When Do You Need a Facilitator?

When do you need a facilitator? What sorts of pain points can they help you address? Here are 10 common scenarios where an expert facilitator is necessary.

A meeting or workshop facilitator can help you to collaborate better and get results. But how do you know if you need a facilitator? What sort of pain-points can they help you address? Find out in this post. 

We all know how important collaboration is, but it’s not always easy to get it right.

Sometimes, group dynamics and office politics get in the way. Sometimes, there are so many different voices and opinions to consider that finding a solution seems impossible. 

If you’re wondering whether or not it’s time to call in an expert facilitator, keep reading. We’ll explain:

First things first…what exactly is a facilitator?

What is a facilitator?

A facilitator is a dedicated expert who helps groups to collaborate more effectively. They are trained in specific skills, techniques, and tools which they use to:

  • Design and plan efficient, time-boxed meetings and workshops
  • Engage the group in activities and exercises which help to generate ideas and solutions
  • Manage conflict and tricky group dynamics
  • Build consensus and get the group aligned on a particular direction
  • Help teams turn ideas and decisions into actions and outcomes

Importantly, facilitators do NOT get involved in the process themselves. They are there to guide, remain impartial, and unlock the group’s potential without influencing the session outcomes. 

You might have people in your team who possess essential facilitation skills and can act as facilitator for certain meetings and workshops. 

But, sometimes, you need an external facilitator — someone to come in from the outside and get things moving in the right direction. 

So when exactly is it time to call in a facilitator? Let’s take a look.

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When do you need a facilitator? Top 10 reasons for using one

Consider working with a facilitator if any of the following scenarios apply:

  1. You’re lacking a clear process. You’ve got a big initiative to kick off, a problem to solve, or an idea to develop — but you’re lacking a defined process or approach. A facilitator can help you find the most productive course of action and give you a clear structure to follow.

  2. You want to ensure participation and contribution from everybody in the group. With unfacilitated meetings and workshops, there’s a high risk of uneven participation across the group. The louder, more extroverted group members take over while others fade into the background, unheard. A professional facilitator will expertly balance out group dynamics and make it safe and comfortable for everybody to contribute. 
  1. You want to eliminate bias from the process. It’s hard to remain truly neutral when you’re part of the team and/or have your own ideas about how things should be done. A facilitator will help you consider different perspectives and ensure that any decisions made are done so collaboratively — and based on what’s best for the project.

  2. You’re out of ideas and hitting a wall. Have you been mulling over the same problem for what feels like eternity? Are you finding it impossible to land on a feasible solution or course of action? You need to inject some creativity into the process and find new ways to ideate and problem-solve. You need a facilitator, ASAP.

  3. You’re struggling to reach consensus and alignment. You’ve got a group project that requires alignment across all stakeholders — but you just can’t reach an agreement. An expert facilitator is specifically trained in helping groups to reach consensus, allowing you to move the project forward.

  4. Group dynamics are turbulent and/or delicate. When the stakes are high, you might expect some conflict or disagreement within the group. A facilitator will manage conflict, keep discussions constructive and productive, and ensure that politics don’t get in the way of progress.

  5. You want to break away from circular discussions and move towards action. Maybe you’ve noticed that your meetings and workshops fall victim to endless talk and not enough action. A good facilitator will help you break old habits and show your team new ways to collaborate.

  6. You want to foster full team ownership. There’s a big difference between a manager or project owner making a decision and the whole team making a decision collaboratively. In situations where you need full buy-in and ownership from the whole team, it’s essential to involve them in the decision-making process. A facilitator will ensure that everybody plays a part in how the project moves forward, fostering a collective sense of ownership and investment.

  7. You’re planning a high-stakes meeting or workshop whose outcome is critical. Not every meeting or workshop requires an external facilitator. But, when the stakes are high and the outcomes of the workshop are essential for success and/or strategic direction, consider getting a facilitator on board.

  8.  You don’t have the in-house expertise to plan and lead a workshop. Maybe you’ve identified that a workshop is the best step towards achieving a particular goal — but you don’t have the in-house expertise to plan and deliver one successfully. A facilitator will lead the way, not only guiding you through a specific project but also sharing practices you can use in the future. 

