What do workshop facilitators do?

Jackie Colburn
4 min readNov 7, 2023

A great facilitator has the ability to make a workshop feel memorable for all the right reasons. The role goes well beyond setting an agenda and timing activities, and is about so much more than being “the boss” of a meeting. In fact, talented facilitators have the unique ability to foster an environment where ideas flow freely, voices are heard, and collective objectives are achieved. And that’s no small feat.

I truly think that most workshops and complex problem-solving endeavors are far more successful with a facilitator present. Admittedly, I’m biased because this is my area of expertise, but stay with me!

Workshops stand to gain so much from the presence of a facilitator. Why? Because we’re especially trained to guide teams through the right activities that will help them solve problems and design a better way forward.

But what is it about a great facilitator that unlocks this potential? Today I’m sharing the three key abilities that a great facilitator brings to the table — think of them as the ingredients that, when present, make a workshop feel fruitful and satisfying.

But first, here’s why the facilitation role is so important.

At its core, a workshop facilitator’s role is to help people work more effectively together.

We do this by:

  • Providing a neutral POV
  • Maintaining fairness, objectivity, and efficiency
  • Helping organizations and groups navigate complex discussions, make decisions, and resolve challenges more effectively
  • Bringing the right tools to the table to tap into the team’s potential

The benefits can most obviously be seen at the team level, but the bigger picture is about helping organizations achieve their specific goals and address complex issues (all while allowing internal team members to focus on bringing their expertise and ideas to the table).

So, what do facilitators do? And what characteristics should you look for in a facilitator (or try to cultivate in your own facilitation practice)?

1. Great facilitators maintain neutrality and objectivity

Each team has its own unique dynamic, which can be complicated to navigate if the person leading your session is too close to the project, or has personal connections within the team. This is why external facilitators are so effective: their neutral role is better able to address sensitive or contentious topics, and maintain objectivity.

However, if you’re working with a facilitator inside your organization, it’s ideal to choose someone who’s less connected to the work at hand. That way, they can encourage participation from all attendees by creating a non-threatening and inclusive atmosphere. This ensures that all voices are heard, even those who might be hesitant to speak up in the presence of superiors or extraverted colleagues. And because a neutral facilitator won’t have a vested interest in the outcome, it’s much easier for them to remain objective and impartial. This increases the likelihood that all participants will be treated fairly and that the process is transparent and unbiased. And all of those things lead to better outcomes.

2. External facilitators bring perspective and subject-matter knowledge

Some workshops require specialized knowledge and skills that internal staff may not possess. External facilitators can help organizations navigate specific topics such as leadership development, diversity and inclusion, digital-product work, or team building. They may be able to introduce innovative approaches and best practices that leaders within the organization are not aware of in their area of expertise.

For example, my background and subject-matter expertise is in digital product, which is why I often work with product teams who aim to improve their current offering or build something new. I bring a deeper understanding of what it takes to design and build great products, especially among teams hoping to innovate.

If you’re considering hiring a facilitator, look for a good subject-matter fit that aligns with your focus. If you’re a facilitator, consider the subjects you find most interesting and deepen your understanding of them.

3. Experienced facilitators know how to design workshops around the outcomes that matter

Facilitators need to be experts in workshop design and facilitation techniques. This foundation allows them to create effective experiences that achieve the outcomes most important to the team and the organization. But creating personalized workshops can be time-consuming. This is why it’s worth the investment in a facilitator who has the capacity to focus on creating a positive and engaging experience for participants (without being distracted by internal organizational responsibilities).

In conclusion

Workshop facilitators play a vital role in helping organizations and groups work together more effectively. They’re there to help teams achieve specific goals, address complex issues, and ensure that everyone’s ideas and expertise are brought to the table. And their unique POV and background will absolutely contribute specialized knowledge and skills that can help your team create, ideate, and innovate more easily.

By working with a facilitator who is an expert in workshop design and facilitation techniques, leaders can ensure that the outcomes most important to the organization are achieved and that it is a positive and engaging experience for all participants.

If you enjoyed this post, clap me some love so I know you found this topic helpful. And definitely leave me a comment if there’s a specific subject you’d like me to write about in the future, either here or over on LinkedIn.

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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