The Ultimate Guide to Workshop Facilitation

Becoming a facilitator is a great career move, and learning the basics of facilitation is easier than you might think! Find out how in this article.

Working together efficiently is an inherently challenging thing for teams (and people in general!) to do. Conventional working scenarios don’t address some of the biggest pitfalls of collaboration: The working-style differences, politics that always creep into any group setting, and asymmetrical knowledge. 

Some of the most effective teams in the world don’t rely on just winging it, and instead bet on having effective tools to help them facilitate decision-making and problem-solving, aka having a facilitator in the room who’s able to guide the team to their best outcomes. 

Becoming a facilitator is a great career move, and learning the basics of facilitation is easier than you might think! In this article, we’ll lay out all the things you’ll need to consider when embarking on your facilitation journey. 

Let’s dive right in!

What is facilitation?

Getting clear from the outset on what facilitation means is the absolute key to facilitation success. So what is facilitation?

Facilitation is the process of guiding the group through collecting relevant information, identifying underlying challenges, ideating possible solutions, and ultimately helping the team define and commit to the next steps. 

Or in other words, it’s the process of making the team collaboration process easy, effective and enjoyable for the team members.  

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. 

Conversely, it’s just as crucial to identify what facilitation is not

Facilitation does not equal giving a presentation, simply delivering or explaining content, or making the calls for the team. While there’s nothing wrong with presentations per se, they don’t fulfil the workshop's main purpose: getting the entire team involved and uncovering their best potential. 

So who is a facilitator and what do they do?

A facilitator (or a Workshopper, as we like to call them!) is a problem-solving and decision-making expert that can guide a team through a structured step-by-step process that ensures solid outcomes.

Facilitators wear many hats, but a lot of their work will be in the following areas: 

  • Planning, guiding, and managing a workshop to ensure the team solves their challenge. Your task as a facilitator is to align the team’s goals with the right sort of exercises and fitting workshop processes. This also involves selecting the right tools, defining the workshop team set-up, and creating a schedule that will help you reach your end goal without overwhelming the workshop participants. 
  • Making collaborative work feel frictionless by avoiding the usual pitfalls of teamwork like team politics, and circular discussions, and making sure every person in the room gets heard. 
  • Resolving possible conflict by mediating different points of views and keeping objectivity at all times. 
  • Enabling teams to do their best work by allowing the team to focus on the challenge at hand, instead of having to worry about the organization of the decision-making process. 
  • Helping the team articulate key ideas by using fitting facilitation techniques and frameworks.
  • Asking vital questions to get at the core of the problem.

The goal of a good facilitator is to guide a group to their best outcomes, NOT to solve the challenge for the team (keep this in mind, we’ll be circling back to this later!)

What Makes a Good Facilitator 

So what ultimately makes a good facilitator? There are a few factors at play that you have to keep in mind:

  • 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
  • Deep understanding of the facilitation principles. An excellent facilitator not only knows the core principles of facilitation, but leaves in breaths in every workshop they run. Implementing facilitation principles in practice will not only make your job as a facilitator much, much easier, it will also make the workshop more energizing and engaging to be in for your participants. 
  • 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.

Nailing down all of these facilitation skills is essential if you really want to master the art of facilitation.

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Three Facilitation Myths You Need to Ditch Right Now

Understanding the nature of facilitation is the first part of being an effective facilitator and learning the skills you need. That’s why it’s crucial that we handle the three most common misconceptions about facilitation from the get-go. Not only can they stop you in your tracks before you’ve even had a chance to start, they can also negatively impact your facilitation abilities by making you focus on all the wrong things!

But not to worry, we’re here to debunk these myths once and for all so you can pay attention to the things that matter.

Myth #1: You need to come up with the best solution if you’re the facilitator

Remember we told you that a good facilitator’s goal is to encourage participants to think productively, not solve the team’s challenge?

Well, this is the thing most novice facilitators get wrong. 

Instead of focussing on guiding the team, uncovering their expertise, and letting them solve the challenge, they put pressure on themselves because they think they need to be the person in the room with the best, brightest, most innovative ideas. 

That’s because they haven’t yet adopted the facilitator’s mindset, which is: 

You need to be the guide, not the hero.

This simple change of perspective shifts the facilitator’s focus from being the center of attention and the hero to being the guide, the person helping others do their best work. 

To put it bluntly, you don’t need to show off how good or smart you are!

It also takes 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. 

Making this mindset shift is KEY to becoming an excellent facilitator. It also ties into the next myth about facilitation, which is...

