A guide to facilitation skills and why they are essential for navigating complex business problems.


A skilled facilitator can supercharge a team’s performance by functioning as a process guide for navigating complicated business challenges. Facilitators are experts at leading groups through key meetings and gatherings. You might have encountered a facilitator if you have participated in a design thinking-style workshop or a Design Sprint.

A good facilitator posses the following skills:

  • Advanced preparation
  • Clear communication
  • Active listening
  • Asking questions
  • Timekeeping
  • Establishing a psychologically safe environment for sharing
  • Creating focus amongst the group
  • Unbiased objectivity
  • Managing the group decision process

Facilitators exist to enable better gatherings between teams, stakeholders, or collaborators of any kind.

Facilitators are experts at leading groups through key meetings and gatherings.
Facilitators are experts at leading groups through key meetings and gatherings.

Think about all of the ineffective meetings you’ve had in the past; meetings where nothing really got done, people argued, or decisions simply weren’t made. In short, facilitators exist to enable better gatherings between teams, stakeholders, or collaborators of any kind. Facilitators set the stage by creating a clear picture of the end goal, ensuring the team has what they need to meet the problem, and helping build momentum when they get stuck along the way.

These are a few skills that every facilitator should have to create an environment that’s optimal for critical thinking and cooperation.

Advanced preparation

Facilitating a productive conversation or meeting requires ample preparation. To guide a group of people to a successful outcome, facilitators need to be clear on the end goal and the milestones to be achieved along the way. Facilitators create the conditions for success by evaluating whether the time allotted is realistic for achieving the goal, ensuring the right people are in the room, and providing the necessary materials for the work to be done.

A good facilitator will do considerable prep before an important session.
A good facilitator will do considerable prep before an important session.

Deciding who to exclude from a team or discussion can be just as crucial as choosing who to include to ensure the right group size is selected to address a challenge. Having a clear goal from the beginning serves the dual purpose of giving the facilitator more confidence for tackling the task at hand, and that confidence trickles down to the team giving them the courage to navigate the unknowns of complex problem-solving.

In summary, here are some of the activities that a good facilitator does to prepare for a meeting:

  • Meet with key team members and stakeholders to understand and articulate your goals.
  • Create a productive, detailed agenda for your workshop, working session, or meeting.
  • If needed, secure a suitable, off-site space for your meeting.
  • Create or gather the right materials, worksheets, and (most important) food (!) for the day.
  • Prep participants to get them ready for the meeting and in the correct “headspace.”

Clear communication

Ensuring that everyone is on the same page during group discussions is another important job of an effective facilitator. This includes ensuring instructions for activities are clear, and the group has a shared understanding of the end goal. The nature of language can often make this seemingly simple task more complicated than many realize. Imagine any project you’ve experienced when you and another person agreed on something only to learn after it was executed that you both had very different understandings. A facilitator helps establish shared understanding by making ideas or decisions visible and clarifying details during conversations.

Facilitators help ensure that every voice is heard and understood in key meetings.
Facilitators help ensure that every voice is heard and understood in key meetings.

Active listening

Active listening is key to understanding both what someone is saying and why they are offering the information. It begins with eye contact and receptive body language to demonstrate interest in the contribution. While absorbing the message, a skilled facilitator will take in both what is said as well as nonverbal cues like body language and tone. Critical to active listening is the lack of judgment or evaluation of the contribution. Once the message has been shared, the facilitator reflects to the speaker what they heard to receive confirmation that the message was accurately understood.

Important discussion

Active listening not only ensures clarity of understanding; it also serves to reveal assumptions in decision making that can be easily missed during group discussions. By modeling active listening, facilitators set an example for other members of the group, enabling more fruitful communication as team member adopt the practice.

Asking questions

Facilitators favor asking questions over providing answers and aren’t afraid to be the person in the room asking the “dumb” questions. They use question asking to break down a problem into manageable pieces and to draw out input from team members so that a problem is evaluated from multiple perspectives. Socratic questioning is a useful tool in the facilitator’s toolkit.

“Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, to follow out logical consequences of thought or to control discussions.” — Wikipedia

Timekeeping

In addition to making sure the agenda is clear, a facilitator ensures there’s adequate time for the team to accomplish what they set out to do. It helps to break activities up into blocks of time to keep up the momentum and focus the conversation around what’s most important.

