Skill sets

Facilitating meaningful and productive conversations

It is not always easy or natural for a diverse group to come together to work on something. We’ve all been in meetings where one or more of the following happens:

  • People go off topic 
  • Interpersonal dynamics or politics overwhelm or distract the group
  • People who have less power or who are quiet may not feel able to contribute
  • Groups can get caught in a cycle of talking without making decisions
  • The meeting feels tedious or pointless

Facilitation provides a way to support a group of people to connect and engage in meaningful and productive conversations. It helps groups move toward desired results using an inclusive and appropriate process, while attending to relationships. A facilitator needs to ‘hold’ these three factors in balance and be flexible to the needs of the group.  

The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 4 September 2018.


Quick Summary

What does it mean

  • What is facilitation?
  • The role of the facilitator
  • Before the session
    • Getting to know the attendees and their relationships with each other
    • Developing a session plan in advance
    • Preparing attendees prior to the session
    • Taking care of logistics and hospitality
  • During the session
    • A proper introduction
    • Recap on previous progress
    • Spell out and visualise the journey
    • Supporting participation 
    • Monitor group energy levels 
    • Listen and call out the obvious
    • Surface tensions
    • Be prepared – have a toolbox
  • After the session

What helps

  • Awareness of group dynamics
  • Gaining facilitation experience
  • Working with a co-facilitator
  • Staying grounded and calm as a facilitator
  • Creating a safe space – doing with not for and self awareness

What hinders

  • Lack of clarity at the beginning of the session
  • Having unrealistic expectations about the session outputs
  • Not providing closure


What does it mean?

What is facilitation?

Facilitation provides a way to support a group of people to connect and engage in meaningful and productive conversations. It helps groups move toward desired results using an inclusive and appropriate process, while attending to relationships. A facilitator needs to ‘hold’ these three factors in balance and be flexible to the needs of the group. 

  • The Results – When a group comes together there is typically a goal in mind and the facilitator supports the group to reach that goal.  
  • The Process – The facilitator introduces and enables a process to inform a structure and flow to the conversation.
  • The Relationships – The facilitator supports the group to maintain healthy and functional relationships.

The role of the facilitator

Effective facilitation depends on having a facilitator who can design the meeting or workshop, lead the conversation in session, and support making sense of the conversation after the session. You may be able to find someone locally who does this regularly, or you may want to build your skills to do it yourself. 

A facilitator creates the conditions for productive conversations by:

  • Identifying the threads: Surfacing, identifying and clarifying the points that people are saying. 
  • Accessing the ‘gold’: showing the wisdom and insight already in the room 
  • Enabling what is being said to inform decisions and ways forward.
  • Keeping the group focussed while also going where the group needs to go.
  • Managing any conflict if and as it arises.

Before the session

Before any session deliberate conversations between the facilitator and stakeholders are critical in setting expectations and developing relationships for success.  

In preparing for a session, (or series of sessions) a facilitator will need to consider:

Getting to know the attendees and their relationships with each other

Understanding who your attendees are, what is important to them with respect to the topic at hand and their relationships to one another will help a facilitator plan for an effective conversation. Particularly in regional areas and small towns, relationships can be complex, with long histories.

It can also be very useful for a facilitator to meet and interview attendees prior to the session to get a rich landscape of the stakeholders and their perspectives.

This awareness of the attendees is also vital so that the facilitator can get a read of how and where power is held amongst the group. Power can be a barrier for participation, and often a facilitator needs to plan how they will ‘democratise’ the room in order to balance out power.  If not considered, some people may not participate whilst only the powerful have their perspectives heard. 

Developing a session plan in advance

A facilitator must be well prepared prior to a session with a facilitation plan. There are many different types of conversations that occur during facilitation and they all require different facilitation considerations. A conversation around exploring and naming problems and opportunities differs from a conversation that is focussed on problem solving and will require customised processes and plans.

In creating a plan, a facilitator will want to consider creative participatory approaches (how they will get people involved) whilst simultaneously balancing the structure of the conversation.  This framework will support people to come together with ease, know what to expect and to get on with the conversations that will lead to the desired outcomes.