Those are some common scenarios and pain points a facilitator can help with.

When NOT to use a facilitator

Now, we’re always talking about the value of facilitation — but it’s important to avoid calling in a facilitator for the sake of it. 

There are certain scenarios where a facilitator simply isn’t necessary, and getting one involved may end up drawing out the process unnecessarily, wasting people’s time, and — perhaps worst of all — creating a false sense of team ownership when, actually, the decision has already been made. This is especially damaging for team morale. 

Do NOT use a facilitator if

  • You’ve already made the decision (or someone else has). In this scenario, you’re not actually open to collaborative decision-making — and any attempts to pretend otherwise will only build resentment and damage trust.
  • The group is already aligned. Maybe your team already knows how they want to proceed, and everybody’s in agreement. There’s no need to overcomplicate the process by bringing in a facilitator.
  • You’re a small group. If the project or challenge in question only involves three or four stakeholders, you may not need a facilitator to help you move forward. Of course, if you’re experiencing one or several of those pain points we listed earlier (e.g., you’re lacking a clear process, you want to eliminate bias, you’re struggling to align), then by all means, call in the experts. But, as a small group, a facilitated workshop doesn’t need to be your first port of call. 

We know when (and when not) to use a facilitator. Now let’s take a closer look at what a facilitator will actually do. 

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What role will the facilitator play? 

If you decide to work with a facilitator, it’s important to be clear on their role and what kind of involvement they’ll have. 

Here’s how a facilitator will help you. 

Before the workshop or meeting

Before the workshop or meeting, the facilitator will:

  • Meet with you (in-person or virtually) to define the workshop goals. This will help them to design the workshop and choose the most effective exercises and techniques.
  • Create an agenda. An agenda is crucial for giving the workshop a clear structure and making sure it fits within a certain time frame.
  • Help you decide who should attend. Often, the success of a workshop rides on having the right people in attendance. That is, having a diverse array of perspectives and making sure all key stakeholders are present or represented. A facilitator will help you curate the guest list for optimal results.
  • Set up the workshop location. A facilitator will ensure that everything’s in place to run smoothly on the day — from choosing the workshop location to setting up the room (or virtual setting) and making sure all the necessary tools and materials are on hand. 

During the workshop or meeting

Throughout the workshop, the facilitator will act as moderator and guide. They’ll outline the agenda, explain the workshop activities and give instructions, manage the time, and generally ensure that the group moves towards their goal. 

As part of their role, the facilitator will:

  • Encourage participation from everyone. This is one of the biggest benefits of working with a facilitator. They won’t allow for quieter voices to be drowned out by more dominant attendees; they’ll expertly encourage participation from everyone, making sure all thoughts, ideas, and perspectives are heard.
  • Manage conflict. Facilitators come armed with loads of expert strategies for dealing with workshop skeptics and managing conflict. They’ll ask open-ended questions to get to the root of conflict, and use techniques such as the ‘parking lot’ method to put irrelevant or challenging topics on ice. AJ&Smart CEO Jonathan Courtney explains why he loves the parking lot method in this video:
  • Bring it all together. With so many different ideas, thoughts, and opinions flying around, it can be extremely difficult to bring it all together to reach agreement and move forward. That’s the challenge of collaboration, right? An expert facilitator will synthesize all key points to really get to the heart of what people are saying and how they want to proceed. 

After the workshop or meeting

It can be incredibly difficult to ensure that the results of your meeting or workshop translate into real-world action. Again, this is where a facilitator makes all the difference.

After the workshop or meeting, the facilitator will summarize the key takeaways — usually in presentation or document form — and help you define the most logical next steps. 

They may help you figure out if a follow-up workshop is needed, or advise you to move straight to idea development. Most importantly, they’ll help you to keep the momentum going after the workshop, ensuring you and your team can achieve your goals. 

The takeaway

As you can see, there are many benefits of working with an expert facilitator. Maybe you’re hitting some of those stumbling blocks we outlined earlier — or maybe you just know that your team is capable of more. Whatever your starting point, an external facilitator will help you unlock your team’s full potential. 

Want to learn more about fostering better collaboration? Check out these guides:

Jakub Michalski