A facilitator ensures there’s adequate time for the team to accomplish what they set out to do.
A facilitator ensures there’s adequate time for the team to accomplish what they set out to do.

Timeboxing is one way to prevent teams from getting stuck on details or lost in lengthy debates with no resolution. By segmenting activities into blocks of time, a facilitator can ensure goals are accomplished within the allotted time while also freeing her up to focus on team interactions. Choosing a timekeeping option that is visible to the team provides a cue individuals can use to self-manage their contributions.

Giving everyone on the team a voice

Creating an environment where everyone participates is a critical component of facilitation. It involves awareness of different working styles and personalities and giving additional consideration to incorporating that diversity of thought into group discussions. A facilitator understands, for example, the difference between extroverts and introverts and creates opportunities for both to participate. That could mean arranging for periods of silent ideation before a group brainstorming session or asking team members to submit their thoughts in writing before a meeting. At the moment, maintaining an awareness of how people are participating helps a facilitator to know when quieter individuals need to be drawn into the conversation.

FOCUS

Creating focus

Facilitators ensure meetings are productive by creating focus for the team. One way to remove distractions is by establishing ground rules about phone and email use during group discussions. Beyond the obvious distractions, building a shared understanding of what “done” looks like provides direction and helps a team identify when they’ve gone astray. As teams work through challenges, the facilitator gently reminds them of the specific goal under consideration to guide discussions and keep them moving steadily forward.

Building a toolkit

At a high level, facilitation occurs in the context of ideation, analysis, and consensus gathering, so it helps to have some tools for guiding groups of people through these activities. Icebreaker or team building activities help groups to build rapport and trust. Lightweight techniques like the 5 Whys are useful when teams need help with on-the-spot root cause analysis. Explore Liberating Structures for creative ways to organize group work and solve problems collectively. The fuller the toolkit, the better the ability to adapt to the needs of the moment.

Group decision making

Getting input from a diverse group of people often leads to better ideas thanks to a greater level of expertise among teams members as well as the variety of perspectives applied to a given goal or problem to solve. Facilitators typically take on the responsibility of managing the group decision-making process.

People participating in workshop

They begin with first establishing shared understanding and consensus around the decision being made, and then they create opportunities for input and evaluation before finally polling the team for agreement on a proposed solution. Dot voting is one method that facilitates group decision making by rapidly prioritizing a list of ideas, and it’s flexible enough to apply to several scenarios.

Unbiased objectivity

The best opportunity for providing effective facilitation occurs when the facilitator is detached from the solution and instead focused on how team interactions are occurring. Cues like body language can reveal unspoken concerns that are easily missed when a facilitator is an active participant in the solutioning process. That’s why it can accelerate progress when an outside facilitator is introduced to help a team through a challenge. An external facilitator like our team here at Voltage Control can challenge ideas objectively simply by nature of not knowing how things have always been. The questions they pose can reveal assumptions within a team that lead to greater alignment around the best path forward.

Facilitation, like any skill, is something that improves with experience. It calls for advanced preparation as well as the ability to provide direction and make adjustments on the fly. In its most effective form, facilitation is practiced from a place of unbiased, objective curiosity. While the skills outlined here are useful for dedicated facilitators, they can be applied by anyone to help create more fruitful and focused discussions whether you’re building consensus around how a team operates or solving a complicated problem.

Common Facilitator Pitfalls

Now that we’ve talked about the benefits and skills that come with experienced facilitators, let’s end by touching on some things to keep an eye out for. There are ways that facilitators can stumble or fail and it’s good to keep these in mind, whether you are facilitating yourself or hiring someone.

Watch out for these pitfalls that could lead to less-than-ideal facilitation experiences:

  • A facilitator who hasn’t led many meetings.
  • A facilitator who only knows one industry or business type.
  • A facilitator who uses only one style or process and is resistant to adapting their process for your company or team.
  • A facilitator who doesn’t seem enthusiastic about learning about your team or business challenge.

Looking for an Expert Facilitator?

Voltage Control offers a range of options for innovation training, design sprints, and design thinking facilitation. Please reach out to us at info@voltagecontrol.co if you want to talk.