Mastering the art and science of facilitation is the secret to succeed in the future of work. Expert facilitation helps teams work better together, driving positive cultural change.
Facilitation is one of the most essential skills every team needs in today’s remote, dynamic, and uncertain workplace.
The demand for this unique skill is growing because facilitation creates a structure and environment that makes it easy for people to collaborate. Facilitation requires bringing diverse people together to come up with innovative solutions.
The art of facilitation shouldn’t be limited to specialists. Everyone should learn the basics of managing effective and productive working sessions. Whether you are a team leader, team member, or consultant, your facilitation skills can make or break your next online meeting or workshop.
But what exactly does facilitation mean and why is it so important to accelerate collaboration and innovation?
What Is A Facilitator?
Many people see facilitation as a functional task – but it’s not. Being a skilled facilitator requires more than mastering different techniques, planning a session, and guiding people toward an outcome.
The word “facilitate” comes from the Latin facilis, which means “easy.” Facilitation is then the “act of making something easier.” However, it’s about easing the process, not the experience – without pain, there’s no gain.
A facilitator helps people overcome personal and cultural obstacles, both real and perceived. Facilitating is about simplifying – to turn complicated things into easy-to-solve chunks – so that people can acknowledge, confront, and resolve what’s getting in the way.
Facilitating is about creating a better experience for people where everyone becomes a better version of themselves.
There are three areas where we help teams: technical mastery, process mastery, and transformation mastery.
While learning is important, facilitation is much more than a dynamic, interactive version of teaching. Technical mastery is focused on each team’s development (customer service, decision-making, software development, etc.).
An effective facilitator taps into the collective wisdom instead of trying to be the wisest person in the room.
I want teams to learn to solve problems via their own knowledge (which is always greater than believed). I do share my own expertise related to leadership, team building, and culture development, but I want them to learn from each other, not just the expert.
Good facilitators are selfless; they are at the service of others.
As a facilitator, your key strength is guiding conversations that help people (not your ego) grow. Your role is not to provide the answers but to lead the group in the journey to discover the right solution by themselves – you provide frameworks, not answers.
Facilitation doesn’t mean managing a team, but helping the team manage itself. You design the experience – a team retrospective or a brainstorming session – but you don’t own it.
Facilitators provide a non-judgmental and psychologically safe space, guaranteeing equal air time for all.
Leadership development is personal development. As facilitators, especially when dealing with cultural transformations, we do more than effectively manage conversations – we guide people through a personal transformation.
Becoming more open to change, developing empathy, and increasing mistake tolerance and experimentation requires doing inner work, not just learning a new method or process.
To encourage people to take risks, we must embrace our own vulnerability first. Sharing my flaws, being able to say “I don’t know,” or apologizing when I screw up is acknowledging I’m not perfect.
Facilitation mastery requires balancing vulnerability with confidence – I know what I’m talking about, but I don’t have all the answers (neither do I want to).
The secret of excellent facilitation is a group dynamic that flows – personal relationships, understanding, analysis, and creativity flourish. In the end, it’s about reaching a successful insight, decision, or solution.
Should Facilitators be Neutral?
This is a controversial issue.
As facilitators, I don’t think we should be neutral. Your presence should be visible at the beginning of a session – that’s how you become invisible at the end.
Neutrality is an avoidance of conflict. Effective facilitators embrace tensions; they don’t run away from conflict, but use it constructively.
Pushing people back is the opposite of neutrality.
As a facilitator, you don’t want to take sides or favor someone or any group over the rest of the team. However, you must have a standing. We have the responsibility of calling things out for being what they are. If someone is deliberately boycotting a session, or if the group is choosing safe ideas over good ones, we cannot stay neutral.
There’s a difference between not pushing your agenda and being 100% neutral.
When people reach out to me, it’s because they want to learn new ways of working. That doesn’t mean imposing my views, but I’m not starting from zero – I have my own expertise and style. Acknowledging our bias is better than pretending we don’t have any.
Also, facilitators are human beings. The same way we want people to bring their full selves to a meeting or workshop, we should use our wholeness as an asset. When we can integrate people’s unique perspectives, great things happen. Why would we remove a facilitator’s uniqueness, then?
The same applies to emotions; we neither want them to cloud our judgment, nor to suppress our feelings. Effective decision-making requires integrating our logic with our intuition and emotions, not choosing one over the others.
The point is not to dismiss the value of being objective, but to maximize our facilitation superpowers by integrating rationality and emotion. As facilitators, we must have a standing without pushing our agenda or taking sides.
The 3 Mindsets of Effective Facilitators
Reflecting on my own practice, there are three key roles to mastering the art of facilitation: Designer, Sherpa, and Instigator.
We design conversations to encourage people to talk about things they wouldn’t without our intervention. Not only is the intention to address hot issues, but also to better understand the root problem and find new solutions.
Being a designer requires sketching and planning the experience, then selecting the tools and exercises to achieve the outcome. Design a journey that’s strong and clear, but also flexible.
