During a meeting, a good facilitator can help a group work through a conflict or arrive at a decision. No matter what your job is, facilitation skills come in handy. 

For the most part, it’s pretty obvious what we need to do in our jobs at work and at home. But when things change or get complicated, next steps may not be so obvious. That’s where facilitation comes in. Let’s start by talking about what we mean we say facilitation. 

To facilitate is to make an action or process easy or easier.  

Overlap facilitators have helped a lot of clients and their stakeholders have challenging, rewarding conversations. We’ve watched people clear the air, bridge gaps, and solve problems.

If you’re new to facilitation—delivering or receiving—here are the first three things Overlap facilitators want you to know:

  1. Facilitation is intentional.
  2. Facilitation is reflective.
  3. Facilitators are smart, with big ears.

1. Facilitation is intentional. 

Facilitation is helping: skillful helping. Facilitation isn’t teaching, it’s not leadership, and it’s definitely not advocacy. Facilitation is helping people have difficult conversations in order to solve problems.

Facilitators help groups pool their knowledge, develop insights, and make high-quality decisions together. They create the context for others to do their best work. Facilitation calls for all of the skills for running a good meeting—such as time management—and soft skills—such as active listening—but it also calls for planning.

Effective facilitation doesn’t happen by accident or intuition. It’s intentional. In typical session designing at Overlap, we consider context and aims of the session first. Then, and only then, we map out the activities that will get us to where we want to go.

We take a lot of things into account when preparing for a facilitation.

  • Context
    What context do we need to establish for our participants?
  • Rational Aim
    What do people need to know/learn/decide in order for us to get to our desired outcome(s)?
  • Experiential Aim
    What do people need to experience in order for us to get to our desired outcome(s)?
  • Capacity-building
    What will people learn to do (or do better) from this session?
  • Opening
    Activities to surface the current state and set the scope of the session
  • Exploring
    Activities to examine, combine and extend what they know
  • Closing
    Activities to distill, capture and exchange insights
  • Reflection
    Reflective questions to recap the day, honour the work, thank the participants, highlight the outcomes and assign/accept responsibility for follow-up

2. Facilitation is reflective.

A facilitator’s general mission is to draw things out in the most constructive order. To do that, we use a reflective framework for the conversation. Pretty much every reflective framework can be summed up with:

  • What?
    We start with open-ended questions to develop a rich complete description of the current situation. We let them tell us what matters. They are the authorities on their experience. What do they believe is relevant? What do they think needs to be considered?Reactions and feelings are relevant, too. They are signals that help a group gauge the impact of the situation, identify pain points, and set priorities.
  • So what?
    After a group of people who know the situation best have pooled everything they know about it, we create space for the group to discover trends, connections, patterns, and insights in the information they have pooled.This is when the Aha! moments happen.
  • Now what?
    Finally, we encourage the participants to draw conclusions, craft advice, and make decisions about how to put their insights into action.If we stop before this point, the meeting may feel satisfying but people are just letting off steam. The “Now what?” stage is when we encourage people to take charge of the situation and make plans and decisions.

With apologies to Lao Tzu, when the best facilitator’s work is done, the people say, “We did it ourselves.” 

3. Facilitators are smart, with big ears. 

  • Ideally, a facilitator is neutral. We’ve got no stake in the issue.  Our mission is to get everything on the table. We help the group pool its knowledge and concerns to arrive at quality insights and decisions.
  • We assume there are multiple viewpoints, events, and issues. Sometimes facilitators have to ask the awkward questions. That’s because the enemies are unheard players, overlooked factors, and hidden agendas.
  • We draw out what the group knows, figures out, and decides. We start with questions that are easy to answer. Get people talking. We ask open-ended questions to gather information and call for interpretation. We ask closed-ended questions to confirm decisions.

Active listening is essential to facilitation, but we also have to get comfortable with silence. People are not always going to be willing or ready to answer instantly.

“Start solo” is a watchword at Overlap that spills over from our creative processes into everything we do with groups. When we give everyone a bit of time to begin thinking quietly for themselves, and jot down a few notes, we get big benefits. Everyone has a few notes to consult when we need more varied input, diverse viewpoints, an easy way to change the subject or draw out introverts and newcomers.

Starting solo also provides some quiet time, a respite from loud and possibly chaotic activities.

Producing epiphanies

Finally, good facilitation produces insights and decisions that stick. 

As teachers and parents all know, people learn better when they discover the answers for themselves. Sometimes it seems like a lot of consulting is telling people the answers. In contrast, facilitation is helping people discover the answers.

Or, as Susan Scott also said of leadership, the job is “to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies.” 


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