How To Be A Great Facilitator

You Don’t Have To Know Everything

What a relief! When I first started facilitating I felt like it was my job to know everything about each client’s business and problem space. Now, I’ve learned that it’s more important to be unbiased and open as a facilitator than it is to have a deep understanding of all aspects of the business. Of course, I still do my homework and familiarize myself with the problem space before working with the team, but the real value a facilitator provides is in unearthing knowledge and ideas from the people in the room. It’s up to you to drive clarity in a way that allows the team to rally around the work, a concrete idea, or an important decision.

Know Your Role

As the facilitator, you are responsible for guiding the team. That’s why you were hired. Show up by being prepared. Have your agenda set. Intentionally guide the team through a series of methods — the Design Sprint is a wonderful, reliable formula to follow. It’s also your job to manage expectations so people know what they’re committing to (is the session multiple hours, or multiple days?). Finally, stay true to your agenda, call audibles when you need to, and intervene when participants try to monopolize the room, which leads me to my next tip…

Read The Room

Being a facilitator requires a lot of empathy. I’ve picked up a few things over the years that feel absolutely critical now, including:

  • Make sure people feel heard. Always acknowledge their thoughts and never shut them down. If it’s not an appropriate time to have a conversation, politely let them know the group needs to move on. I also love the “parking lot” tool, where capturing their thought is just a matter of writing it on the wall without even really needing to come back to it if it’s not necessary. The key is to validate every individual so they feel empowered to participate and work collaboratively toward a solution.
  • Make sure everyone contributes. 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. Make sure to use exercises where everyone in the group is required to share. I also love doing activities that maintain anonymity. For example, I’ll have participants email their sketches anonymously before sharing with the group so the room isn’t swayed by WHO the idea came from. This can help manage internal team politics, and give equal weight to all ideas.
  • Make it a point to diffuse “bad vibes.” Sometimes a member(s) of the group may not be jibing with the others. Whether they’re energetically shrinking or seem angsty, it’s important to give them space to speak up, or call an audible and pull that person aside privately to ask a few prodding questions (“Tell me more…,” or “What do you mean by…”). Doing this helps everyone feels seen, included, and can sometimes reveal a kernel of insight that the broader group needs to address.

Practice Patience

Trusting the process is critical to holding your own. If you’re facilitating a Design Sprint, you’ve got a proven, formulaic method to follow. If you’re designing your own agenda, you need to trust that YOU have designed a smart workshop that’s going to create a good outcome. The beautiful part of either of these approaches is that you can plan for things to meander a bit. Maybe you want the group to take a moment to do something unexpected, or have a sidebar conversation, or spend more time on something than originally anticipated. Those are good things! And following these avenues is not helpless — as the facilitator, you are making a deliberate choice to detour because it’s in the best interests of the group.

Get FUNcomfortable

It sounds cheesy, but regularly doing activities outside of your facilitator work that push and encourage you to get a bit uncomfortable will only help your journey as a leader.



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Jackie Colburn

Jackie Colburn

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