Myth #2: The facilitator has to be a subject matter expert

This is a big one! Time and time again, we hear people say things like:

I can’t facilitate a workshop for company X because I don’t know anything about their industry!

But the thing is, you don’t need to be an expert in every industry to facilitate a good workshop. Just like we mentioned above, once you make the mindset shift from being the hero to being the guide, you’ll realize your role as a facilitator is not to solve the team’s challenges but to guide them through the decision-making process and unlock their abilities. 

While you definitely need subject matter experts in the room, it doesn’t mean you as a facilitator should take on this role. The expertise should come from the group, not from the facilitator. 

As a facilitator, you just need to know how group dynamics work, the best decision-making tools, and how to steer the group to their best possible outcome. The point is to bring out the best in the team, give them some tools and guide them to discover their own strength.

Myth #3: You need to be an extrovert to be a good facilitator

This myth is engraved deep in the minds of many because it’s the one that seems to make a lot of logical sense. You will be speaking in front of groups of people, so shouldn’t you be extroverted?

Well, not necessarily!

In fact, if you rely purely on your outgoing personality to wing it through the workshop, you likely won’t deliver strong outcomes. 

Some of the best facilitators here at AJ&Smart are introverts and this hasn’t stopped them from facilitating successful workshops for some of the world’s biggest companies (like Google & Twitter!). 

The key to confidently guiding a group is to have a big toolbox of exercises to pull from, to know the core facilitation rules, and to implement them! 

Core Principles of Facilitation

Now that we’ve covered what facilitation actually is, what role the facilitator plays, as well as debunked some of the most common myths, it’s time to get to the heart of learning how to facilitate effectively – the core principles of facilitation.

These principles might seem overwhelming at first, the more workshop facilitation practice you’ll get in, the more you’ll internalize these principles and the more naturally they will come to you. 

1. The Team Can Make or Break a Workshop

Getting the right team together is crucial for the end success of the workshop, and it’s a delicate balance to strike: invite too many people, and you run the risk of losing all control over facilitation, invite too few, and the workshop will be lacking the drive and momentum. A good rule of thumb to follow is to keep the number of participants to 7 per one facilitator to avoid overwhelm.

But it’s not just about the sheer number of participants. It’s important to pull together a balanced, multidisciplinary team that will ensure all the relevant perspectives are being represented. 

For example, if you’re running a marketing workshop for a company that works in a heavily law- regulated market, a representative of the legal department has to be present! Otherwise you run the risk of coming up with ideas that can’t get actioned on later due to law constraints.

Getting all the right people in the room will allow you to save time down the road, make sure all relevant perspectives are being heard, and ensure that the workshop outcomes can actually get executed after the workshop is done and dusted. 

Pro tip: A lot of times, gathering all the relevant people in the room is not possible for a few reasons. Either the group will become too large, or the team members can’t carve out an entire day or two out of their schedule. If that’s the case, opt for Expert Interviews: a handy way to get all the perspectives on board without diluting the team size and while accommodating everyone’s busy schedule.

2. Treat Energy Like It’s a Delicate Finite Resource

Energy is a crucial component in facilitation, and it directly influences the outcomes of your workshop. The key here is to treat energy like a delicate finite resource it is and not try to jam-pack your workshops with as many activities as possible. 

This might sound counterintuitive, and you might think cramming in as much value as you can will emphasize and highlight all the value you have to deliver as a facilitator, but in reality, the only thing it will do is leave your group drained and depleted at the end of the day.

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Here’s a rule of thumb you should follow: don’t plan for more than 3-4 hours of focussed activities into your day. That’s about how long an average person can keep focussing on cognitively challenging tasks and delivering their a-game. So even if your workshop is scheduled from 10 AM till 5 PM, make sure to limit the focussed working activities to about 3 hours, and fill the rest of the time with lighter exercises and breaks. 

Keep this rule in mind when you design your workshop schedule and make sure to include enough breaks and energizers into your flow.  Here are some of our favorite energizers to keep the energy up:

3. Set and get expectations

This step alone will make your workshops a lot smoother to run! 

Trust us, nothing can derail an otherwise good workshop quite like unmet expectations! And if you don’t take care of them, they will simply develop in the group naturally, outside of your control. So make it a RULE to set expectations for your participants at the start of the workshop to minimize the risk of them feeling disengaged, overwhelmed, or drained. 

The reason you need to do this is because workshops are INTENSE. And not only for you as a facilitator, but for your participants as well! 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.

The thing is, people tend to assume that they are the only one feeling overwhelmed or finding something difficult. Those thoughts can distract them from the workshop and dial up the pressure, resulting in a less efficient session.

