Facilitation challenges and tips
You can’t foresee every obstacle you’ll encounter as a facilitator, but you can think through how you might approach these common challenges: connecting with a large group, managing a group reluctant to engage in discussion, handling over-participators, keeping the learning alive, and dealing with your own boredom when covering content you know well.
Facilitators and trainers are always facing new challenges: from suddenly moving everything online to challenging topics to difficult learners. These challenges can be what keep the facilitator creative and responsive to their learners. Here we present a few tips and suggestions we’ve learned from training professionals.
Managing and connecting with a large group
- Have multiple facilitators. If online, have a technical producer and someone to monitor the chat. If the session is hybrid, have one facilitator for the in-person group and one for the virtual group.
- Introduce a poll or online collaboration tool before the training. This helps learners get comfortable with the tools. If you also ask them to share something relevant to their upcoming session, they also start meeting each other or begin thinking about your subject. For example, for a manager training, ask everyone to share a task they most want to delegate or vote for their most frustrating management task.
- Use a tool like Padlet and ask learners to post a photo of their workspace, a sound clip that represents their mood, or an article or video on the subject you’ll be covering. For an Everything DiSC® training, you might ask everyone to share an animated GIF or an image that represents their style.
- Create an online asynchronous space where learners can introduce themselves. Post a few questions you’d like them to answer, including at least one fun one.
- Refer back to these introductory polls or sharing spaces during your sessions, if you can. For example: “Five of you shared that your dogs have barked during a Zoom call. So let’s take a few minutes to talk about how your team wants to handle interruptions during meetings.”
- Assign groups of two to four learners to be buddies during the training. Give them time and space to introduce themselves before the training and to meet during or after training. Suggest a few ways they can support each other throughout the session.
- Make use of physical and virtual spaces where the large group can break into smaller ones.
Mixed virtual and in-person groups
- Prepare table tents for everyone—both those physically in the room and those participating virtually. Put the names of off-site learners in front of yourself to remind you to include them and call them by name.
- Ask everyone to log in to whatever platform the remote learners are using. This puts the off-site learners in everyone’s view.
- Put in-person and off-site learners into small groups or pairs.
- Have one facilitator (or more) per location.
- Test the technology, including microphones, audio, and screens in the physical room. Will all participants be able to see and hear each other?
- Ask remote learners to test their technology before joining the session.
- Prepare for a technology failure. How will you respond if the worst happens?
- Introduce all participants to each other or do a paired introduction activity.
- Set and keep break times. (Those participating virtually may tire more quickly than those in the room.)
Silence or a group reluctant to engage in discussion
At some point, all facilitators run into reticence or low energy from individuals or the entire group. Prepare to use some of these techniques to get people talking.
- Take a short break. Let people get something to drink, stand up, and return a little refreshed.
- Personalize the material by asking for examples or experiences that relate to the discussion.
- Ask if you’re moving through the material too quickly or slowly, and adjust accordingly.
- Ask how the content is or is not relevant to their daily work. You might need to explain the connection or reframe your content.
- Break into smaller groups or pairs for discussion.
- Thank by name those who do participate.
- Get comfortable with silence. Sometimes it’s an indication that people are thinking before responding.
- Ask learners to respond by voting with stickers, a thumbs up, or through an online poll. Then ask someone to conjecture why the topic got the response it did. This is helpful if the topic is potentially divisive or very personal.
- Ask people to write down their responses, and then ask someone to share.
- Introduce something fun or lighter. For example, run through DiSC Styles and Dr. Seuss Quotes (PPTX) for a DiSC training, or ask participants to give themselves a standing ovation.
There are often one or two people in any group who dominate the discussion, even if they aren’t aware of it. It can be a group leader everyone defers to, a naturally gregarious person, or someone actively trying to steer the group.
- Ask participants to agree to certain ground rules for the session. The facilitator can suggest these and the group can also add rules. Will you call on people, or can they jump into the conversation? Will questions be collected throughout the day, or should people ask at will? Remind them about these agreements throughout the meeting as needed.
- Meet with senior leaders of the group beforehand and ask that they self-regulate during the session, so others will speak up.
- During the meeting, you might encourage someone to step back if they’ve been participating a lot or step forward if they’ve been quiet.
- One of our clients uses an ELMO (Enough, Let’s Move On) rule. The learners can agree that anyone can call ELMO if someone is lost in a tangent.
- Ask the over-participator if they are willing to take notes on the discussion that you’ll add to and share after the session.
Keeping the learning alive
No facilitator or trainer wants the knowledge, insights, or experiences they delivered to be forgotten. Try some of these tips to remind learners to practice what they learned.
- Before the end of training, ask each learner to commit to trying a new skill or act on a new insight. Ask them to write down this commitment. You can also ask them to share it with an accountability partner. Schedule a follow-up call, or have them schedule one with their partner. If you’re working with a team, the follow-up can be scheduled for one of their meetings.
- Share a synopsis of what was covered and notes or images from their discussions or teach-backs.
- Remind learners of any shared discussion spaces still available to them. Post a follow-up question there that they can respond to. Example: How will you use what you learned about communication styles in your next meeting?
- Provide a few questions learners can journal about.
- Include a reflection question in your evaluation. Example: What are three ideas, actions, or questions you took away from our session?
- Send a short quiz learners can take to check their own progress or understanding.
- Suggest an action they can take this week to practice what they learned.
- Provide resources for where learners can continue their own education or practice.
- Check any facilitation materials you have for follow-up reports or suggested follow-up activities.
Facilitator boredom with familiar content
This challenge is experienced more often than it is addressed. If you’re well prepared and doing your job well, a little boredom is to be expected. But if the boredom isn’t temporary, try some of these tips.
- Refresh your content and pacing as if you were a comedian looking for the best delivery and timing. Focus more on audience response than on getting through your slides or other content.
- Work with a co-facilitator or switch activities with your current co-facilitator.
- Try something different when greeting learners as they enter the real or virtual room. Ask a new icebreaker. A good one will make you feel more connected with them as much as it will get them engaged with each other.
- Move around more as you deliver your content. Smile more.
- Discover, prepare, and share a personal story that’s relevant to your subject.
- Decide ahead of time what you’ll be doing when groups are in breakouts or working alone.
- Think of yourself as a tour guide. What excites you about the subject? What would you like to share?
- Ask more questions during training. Listen for answers unique to this group at this time.
- An icebreaker isn’t just about the audience feeling at ease with one another. It’s about them feeling at ease with you, and you with them.
- If you’re following a facilitation manual or kit, find ways to make the training yours. Edit the script.
- Talk with other facilitators and share your experiences. Try one of their favorite activities or tools.
So many skills are required of a great trainer or facilitator: project management, communication, conflict resolution, storytelling, problem-solving, and others. Luckily, these can be learned and developed through experience. At its heart, great facilitation is about preparation, good listening, and responding to the needs and interests of your learners.