question of if you'll have to deal with a skeptic or a troublemaker, but a question of when. And when that moment comes, it's crucial you know how to deal with them in the most effective way possible.
All it takes to derail an otherwise good meeting or workshop is one person who is skeptical or is causing trouble by distracting other team members and being disruptive to the workshop.
But here's the thing: you can completely turn a troublemakers' energy around and even make them your biggest supporter; you just need the right tools to do that. Check out our favorite tips on dealing with troublemakers:
Giving clear instructions
One of the main things you're going to be doing as a facilitator is asking people to do certain exercises and explaining how they work. Funnily enough, this is the part of facilitation that causes the most difficulty for a lot of facilitators.
And nothing can take the wind out of your sails quite like having to explain the same simple exercise 3 times in a row. So make sure your communication is clear to all the participants. Our favorite frameworks for giving clear instructions is called "What, Why, How"
While it sounds simple, most people usually forget one of the factors. This usually happens because of a thing called the 'Curse of Knowledge': because we are familiar with the way a certain exercise is done, we omit important details that are obvious to us but aren't to someone who's new to the concept.
We say what we're about to do, then how, but leave out the why. Or we say what & why, but forget to specify how. As you're preparing for a workshop, make sure to run your material for every exercise against that formula and make sure you have all 3 elements covered.
Being ready to adapt
There are about a million things that could go wrong in a workshop: you might run overtime on one of the exercises, throwing you off-schedule, or you might have a troublemaker in the room who makes moving along impossible, or your tech set up might break…
The thing is, there is NO way to avoid mishaps or little hiccups in your workshop. The key here is to be prepared for each possible scenario and be willing to adapt ad-hoc.
BONUS SKILL: Remote Facilitation
Remote work is not just a hypothetical future of work by this point, it's the reality of our everyday lives, and it's here to stay. So to really ace it as a facilitator, you have to get to grips with remote facilitation.
Even experienced facilitators seem to shy away from remote workshops, and we get it: there's a lot more factors that can go south in a remote setting than an in-person one. But here's the thing, if you have the right tools and tactics in place, remote facilitation is actually not all that bad.
P.S. We have an entire in-depth guide on what you need to be aware of when facilitating remotely, so if you want to really level up your skills, we suggest you check it out!
How to improve your facilitation skills
If you feel like you might not be checking all of those boxes above just yet, don't worry! Facilitation, just like any other skill, can be trained, honed, and improved. And these tips might help you get started and keep going:
Seek opportunities to facilitate
Practice makes perfect, and facilitation is no exception! The best way to learn anything is to implement your new-found knowledge in a real-life setting directly. This will allow you to remember the concepts better and help you get more confident in your facilitation skills.
Double down on your strengths
What is the one thing you're really good at? Is it activating the group? Or maybe you're great at organization and planning? Whatever your super-skill might be, make sure to focus on that instead of poring over all the areas you need to improve.
Be proactive about your learning
That being said, don't assume you can wing it by simply relying on the skillset you already have. Instead, acknowledge your weaknesses and improvement areas and actively work on improving them.
And there you have it! Work in these skills, and we can guarantee you will be acing the facilitation game in no time!