Tips facilitators can follow to empower people to create their best work.
Whether you’re leading a 60-minute meeting or a multi-day workshop, keeping people engaged and incentivized to contribute often boils down to one fundamental thing: comfort.
Comfort is physical, mental and emotional. It’s applicable to introverts and extroverts. And it’s something that facilitators should prioritize cultivating. Why? Because a group of comfortable humans is more likely to produce / co-create / unlock their best work yet.
Leverage these methods at your next session and see if you observe a difference.
1. Do a warm up
When you’re leading a group of people, kick off with a warm-up exercise that encourages them to be humans first. Yes, this is essentially an icebreaker, but I’ve rebranded it because saying “icebreaker” usually garners a few eye rolls.
Despite the stigma, the essence of the exercise is positive. Participants often need a moment to transition into a session from __________ (another meeting, sending a screaming child to school, cleaning up spilled coffee). This is that moment. And whether or not the group realizes it, starting here kickstarts the team’s interaction and ability to contribute.
Some warm ups that I like to use when I lead include:
“Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re calling in from, and share the emoji that best describes your mood.” (If you’re together in person, ask people to reference their most-used emojis, then have them drop their phones into a basket to eliminate distractions.)
“ I heard Sherri talking about her rare spoon collection as everyone was getting seated. Share something you own that might surprise the others.” (You can build on something the group was already talking about to create a smooth transition into the session.)
“Tell me about the best part of your day so far.” (I like to do this at the onset of a day of idea generation or drawing because it starts things on an optimistic note.)
As the facilitator, it’s always good to demo first because participants will take your lead and follow your format. Demoing also sets the tone and helps the group warm up to you. From here, call on people to keeping movings things along.
2. Normalize stupid questions
We’ve all had this experience before: a group is talking animatedly about some method or acronym that everyone seems to understand except you. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the room who isn’t nodding along in these moments, but people have a funny ability to pretend they understand at the expense of actually understanding in order to avoid looking “stupid.”
As the facilitator, one of the most powerful things you can do for your group is 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’?”
This helps ensure that all team members are aligned and actually agree on what’s being discussed, and moves the group quickly to clarity. 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. And since you’re the facilitator, you get a pass!
3. Be humble, be human
Groups are more fluid and open when they see that they’re being led by an actual human, not a robot or entertainer. And fluid, open groups are more comfortable being honest and collaborative, which impacts output.
I once led a workshop for Medtronic and they asked if I could use Miro because it was their preferred tool. At the time, my go-to was Mural but I knew Miro would support them best so I transitioned for the workshop. When the session began, I shared with the group that it was my first time using Miro for a big training session, and even though I had everything loaded and ready to go, I still knew we were likely to encounter bumps. I also invited the team to offer help if/when I stumbled.
When you show people you can keep it real, it allows them to feel more comfortable and let their guard down in return.
4. 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 (more on how to ditch this feeling here). Once you’ve accepted that, it becomes a little easier to relax and infuse lightness and humor into your meetings.
The truth is, hiccups are bound to happen. I recently led a virtual workshop and Mural’s software went down completely, which meant the agenda was at a standstill. Rather than panic and internalize things, I simply told the group to take a 10-minute break while I figured out the situation. Doing that maintained a confident and calm energy, which allowed me to keep control of the room while I pivoted.
You’re going to hit bumps — don’t let them unravel you.
5. Manage the politics
Group dynamics and politics come with the facilitation territory. That doesn’t meant you’re at their mercy. In fact, I leverage a handful of techniques to get ahead of possible problems, or stop them in their tracks:
- Confidently interrupt to keep things moving. If share of voice is tipping toward one person, find a way to cut in and acknowledge the thought while also assertively taking back control of the room (“That’s a great thought, and I’m going to keep us moving so we can get to…”).
- Don’t feel the need to discuss job titles. This might mean leaving them out of the meeting invitation, or a summary of the group’s participants. When you kick off intros for the group, demo and leave title out of our own share. People usually follow suit. You don’t need to ask people not to share their title, but purposefully not calling attention to titles and functions helps level-set the playing field a bit more.
- Use a timer to cut people off during feedback. I always do this during my sessions. When everyone is allotted the same amount of time and the buzzer dings, cutting off the speaker isn’t personal, it’s simply playing by the rules.
There are so many more great methods for neutralizing politics and leveling the playing field, especially when it comes to idea sharing and selection. Here’s a list of my go-tos. Pull from it whatever you need to develop a toolkit you can reach for any time.
6. 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, especially in a world where many of us are still joining workshops and meetings from home.
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.
At the beginning of every workshop, I like to make sure participants know there are going to be scheduled breaks (include this in your agenda!). It’s also a good practice to let them know early on to take care of themselves if they need a moment. We’re all adults. Nobody should have to ask to use the bathroom or let the dog out (if you’re remote). Just make sure participants know to step out quietly, or turn off their cameras and mics, then rejoin and resume once ready.
A toolkit of methods can quickly transform a meeting controlled by power dynamics, distracted brains and closed-off participants into a truly productive session. When you create a space where everyone feels comfortable — physically, mentally and emotionally — you’ll find the team is capable of creating their best work yet.
Which methods do you leverage to help participants feel more comfortable in meetings, workshops and many-day sessions? Comment below with your input, and remember to clap me some love and follow along for more articles like this!