How I Became a Facilitator (And How You Can Too)

Today, facilitation is one of the most highly sought-after skill-sets. Discover the best courses and materials out there to help you learn facilitation ASAP!

Guest post by Dee Scarano.

One year ago I changed my life and my career to work for myself as a freelance workshop facilitator. 10 years ago I wasn’t even aware that “facilitator” was a potential career option! I feel very lucky to have slowly navigated my way to this fun and fulfilling career, and I want to help others discover it too. The good news is that today facilitation is one of the most highly sought after skill-sets, and there are courses and materials to help you get there fast! 

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s define facilitation: facilitation is guiding people to work together in a structured way and solve problems more effectively, all while creating an environment where ideas can flow and decisions feel easy.

Learning how to facilitate workshops is a great way to level up your career and give you a distinct professional edge. No matter what field you work in, facilitation is a skill that can make you better at what you do. Or it can be the thing you do! Simple templates and tools make it easy to start running workshops today. And if you’re interested in facilitation as a new career or business, then keep reading! I’m going to tell you how I found independence, increased my salary, and actually started to enjoy my work.

Learn more about facilitation and workshopping in our FREE FACILITATION COMMUNITY

Is Facilitation Right For You?

It’s a common misconception that only extroverts can be good facilitators. That’s simply not true. 

In my very first internship job I was a shy, softly spoken person who was terrified of being the centre of attention. I remember the moment when my boss asked me to present our team’s monthly update to a room of 50 people who were all more senior than me. I was so nervous that my cheeks were bright red the whole time and I spoke way too fast. But I followed the material that my team helped me prepare, and I made it through. My next attempts were easier and I learned to rely on structures and methods that helped me feel confident. If you want to learn what those methods and techniques are, then read along, because that’s exactly what I’ll be covering in this article!

Today I run workshops for management teams and CEOs all around the world, and sometimes I think back to that day 12 years ago and feel proud and amazed that I’m now an expert facilitator, even though in the beginning it didn’t feel natural. 

There are many facilitation attributes that have nothing to do with being an extrovert or a natural public speaker. Things like being calm, flexible, a good listener, and helping others shine.  

So, if you don’t need to be outspoken or an extrovert, what does make someone a good facilitator?

  • You get excited when there’s a puzzle to be solved
  • You love to see people working together
  • You like to help other people shine 
  • You notice other people and how they behave
  • You don’t like when ego gets in the way of collaboration
  • You like to be a helpful guide, rather than the hero in the spotlight

If any of these things sound like you, then you can be a great facilitator!

Tips For First-Time Facilitators

The first few workshops I ran didn’t go 100% smoothly. At the time, I wasn’t aware that there was a balancing act going on. At first I thought that achieving the main objective was the only necessary outcome. But then I ran some workshops where the main objective was reached and it still didn’t feel like a “good” workshop. 

Over the seven years I have been facilitating, I’ve identified three factors that need to be considered to make a workshop successful:

  1. You must achieve the purpose/objective
  2. Participants should understand how the steps achieve the purpose/objective 
  3. Participants should feel at ease and comfortable

Considering these three factors, here are some practical approaches you can use to help your workshops run smoothly. These tactics are easy to apply and will make you feel confident before you even start:

Preparation before the workshop

Practice new workshop methods on something simple

  • ...before tackling a high-pressure, critical challenge

Ask one person in the team to take a “Decider” role

  • They will be a tie-breaker and help make concrete decisions
  • They can become an aid to you in moving the group forward at each step
    (Read more on the Decider role: 3 Workshop Hacks We Taught at Twitter)

At the start of the workshop

Introduce the purpose/objective of the workshop

  • When people know where they are heading, they feel more at ease on the journey

Explain basic workshop mechanics and steps

  • Demonstrate how to use the workspace e.g. how to write post-its and do voting
  • Give a high-level overview of the steps you will be doing

Set expectations 

  • Explain what the workshop will cover (and not): e.g. to solve a particular challenge, to make a certain decision and explain what you will not be covering (e.g. not solving all problems in one day, no time to discuss side-topics that aren’t on the agenda)
  • Gather expectations from the participants
  • Set a time box and ask openly for expectations
  • Note down each expectation visibly (so they feel heard and validated)
  • Clarify any misaligned expectations (this will help you move forward with more control) 
  • Setting expectations reduces confusion and tension in the group,
  • It increases the feeling of success at the end (when you deliver on clear expectations)
  • And also gives you more authority to cut off irrelevant discussions if things off-track

During the workshop

Keep a visible agenda and check back on it

  • People feel more at ease and comfortable when they know what’s coming

Plan time for reflection to digest what’s been done

  • Allocate a time-boxed section (e.g. 5-10 mins) to reflect what’s been achieved
  • Ask participants to express what stood out to them and what they might take away from the activities
  • This is best done at the end of a workshop or large milestone
  • It enhances the feeling of success when participants can reflect on their achievements and how they got there  
Real facilitation board example:
Set expectations, show the steps, a visible agenda, basic workshop mechanics

How to Use Remote to Your Advantage 

Working remotely can present its challenges. It is a little harder to sense the mood and react to your participants body language. But there are also a number up-sides that you can take advantage of. 

In 2020, two months after I decided to quit my job and make workshop facilitation my career, the world suddenly became 100% remote and I had to adapt, fast. The clients who had booked me for in-person workshops started to cancel and I was worried that my new career move would be a flop before it even started. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that working remotely had a lot of benefits that actually made the job much easier. My clients still had the same business challenges, and they needed me, more than ever, to help them collaborate remotely.

