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How to be a better facilitator

In this world of AI, robots and automation human to human communication is becoming a lost art. We sit at our desks, at home, glued to a screen. We forget the power of thinking things through together. We loose the art of aligning people. Of using emotions to engage. Of building, solving and growing together.


This is why the skills of facilitation are more valuable than ever.

The skills of the future

Recently McKinsey ran a report called “The skills citizens will need in the future world of work”. They surveyed 18,000 people surveyed from 15 countries about this and they discovered that Interpersonal skills were really valued and needed for the future. They cited things like “fostering inclusiveness, motivating different personalities, resolving conflicts, collaboration, coaching and empowering, crafting vision, organisational awareness, empathy, inspiring trust, humility and sociability” as key needs for the business of the future.


One of 4 quadrants which outline the foundational skills citizens of the future will need - Source: McKinsey



My mentor, Marty Neuimier wrote a book called “Meta skills - Five Talents for the Robotic Age”. The talents he identified are: feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning.

All of these are seen being leveraged by good facilitators. Facilitators who create workshops and experiences that engage, uplift, educate and unite teams.


Workshops enable you to solve problems faster and with less risk. They help you to ‘pick’ the collective brains of diverse people. They enable you to obtain buy-in because people feel heard. They feel part of what ever it is you are building or doing. Ultimately they help to align people through shared thinking. But a workshop is only as good as it’s facilitator. This is why they are so important to modern businesses.


Recently I was asked by my Mastermind Group what I think makes a good facilitator. As a business consultant seeking to improve my clients conditions by getting them ready for growth I facilitate on a nearly weekly basis. I use facilitation when I am seeking to understand a business, help them solve problems, innovate and build brand strategies. I’m at home speaking and running workshops for leadership teams, customers, colleagues and even the supply chain partners of my clients. Looking back I think I now have about 15 years experience running workshops on a nearly weekly basis. I have seen what works and what does not. So here are my thoughts on what makes a good Facilitator.


Definitions

Firstly, what is a facilitator? The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “facilitate” as “make (an action or process) easy or easier”.


A facilitator guides a group of people through various exercises to meet an objective. They make it easier for the group to do this than if they weren’t there. They are not part of the “doing”. They are the “guide”. They own the process and are responsible for taking the group through a series of exercises in order to reach an outcome.


Six skills of a good facilitator

I think a good facilitator will have developed some skills. Some people have these naturally, but I believe they can all be learnt.


  1. Communication - A good facilitator can communicate well. They are clear and have brilliant interpersonal skills to help put participants at ease and guide them through the workshop or meeting. I always think having a good sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously helps in this.

  2. Empathy - you need to be able to read body language and re-act accordingly. Having a high emotional intelligence is crucial. If you have the ability to parallel think with participants (and help them too also!) you can get a very productive outcome.

  3. Design - Facilitators usually are in charge of the agenda and design of meetings and workshops. These should not be thrown together randomly. Designing the experience to get to the desired outcome requires skill.

  4. Instinctive - Being able to be in the moment and respond at speed is crucial. Its almost like a sports performance. Things happen which are not part of the plan. A good facilitator trusts their gut in these instances and leads with confidence.

  5. Simplification - Helping participants clarifying complex information is an art form. Good facilitators can sum things up so that they make sense. They can draw on the various outputs of exercises and simplify things so that everyone feels understood.

  6. Energy - Having a high level of enthusiasm and passion brings energy to the experience. It’s catching. Its valued. This for me is the number one skill a good facilitator needs to master - how and when to bring that shot of energy to keep things flowing along positively.


Tips for Good facilitation

If you are seeking to improve your facilitation here are a few tips I’ve learnt over the years:

  1. Preparation - It’s crucial that the facilitator understands a clear desired outcome for the session and have that nailed and communicated before the event. I always think it’s important to speak to participants before they arrive. This way you can set expectations and understand perspectives before you get in the room.

  2. Start well - explain why they are there and why they should care. Go over what will happen in the session. Explain when there will be breaks. Ask for their full attention. Make sure everyone introduces themselves to help them feel included. Brief them on health and safety. Mention if you are taking pictures or recording.

  3. Educate along the way - In my view if you help people to learn something new (e.g. about a methodology like parallel thinking) during a workshop it can really interest them. Teach them something and then allow them to use it straight after in the exercises you set for them. You’ll see amazing results. Plus they will be able to use methods later so you add huge value.

  4. Address the elephants in the room (or Zoom!) - if you have spilt ketchup down your front during lunch always address it. People can then relax and move on. They won’t be thinking “I wonder if he knows he looks like an axe murderer”. Similarly if you know there is conflict in the group acknowledge it (e.g. “I know there are different views on this but thats ok”). It helps people feel at ease and be able to open up more easily.

  5. Explain why - It’s important to always explain why you are asking a group to do something. Especially if its not immediacy apparent and especially if they are senior people. “We are doing this to get our mindset in innovation mode - off of the now and into the next” for example.

  6. Design moments - It’s important to think through and use moments to delight, energise and connect participants. Ice-breakers and energisers can do wonders. Celebratory moments. Think about how you will create moments which surprise, delight and engage.

  7. Simplify the complex - Sometimes, when completing taks with large groups you might generate lots of ideas. I think its always helpful to simplify outputs to get the temperature of the group. One way offing this is by voting. For example lets say you generated 12 purpose statements ask the group to vote for their favourite but insist they cannot vote for their own. This allows you to get a general view of what the group feels about outputs.

  8. Layered thinking - Great workshops have momentum. Each session should build on the past session so that, at the end, when participants step back they can see how they got to the end outputs together. I call this layered thinking. Design workshops like this and you’ll see the value as it all makes sense and “clicks” for participants. This way you get buy-in.

  9. Activities - One thing which is important to remember as a facilitator is to consider how participants interact amongst themselves. Sometimes there are big dominant personalities which need to be toned down. One way of doing this is by carefully considering the way you design your sessions and activities. Leverage working along, working in a breakout group or working together to great effect.

  10. It’s not about you - remember facilitation is not about you. You are there to simply as a guide. A good facilitator makes it feel like they serve the group. Leave your ego at the door.

  11. Ending well - Ending well is so important. A good way of doing this is in reminding the group of what they had done. Thank them for coming and remark you could not of done this without them all getting in a room (or Zoom!) together. Outline next steps. Be thankful. One great way to end is to ask everyone to say one word about how they are feeling at the end of the workshop.

  12. Afterwards - Follow up with a written thank you. Mention a contribution that person made. Set out the next steps again in writing. Sometimes I’ll create a “playback” deck which will simply document the session and its outputs with pictures etc. Ensure that the workshop outputs are used. This all ensures that if you ask them back for another workshop they know it’s value.


So - I hope this has given you some food for thought. I wish you all the best connecting, inspiring, engaging and facilitating in the future!

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