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10 ways to improve your facilitation skills

2 min read

The subject of facilitating meetings came up when I was chatting with fellow blogger Kristeen Bullwinkle the other day. “I love being a facilitator,” she said. “Me, too!” I enthused.

But not everyone shares our passion for facilitation. In fact, many people dread it. For them—and maybe for you—the expression “herding cats” comes to mind: uncooperative or unresponsive participants, complex group dynamics, unexpected discussions that derail.

So why do I, Kristeen, and others feel exhilarated and energized when we facilitate? It comes down to knowing a few facilitation skills, practicing them, and then getting “in the zone.”

The facilitation zone

Facilitating is like standing in the center of a teeter-totter, where you constantly balance between “encouraging participation” and “controlling the process.” Tip too far toward encouraging and you get an animated free-for-all discussion that, while interesting, may run adrift and overtime. Control the process too much and participants will feel the discussion is constrained and may stop contributing (you will end on time, though).

Everything you do as a facilitator—what you say, how you use the room, your nonverbal communications—either helps encourage participation or control the process. Here are 10 facilitation skills that can help you strike a balance.

5 ways to encourage participation

  • Frame it up. Plan opening comments carefully to communicate your goals and explain what you want to accomplish. People are more willing to speak when they know what you’re after.
  • Get people talking early. Start with an easy, safe question. Even beginning with casual introductions makes participants more likely to participate later.
  • Pump up the energy. From start to finish, show your enthusiasm for interaction.
  • Use the physical space. Sit, lean against a table, or move to a less central position in the room to shift focus from you onto participants.
  • Make eye contact with individuals. As opposed to sweeping the room visually, focus on individuals to nonverbally communicate your invitation to participate.

5 ways to control the process

  • Set parameters. Let people know why you need their participation and approximately how long you’d like the discussion to last.
  • Plot trends and summarize frequently. Think of this as jumping to the “big picture”: remind people what the goals and scope of the discussion are, make connections and point out common themes, and summarize information and how it will be used.
  • Park it. Capture key points and future discussions on a flip chart or whiteboard to head off tangents.
  • Ask closed questions that can be answered with yes or no, single words, or short phrases when you want to slow the discussion and regain control.
  • Know when to stop. Bring the discussion to a close at an appropriate time—when you’ve reached your goal or when discussion is no longer fruitful. Thank the group for their valuable input.

Learning to love facilitating is about understanding your role and practicing your skills. When you do, you’ll enjoy the balancing act.


John Capecci

Communication strategist, coach and consultant. Author of Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference

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