One great aspect of facilitating virtually is that you have unlimited working space and flexibility in digital whiteboards like Miro. Instead of having to pre-order post-its and markers and carry a box of materials to my client, I could prepare everything in advance and facilitate from the comfort of my living room.

When I ran workshops in-person I used a slide deck to show instructions, and a real whiteboard as the work area. Which meant that once I had moved to the next slide the instructions weren’t accessible anymore. Digital workspaces allow you to annotate the board with visible tips and instructions right next to the work area! This helps participants feel comfortable about exactly what to do and what is coming next. 

Another benefit of remote facilitation is that you can use offline-time (breaks) to review the progress of the workshop so far and prepare yourself for the next step without interruptions. When I ran workshops in-person, “break-time” didn’t really feel like a proper break because participants would want to chat over coffee and ask me more questions. Remote work means you (and your participants) can turn off the camera and really take time to either rest or calmly prepare for the next step.

Working remotely allows you to set a pace that suits you, and while remote work may be a new trend, it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of the space and flexibility that it provides. All while in the comfort of your sweat pants 😂

Visible tips & instructions, starter inputs, repeating agenda, scheduled breaks

Here are some more practical tips to make remote facilitation even easier:

Reduce session length and screen-time 

  • Keep each workshop session to 3 hours or less (avoid “Zoom fatigue”)
  • Don’t plan more than 2 sessions per day (e.g. two 1.5-hour sessions - before and after lunch - can be more effective than 3 hours straight)
  • Schedule short breaks every 60-90 minutes

Build in activities for self-care and energy management

  • Use energizer activities at the beginning of a workshop (or between exercises during long sessions)
  • Remind your participants to stretch, have a snack, and have different drinks on hand (and don’t forget to do the same yourself!)

Create starter inputs to “prime” each group exercise. For example:

  • Pre-write a few examples of post-it notes so participants can see how it’s done (e.g. how to write How Might We statements) 
  • Pre-draft diagrams or maps to give participants a starting point (e.g. a quick draft of a stakeholder map, or a user journey) 
  • Exercises will be clearer and faster 
  • Your participants will have fewer questions and feel more comfortable

Set some offline homework tasks for participants to do in-between sessions 

  • e.g. sketching ideas, collecting screenshots and examples, uploading photos.
  • You’ll save time during sessions 
  • And you’ll maintain the energy and attention of your participants

Read more on how to master remote facilitation: The Ultimate Guide to Remote Facilitation

Connect with other Workshoppers worldwide and share your own experiences and expertise in our FREE community

Common Mistakes You Can Easily Avoid

Part of being confident when you facilitate is knowing how to handle tricky situations when they happen. There are often factors you can’t predict: Frustrations, politics, hidden agendas. 

My biggest workshop “fail” was when I already had some experience under my belt. A large manufacturing company wanted their employees to learn more collaborative methods and had hired me to run a workshop. I had memorized the steps, practiced a few times, and felt confident and prepared, but when I started the workshop things went downhill right away.

The participants had been sent by their managers and they didn’t want to be there. They were skeptical and unwilling. It didn’t matter how well I knew the steps, I hadn’t allocated any time to understand their expectations, or put buffer-time into my schedule. The participants challenged me on every step and used up all the time with questions. They felt misunderstood and unheard.

From this experience I learned that facilitation is about meeting people where they are, and being prepared for anything. While you might not be able to predict what will happen, you can still be prepared and catch difficulties before they catch you.

Here are some of the most common facilitation challenges and how to avoid them:

People getting confused about the steps

  • Show instructions visibly and clearly (e.g. on a slide / in Miro board)
  • Explain one way to do each exercise: multiple options usually just confuse people

People asking a lot of questions & interrupting your flow

  • Set expectations clearly (as mentioned above)
  • Give a structure for how people can ask questions. E.g.:
  • Write it down and ask after the exercise?
  • Raise their hand (physically or digitally)?
  • Should they simply speak up and ask?
  • Create a “Parking Lot” area to keep questions that can be answered later
  • Use probing questions back to them to identify irrelevant problems. E.g.:
  • “What’s behind you asking that?”
  • “Will this help us do this exercise, or could we dig into it later?”

Running over-time / people talking too much

  • Set time-boxes for each exercise and show them visibly
  • e.g. digital whiteboards like Miro have visible timers built in!
  • Always include some “buffer time” in your workshop plan
  • When you are planning your agenda and estimating time, add an extra 5-10 minutes between each exercise just in case
  • This allows you to relax and take more time if needed. And if you don’t end up needing it you can have longer breaks 
  • Before you start the workshop explain that you will sometimes cut off discussion to help keep things moving (write topics in the “Parking Lot” so people feel heard)

Miro’s countdown timer is clearly visible for all participants

How to Get Started

Practice with something small, with people you know 

  • Try starting with 3-5 colleagues on a small, non-critical topic (e.g. “How can we make sharing the office kitchen less hectic during lunchtime?”)
  • Then ask your colleagues to give you feedback about the workshop

Use tried and tested workshop formats

Use existing digital workspace templates 

Dee Scarano

Dee Scarano is a freelance facilitator and innovation coach. She’s worked in product strategy, UX, and Design Sprints for over 12 years and runs workshops around the world for companies like Twitter, SoundCloud, Lufthansa, Verizon, Google and many more.