Facilitation: Science or Magic?

When it comes to facilitating, many people think that you’re either good at it, or you’re not.  To us at AJC, that type of thinking is not growth oriented, as we believe that human beings can improve in any area.  We also think there are some basic principles that provide structure to most processes – facilitation included.  Here are our Basic Facilitation Principles: 

  1. Encourage all to participate
  2. Reflect back what people said and ask others for their thoughts – especially those who tend to be quiet
  3. Maintain energy: “read the room” (harder on zoom) and pause/take breaks/quick stretches, etc. to bolster if necessary
  4. Be objective, offering suggestions instead of your opinions. Some possible phrases are: “Have we considered…” “What might it look like to …”
    1. This is why it’s especially hard to facilitate if you are expected to participate and/or are an integral part of the team – your opinions should count then!
  5. Lead the group – as the facilitator, you need to ensure the team stays focused and ensure the objectives for the group session are met; you will need to stop side conversations and/or move on if topics derail or become too detailed for the sake of the group’s collective value-added time.

After that – styles vary. Some facilitators are very expressive and high energy.  Even their facial features exude energy!  This style will encourage participation by smiling, moving around the room or using hands/arms on the screen, nodding, calling on people, keeping the group moving at a fast pace, etc. Other facilitators may have a more subdued demeanor, they draw people in by thoughtfully asking questions more slowly or quietly (which often causes people to perk their ears up and listen!), and are more reflective – using silence to encourage people to participate (i.e. break the uncomfortable silence). 

Different styles will resonate more with different audience members.  A bias might be that the facilitator should always be high energy, but one of our team members (several years ago now) received feedback on this style from a CEO; she was too “bubbly” and fast paced for their group.  This was very good feedback for her, and she has since learned to be more mindful to reading the room and adjusting her style and pace accordingly.  

Another AJC-er facilitated a meeting last week.  She has a less expressive and “bubbly” style, her style is one of quiet encouragement.  She did an amazing job – ensuring that everyone gave their opinion, listening and asking what others thought of what the first person said, calling people out specifically who were quiet, and allowing space for everyone to participate.

The other fun thing about that session was that we were using an online tool that we designed for everyone to participate in a scoring activity using shapes. The team had fun as we soon realized some of the shapes could be turned into video game characters (specifically the Super Mario “Super Mushroom”), and the humor gave the group a little extra levity that was much appreciated at the end of a long day on the screen.

The bottom line is, facilitation – like anything in life – is actually a process that can be learned, and people with a growth mindset can improve at it!  We recommend practicing the Basic Principles listed above, and continuously trying to read the room (ask for feedback!) to adjust your style to the one which will resonate best with any particular group.