Preparing attendees prior to the session

Informing people of the sessions goals and/or objectives and getting their input prior to a session is essential to ensure people are on the same page. Attendees may appreciate having pre-reading or something tangible to digest beforehand so that they are prepared for the conversation.

It’s particularly important to prepare participants when people with lived experience are involved in a session. Preparing people with lived experience can help them to understand the need and value of their contribution, as well as supporting the facilitator to socialise the goal of the project and to uncover what they are motivated by. Preparing professionals can be equally important, particularly to make them aware of their own power and take measures to check that power at the door, e.g. ensuring that they do not dominate the conversation or dress in an overly formal way.

Taking care of logistics and hospitality

Physical space, light, food and refreshments can all help to support an effective workshop. Look for a space that’s big enough, with good acoustics and natural light. Ensure refreshments are available and people feel looked after. Take care of dietary requirements. 


During the session

A proper introduction

A clear introduction needs to support people and a group as a whole to understand where a group is at, what the objectives of the meeting are, and how all attendees can participate and have a clear understanding of the ground rules.  By taking people through this process in a clear and deliberate manner, people are much more likely to invest and commit to a sessions journey.  

Recap on previous progress

If a group is coming together for subsequent sessions, recapping on progress to date with a specific focus on challenges, opportunities & outcomes can be a huge help to get people reorientated to the intent of the group and dispel any misunderstandings. Encouraging discussion in order to refine and define progress is never wasted.

Spell out and visualise the journey

In sessions, the facilitator needs to enable productivity. This can be as simple as stating verbally or physically (via visual tools) what the next steps are. Such clarity enables momentum to move forward and instigating group activities inspired by this tone can strengthen relationships within the group and allow the facilitator to get out of the way.

Supporting participation 

During sessions, facilitators need to keep the group together and accountable by demonstrating techniques and forms of enquiry that keeps a group on track. Facilitators also may need to encourage quiet people and the people with expertise to contribute more whilst guiding the people that talk too much.

Monitor group energy levels 

In session facilitators need to monitor energy levels of the group. They will continually sense check the group and introduce activities and icebreakers when energy dips and revitalisation is needed. An obvious sense check point can be when a facilitator states a transition point in a session because in that moment the facilitator is allowing people to prepare for a gear change and inject an intervention and, if required, balance pace and goals. This means the facilitator needs to recognise when a session plan needs to be abandoned as the group may require an alternate direction. To make this decision, a facilitator should consider the following question: what is best for the group to move forward? There may be times when a facilitator sticks to a plan even if at first it feels right to abandon it.

Listen and call out the obvious

In a session a facilitator will stay focused and listen with an ear to the ground, judging if a conversation is gaining depth and relevance or going off track. A good facilitator will expose the elephant in a room if they have not been able to draw it out of a group. This may be an uncomfortable moment for everyone but avoiding the elephant can impact trust and prevent progression.

Surface tensions

Tensions are likely to emerge in conversations, especially when groups are trying to solve problems. This is something for a facilitator to prepare for and manage. Tension can be destructive or productive, depending on the type of tension, how it is handled and how participants respond. Sometimes surfacing the tension can be a source of transformation. If tension is avoided then potential breakthroughs for a group could be missed.  Avoiding tension can also stifle relationships. Alternatively, naming and working through tension can create greater bonds within the group.

Be prepared – have a toolbox

Having a number of activities that you are familiar with can support a ‘Plan B’ if the session needs to deviate from what was planned in advance. The good news is that there are a plethora of tools and tips that are easily accessible. Some we particularly like are listed below. But if you Google ‘facilitation tools’, ‘facilitation toolkit’, or ‘facilitation methods’, etc. you will quickly find a wealth of materials available online. 


After the session

Put simply ‘Begin with the end in mind’.  Plan to reach outcomes, actions and results based on what the group is wanting to achieve. Afterward, keep the momentum going by:

  • Debriefing and continuing to plan with key stakeholders
  • Following up with communication and further conversation
  • Developing and sharing documentation
  • Continuing engagement and relationships


What helps?

