4 tips to level up your facilitation skills

Jackie Colburn
6 min readMay 6, 2024

If you lead meetings or workshops regularly, then you know how much planning and energy go into guiding a group of people from point A to point B. When it goes well, sessions feel productive, seamless, and collaborative. So, how do you access more of that and minimize the hard stuff, like disengaged or disruptive participants? And how do you ensure you’re unlocking the most potential from everyone, reducing friction and resistance along the way?

There’s no magic formula, but there are certain behaviors and methods you can learn in order to become a better guide and, as a result, get more from your teams. I’ve put together some of my favorite tips and recommended reading to help you do just that!

4 Tips to Level UpYour Facilitation Skills

1. Learn to neutralize politics

When you lead groups, there’s no avoiding existing team dynamics. Maybe there’s tension between certain members, or senior titles who sway or shut down the group when present. Whatever you’re dealing with, there are methods you can leverage to help diffuse the politics that can be a barrier to unlocking great ideas, including:

  • Exercises like anonymous voting to keep the process unbiased, avoiding a situation where one person with power may influence the group. I write about this technique and a few others in this post, which you can easily follow for your next session. Another way you can maintain anonymity is by having participants hand in or email you their sketches or ideas anonymously before sharing them with the group so the room isn’t preoccupied by WHO the idea came from. This helps give equal weight to all ideas (not just the ones from the most senior or “experienced” titles).
  • Use exercises that create an opportunity for everyone in the group to share. If you notice people are shy or are holding back, call on them. If you know there’s a strong personality or power dynamic in the room, call on that person last.
  • Consider de-titled intros when you start a meeting or collaboration session. Titled intros establish a hierarchy and may deter more junior titles from speaking up. Here’s an article I wrote on this topic with ideas for what you can do instead.

2. Hone your active listening skills

Facilitating people is as much about navigating your agenda as it is about supporting the humans in the room. It’s up to us to receive information, synthesize it, play it back, and paraphrase what we’ve heard. Why? It builds trust, drives understanding and collaboration, and helps teams align and gain clarity. When you take your role as a listener to the next level, it leads to better cohesion and outcomes. Check out this post for 5 tips to fine-tune your active listening skills (think of this as a lifelong practice, not just something we set and forget).

3. Learn to engage the disengaged people in your sessions

How many of us have been in meetings where one person throws off the entire group with their remarks, disinterest, or general resistance to the task at hand? It’s not a fun feeling for anyone involved. While stressful, the dread of dealing with unruly participants doesn’t need to be the thing that keeps you up at night. Here are four tips I always give people to help on this front:

  • Make sure every attendee has a purpose. When folks don’t know their role, they’re more prone to feel like the session is a waste of their time, and that leads to disengaged behaviors.
  • Embrace structure. Your workshop design should include structured methods that help set the tone for the interaction. Make a plan for how feedback should be given, employ the use of timers, and stick to planned activities. Establishing the rules of engagement makes it hard for a single person to sit out or dissent without looking unfavorable.
  • Put away the technology. I know it’s harder to manage in remote settings, but if you’re in person, absolutely insist that people put away their phones and any device that isn’t essential to completing the work at hand. This removes distractions, helps participants stay present, and keeps people from disengaging because “they have more important business to attend to.” If someone says they really need to be on their devices, ask them to leave and come back when they can be fully present.
  • Occasionally, a disengaged participant will present something that needs to be addressed directly. Use your judgment to determine if you can tackle it in front of the group, or if it would be better to pull them aside for a private conversation during a break.

For more reading on this topic, check out this article for more of my favorite ways to keep unruly behaviors in check.

4. Help people feel more comfortable participating and engaging

Comfort is physical, mental and emotional. It’s applicable to introverts and extroverts. And it’s something that facilitators should prioritize cultivating because a group of comfortable humans is more likely to create their best work. Here are a few things you can try to encourage people to open up and participate:

  • Do an icebreaker. Despite the stigma, the essence of the exercise is positive. Participants often need a moment to transition into a session from another meeting, or sending a screaming child to school, or cleaning up spilled coffee, or anything else. This is that moment. And whether or not the group realizes it, starting here kickstarts the team’s interaction and ability to contribute. Here’s a list of some of my favorite icebreakers you can copy and paste into your own session.
  • Normalize stupid questions. One of the most powerful things you can do for your group is to normalize asking “stupid” questions. The best way to do this is to ask tons of questions yourself, especially when jargon and language “everyone should know” is being thrown around. Interrupt the conversation with “What does that mean?” and “Can you say more about what you mean when you say ‘synergy’?” Your ability as the meeting leader to make no assumptions means that attendees will feel relief when questions are asked that may be perceived as obvious or stupid.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I first started facilitating, I thought I needed to have all the answers and be able to control for all the variables, which isn’t realistic. The truth is, hiccups are bound to happen — don’t let them unravel you. Call a 5-minute break if you need time to plan a pivot. When you relax and infuse lightness and humor into your meetings, your participants pick up on it and follow suit.
  • Know when to take a break. If you’re leading an hours-long or a days-long session, you absolutely need to bake breaks into your agenda. I never keep people in their seats for more than 90 minutes at a time because they naturally become antsy and unfocused — it’s human nature! Schedule breaks for people to stretch their legs, grab a glass of water, make some lunch, or all of the above. Encourage them to stay off their devices and fully step away from screens. And don’t be afraid to call an audible if you can tell the group needs a quick pause outside of a scheduled break.

Honing these behaviors and practicing these methods can quickly transform a meeting controlled by power dynamics, distracted brains, and closed-off participants into a truly productive session. When you create an environment where everyone feels open and receptive, you’ll find the team is capable of creating their best work yet!

Feel free to share your favorite tips for honing facilitation skills in the comments! If you want more ideas like this, give me a follow or sign up for email notifications so you get friendly heads-up when I share something new (which happens about three times a month).

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Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas. www.jackiecolburn.com