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


A successful meeting has purpose, organization, direction, and supportive guidance from an unbiased leader–or a facilitator. Facilitation skills are an essential component of effective meetings because they supply teams with the expertise they need to hone in on the problem or topic at hand and achieve creative solutions and consensus.

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. Incorporate facilitation skills in your meeting culture to achieve more productive and effective meetings.

A good facilitator possess 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

A skilled facilitator is like the sails of a ship. They guide the team onboard where they need to go, with no objective other than to lead the team to their destination. A team can navigate a meeting without sails, but it is much easier and more effective if they have facilitation skills to guide them.

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. 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 for the meeting 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.

Creating a detailed meeting agenda is critical to adequate preparation. The agenda serves as the roadmap for the meeting. It details what topics will be discussed and when, and when breaks will occur (if applicable). Like an itinerary shows the intricacies of an event, an agenda only includes the important topics to discuss and how long to discuss each one. This prevents unnecessary discussion to keep people focused on the objective and regulates discussion time so that the meeting does not run over.

A facilitator creates the agenda to support the meeting’s goal and is then responsible for keeping the group on track and sticking to the agenda to ensure efficiency. Keep in mind that there will be times when it is necessary and appropriate to stray from the agenda if it’s in the group’s best interest. For example, the group may be engaged in a productive discussion that goes over the allotted time for that topic. It may be best to allow the discussion to continue as to not stunt the creative flow and adjust time elsewhere, i.e. shorten another part of the meeting to make up for the time. Remember that the most important aspect of preparing for a meeting with an agenda is to construct the most productive meeting possible. Use it as a guide and keep the people and the work as the focus.

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

In the name of productivity, any topic or person that distracts from the objective is an unnecessary addition. Deciding who to exclude from a team or discussion can be just as crucial as choosing who to include to ensure the right people and group size is selected to address a challenge. This is not meant as an offense to an individual. Instead, the choice to be selective and only invite people who have something of value to contribute makes the meeting more productive. It also saves people time who do not need to be in attendance. Every person in a meeting should have a purpose to be there.

Having a clear goal for the meeting and ensuring that all in attendance have a valid purpose to be there gives the facilitator more confidence for tackling the task at hand. That confidence trickles down to the team, giving them the courage to navigate the unknowns of complex problem-solving.

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.

Clear communication

A meeting is only as good as its communication. Understanding and conversing with one another is how we achieve meaningful work. Therefore, the ability to ensure that everyone is on the same page during group discussions is another important job of an effective facilitator. This includes making sure instructions for activities are clear, and the group has a shared understanding of the end goal.

The nature of language can often make the seemingly simple task of effective communication 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.

Psychological Safety

Creating a space for clear communication also means that facilitators ensure participants are given the opportunity to be heard and feel safe to share their perspectives. We call this psychological safety–make certain that each member of the team feels safe to take risks, ask questions, challenge authority, and admit mistakes. This environment is healthy and conducive to productivity amongst teams. You can create a psychologically safe environment by communicating that everyone’s input is equally valuable and valued, outlining expectations to handle conflict, and asking your team what they need. It’s also helpful to collect feedback before, during, and after the meeting to allow participants to use their voices throughout the meeting process. When people feel safe to be heard, they are more comfortable and willing to participate. When everyone participates, meetings are more fruitful.

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. A lack of judgment or evaluation of the contribution is critical to active listening. Once the message has been shared, the facilitator reflects back 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 but 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 members 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.

“In the Socratic method, the classroom experience is a shared dialogue between teacher and students in which both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questioning. The ‘teacher,’ or leader of the dialogue, asks probing questions in an effort to expose the values and beliefs which frame and support the thoughts and statements of the participants in the inquiry. The students ask questions as well, both of the teacher and each other.” –Standford

Asking questions allows the participants to lead conversation; facilitators don’t provide answers, rather, they lead participants to them by prompting them to explore the answer for themselves.

Pro-tip: use our Facilitator’s Guide to Questions to always know what questions to ask to have effective meetings.

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. Moment-to-moment, maintaining an awareness of how people are participating helps a facilitator to know when quieter individuals need to be drawn into the conversation.

Conversely, it’s just as important to watch out for “over-talkers” or individuals that are sharing more than others. If one or a few people dominate the conversation, there is little room available for other participants to weigh in. Facilitators can gently steer the conversation to other members by kindly telling the individual(s) that they’d like to hear others’ thoughts who have not yet participated. Also, remind the group that it’s a collaborative effort and it’s necessary for all voices to be heard.

FOCUS

Creating focus

Facilitators ensure meetings are productive by creating focus for the team during the meeting. One way to remove distractions is by establishing ground rules about phone and email use during group discussions. Facilitators can even ban phones and laptops from being in the meeting if it aligns with the objective. It’s also beneficial to set up your meeting room for success by only having the necessary tools and resources the group needs for the meeting. If you’re meeting is virtual, there are several tools and practices for remote teams to stay focused, from muting background noise to pausing notifications on apps and emails.

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. Icebreakers 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.

It’s also important to have a virtual facilitation toolkit to use for remote meetings. While similar tools for in-person meetings can be used, the virtual landscape is different and therefore requires remote-specific resources to produce effective results.

Pro-tip: use our Virtual Work Guide to facilitate effective remote meetings.

Group decision-making

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

People participating in workshop

The goal of every meeting is typically to make creative and effective decisions together. Therefore, all efforts are aimed to arrive at said decisions. Facilitators serve as both the liaison to extract and connect peoples’ ideas and also to organize the thoughts to reach conclusions.

Facilitators can accomplish this by first establishing shared understanding and consensus around the decision being made, and then they create opportunities for input and evaluation. They serve as the bottleneck to gather all ideas before they finally lead the group to make a final decision. One common way to do this is via 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 various scenarios. Polling is possible virtually too by using tools like MURAL–a digital whiteboard that allows remote teams to collaborate at a distance.

Unbiased objectivity

The best opportunity for providing effective facilitation occurs when the facilitator is detached from the solution and is 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. External facilitators are unbiased by nature, as they are not involved in office politics and have no gain in the company itself by leading the discussion. This bigger picture perspective allows outside facilitators to pose questions that 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.

Hiring a Facilitator Outside Your Organization

It’s useful to use an outside facilitator to lead high-stakes meetings because they are unattached to the results. This unbiased perspective is why it’s beneficial to hire a facilitator outside of your organization when you need to make important decisions. Note: facilitation is a forever-building skillset. The following are pitfalls to keep in mind when looking for someone to facilitate major decision-making meetings, which is when you’d likely hire outside help.

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 hello@voltagecontrol.com if you want to talk.

Also, check out our upcoming workshops to learn how to facilitate like a pro.