The good news is, you can massively reduce this overwhelm by simply telling people what to expect and how they might feel during the process. 

So next time try saying these before kicking off a session:

It’s common that this might feel too rushed.
Often it will feel like we’re losing ideas because we’ll be moving fast.
The exercises might feel weird or awkward, and that’s totally normal!
It’s normal to not have any ideas yet.
It’s normal to feel like it’s not going to work.

Equally important to setting expectations is getting them from your participants! Asking your participants what they hope to get out of this workshop will make them feel heard and will help you know which topics to focus more attention on.

Here are a few prompts that you can ask your participants before the start of the workshop:
What are you hoping to get out of this?
What will make this worthwhile for you?
What do you hope to achieve today?

Pro tip: As participants share their expectations, make sure to note them down! This will signal to the group that this is not a formality, and you really care about making the experience enjoyable and worthwhile for them. As a result, your group will be much more receptive to the workshop and exercises!

4. Don’t Fall Prey to The Curse of Knowledge

The curse of...what?

Bear with us for a moment. This is one of the most important facilitation principles that you NEED to internalize if you want your workshops to run smoothly and deliver stellar outcomes. And we promise, there's no voodoo or black magic involved here. 

The curse of knowledge is a concept that refers to informational imbalance that occurs when one party knows more information than the other and fails to communicate all the relevant details. So in a workshop setting, this could manifest in you not explaining the exercises clearly enough to your participants, because it’s so obvious to you how they’re conducted, you might not even be aware of leaving out important pieces of information. 

The easiest ways to avoid the curse of knowledge are…

  • Adopting the beginners mindset and making sure all your explanations could be understood by a complete beginner in the field of workshopping. 
  • Painting the bigger picture of the workshop for the participants, and reiterating on it constantly. Remember, your participants won’t know why you’re doing the particular exercises you’re doing, and how they fit together. So as you introduce new exercises, make sure to mention that. If you won’t, the entire workshop will feel disjointed and unintentional , and your participants will be left feeling confused and not taken along for the ride. 
  • Steering clear of professional jargon or local slang,  even if you think the definitions you’re using are obvious to everyone. Opt for using simple, understandable language. Don’t try to sound or come off ‘smart’. Focus on keeping things crystal clear for your participants.

5. Be Prepared to Improvise

The thing is, workshops are complicated! They involve multiple participants, several different tools, and loads of moving puzzle pieces. It won’t always be smooth sailing, and you, as a facilitator, need to be prepared for that. 

Being able to improvise is the secret sauce of every excellent facilitator, and if you want to really master the art of facilitation, you gotta get comfortable with changing your workshop plans on the go. 

But don’t mistake improvisation for being unprepared! Actually, it's rather the opposite. Improvisation is all about having a robust toolkit, mastering all of the facilitation techniques, and having a few facilitation tricks up your sleeve. It’s about being confident enough when things don’t go your way, and keeping your cool, instead of being flustered.

The most straightforward way to ease yourself into improvising in a workshop setting is to be prepared for the absolute worst scenario and build in safety networks in case those things do happen. Always have a plan B, and C, and D… 

Principles of Remote Facilitation

By now, remote work is not just a hypothetical ‘future’ of work, but an inevitable reality for many. While some companies and teams have long adopted remote work as their modus operandi, it’s a whole new situation for others. But whether you’re used to it, or not, remote work is here to say, which also means you need to prepare yourself for remote facilitation!

Remote facilitation requires a new way of thinking: not only do you need the right tools (a virtual version of a whiteboard, sticky notes, online timers, etc), but it also requires a different approach to how you run the session. 

There are about a million details a facilitator needs to keep in mind: Is everyone engaged? Is there equal participation? Are all comments being heard? But don’t panic, remote facilitation isn’t that bad: You just need to make sure you’re taking the special principles of remote facilitation into account.

Remote facilitation largely relies on all the same principles as the in-person facilitation, but with a few crucial differences. We actually have an entire article dedicated to remote facilitation, so if you have a remote workshop planned, make sure to give it a read!

Levelling Up Your Facilitation Game

So how do you actually get started with facilitating workshops? Our best advice is to start small with a tried and tested workshop recipe, for instance, one of these:

And just like with any other field, you can’t ever learn too much about facilitation, so these books will be your best buddies on your way to becoming a confident facilitator:

  1. The Secrets of Facilitation 
  2. Gamestorming 
  3. Visual Thinking
  4. The Workshopper Playbook
  5. Sprint 
  6. The Workshop Book 
  7. The Art of Facilitation
  8. Facilitation Guidebook

And there you have it, all the things you need to know to get started with your Workshopper journey!

Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.