Awareness of group dynamics

When groups come together they’re not necessarily ready to work together. If they’ve worked together before they may just need a little structure. But if they haven’t worked together before they may need to spend some time (perhaps considerable time) getting to know one another, building relationships and sorting out their roles and ways of working. When a facilitator begins working with a group, it is vital to understand where they are at in the process of forming as a group. Even though it may sound cliche, Bruce Tuckman’s classic ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’ model from his 1965 article “Developmental sequence in small groups” is a helpful tool for assessing a group’s readiness to work together (in the resources below). 

Gaining facilitation experience

Facilitation is a craft best learned through practice. Sometimes the best way to begin is by choosing a safe environment to learn in, giving it a go and reflecting on how you do. 

If you’re looking for support, you could ask around and find an experienced facilitator for your sessions, read about facilitation in more detail (see links below for our top resources), seek out facilitation training (there are a number of great courses available) or get coaching from an experienced facilitator. People have also found training in public speaking (eg Toastmasters) and in acting or improv helpful in contributing to their facilitation practice. 

Working with a co-facilitator

Whenever possible, try not to facilitate solo. A complimentary facilitator duo can help you ensure that the many dimensions of what is happening can be attended to. For instance, facilitators must always be attending to the activities, content or insight that is unfolding, participant experience, relationships and politics, catering, timing, room temperature, workshop supplies, photos, etc.

Staying grounded and calm as a facilitator

People in a group will,  for the most part, mirror the energy and mindset of a facilitator. Facilitators who present to a group with an unintentional, unclear, anxious or flustered mind can impact the group dynamic as a whole and may negatively impact structure, process, results and relationships. Facilitators who stay grounded, calm and collected (but not overconfident or arrogant) can keep a group on track.

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” – Otto Scharmer.  

Creating a safe space – doing with not for and self awareness

Another key role of the facilitator is to create a safe space, to foster an environment where people can come together safely both psychologically and emotionally, and as a result can contribute honestly and openly.

There are two mindsets that makes this possible, ‘doing with not for’ and ‘self-awareness’:  

  • The ‘Doing with not for’ mindset encourages people to participate whilst simultaneously respecting all perspectives. It involves creating the conditions for people to take on responsibility and leadership rather than doing the work for them.
  • A ‘self-awareness’ mindset acknowledges that all people have unique characteristics which can spark different reactions between people depending on the circumstances and environment, and being aware of one’s own characteristics.  A facilitator’s ability to know and read how a group reacts to them as a person and to their behaviours and habits is of paramount importance. It is about being able to ‘read the room’ and understand what is happening for a group. 


What hinders

Lack of clarity at the beginning of the session

If people are not properly introduced at the beginning of a session, it is likely that they won’t be able to stay involved and/or move forward throughout the session. As a result, they may leave the session unsure of what has been discussed or achieved.

Having unrealistic expectations about the session outputs

Facilitators need to think about what a group is being asked to do.  If forty people in a room are asked put three ideas on three post it notes, can you realistically capture, synthesis and play back this information with and to a group? Think about the schedule and build in time for synthesis. If there is no time to schedule this in then that activity is probably not suitable. 

If you’re not able to do something of quality with the information you ask the group to gather this will decrease the credibility of the facilitation process.

Not providing closure

There is nothing more frustrating for a group if they don’t know where they landed, who’s doing what and what was decided. Therefore a facilitator needs to take the group through a closure process. Build in a time leading up to the end of a session to determine where a group is going to land so everyone is clear on what has been achieved and what are the next steps.




Related Capabilities:

  • Bringing others along the journey: in facilitating we need to involve everyone in the room and make sure they are fully engaged in the process
  • Self awareness: in order to identify group dynamics and understand what the team needs to move forward, the facilitator needs to grow their self-awareness
  • Doing ‘with’ not ‘for’ others: a key component in the facilitator mindset is to not impose your own agenda in session but to hear what the group’s objective is and guide them in their own reflections that will take them there
  • Working with ambiguity: facilitating conversations can always lead to unexpected results, being open and comfortable to navigate uncertainty is key to guide a group to the desired outcome
  • Communicating effectively: a facilitator needs to set-up the session objectives and guide the group through the different activities, in order to do so in an engaging and efficient way, the facilitator needs to practice and master their communication skills