- Understand goals: Why is this session happening? Why now? What’s the desired outcome?
- Empathize with the user: What’s the real issue at hand? Identify the root cause. Dig deeper into what affects the team and reframe the perceived problem into the real one.
- Design the session: Plan the group dynamics with the end in mind (outcome). Design the session outline for participation – you need more than an agenda.
- Iterate: Adjust your design on the go based on ‘live feedback’ and group dynamics – be ready to kill your darlings. See where people’s energy manifests and follow their path, not your pre-planned agenda.
- Follow-up: Plan for what happens after the workshop, too. How will the team hold itself accountable? What needs to happen in between sessions or after the program is done?
Even the most experienced climbers need help. The Sherpas – a tribe from Nepal behind every successful attempt to climb Mount Everest – have become synonymous with state-of-the-art guides.
Sherpas know the area, the people, and the culture. Not only do they provide guidance, but they also make the experience easier so climbers can focus on climbing. Being a Sherpa requires guiding and facilitating the group experience, ensuring everyone arrives at the top safe and thrilled.
- Familiarize with participants: Meet people where they are. What are each participant’s strengths and weaknesses? What is each individual bringing to the session?
- Assign roles: Define how each person will contribute to the workshop. Don’t just play to their strengths; your role as a Sherpa is to help people grow.
- Monitor the energy: People struggle with different things. Some feel afraid of sharing ideas in public, while others struggle to challenge internal beliefs or adopt new ways of working.
- Be ready to respond: Unexpected storms can derail any mission. Guide people through uncharted territory, disagreement, and panic. Provide a calm and steady presence when dealing with unexpected tensions to get the team back on track.
- Manage logistics: This includes everything to run a smooth session, from finding the right location and setting up the (virtual) room for success, to coordinating logistics with participants and preparing all materials and supplies.
Someone needs to start the fire. In most working sessions, the facilitator must be that person. Instigators help visualize the destination, inspire others, and then let them take over. Instigators start the fire but then step back.
Being an Instigator requires challenging and provoking people along the journey. You want to get the best out of participants, not what’s easy.
- Start the fire: Successful workshops don’t need a cookie-cutter facilitator, but someone willing to shake things up a little. Friction creates energy, and energy fuels creativity. Be ready to start the fire.
- Address conflict: Removing the obstacles starts by addressing conflict in the open. What are the things that people don’t want to talk about? What grudges are getting in the way of collaboration and productivity?
- Raise the bar: A successful session is not defined just by people having fun or getting along – the outcome is what matters more. A facilitator should push back and encourage the group to raise the bar, not settle for the mediocre.
- Challenge groupthink: Effective facilitation requires promoting diverse perspectives, not agreement – especially during brainstorming sessions. Online meetings fail when people are trying to conform instead of being themselves.
- Mobilize people: A workshop doesn’t end once the session is over. Facilitators must help keep the fire going – both during and after the session.
When Do You Need an External Facilitator? (and Why)
If your team is suffering from too many bad meetings or need to be challenged, consider engaging with a professional facilitator the next time you plan an important working session or workshop.
Here are some of the key reasons to hire an external facilitator.
To overcome low psychological safety: When someone makes a mistake, is it often held against them? Are team members not able to bring up problems and severe issues? Are people afraid of getting feedback? Overcoming silence and fear is easier with an outsider who has the expertise to get input from all team members.
To learn new ways of working: External facilitators can not only expand your toolkit, but also have the expertise to deal with obstacles when implementing new methods.
To deal with change: Certain challenges require that everyone has to do inner-work (i.e. building a strong remote culture). Bringing in someone external ensures that internal facilitators are also participating and learning.
To address sensitive issues: If your group must deal with sticky topics, a third-party facilitator will bring perspective and methods to address what everyone is thinking, but no one is saying. They can also stop people from spinning their wheels and break the stalemate by shifting team dynamics.
To host a team offsite: Outside facilitators can provide new approaches to running your staff retreat and ensuring that everyone can enjoy the experience and learn. They can introduce insights from working with diverse organizations.
To kick off a big project: The way a company launches a new key initiative is everything. An external facilitator will set your team up for success by aligning people around a purpose, clarifying roles, defining a clear outcome, and – most importantly – designing the right culture.
To reflect on how the team is working: When an unbiased, neutral convener is needed, hire a professional facilitator. The time is right when a new perspective is required on a situation due to its internal conflict, being too close to a situation, or having too much history.
Don’t hire an external facilitator if you aren’t willing to delegate authority – that’s my number one rule of engagement.
Once we’ve agreed on the desired outcome, we want the freedom to run a rewarding session. Everyone must abide by the same rules, especially formal leaders. The power of facilitators lies in guiding people and liberating your team’s ability to do fulfilling work. Once we’ve accomplished our job, we become invisible.
Need an expert facilitator for your next virtual meeting, workshop, or staff retreat?
We facilitate virtual events of all kinds, including team offsite, change leadership workshops, culture design sprints, culture design sessions, and more.
Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a discovery session.