A selection of tools and techniques – both formal and informal – for facilitating meetings, workshops and events. Many of these tools and techniques can be used in decision-making, problem-solving and when it is opportune to bring a new approach or energy to the proceedings. Most provide ways to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be fully involved and is able to contribute.
Literally go round the circle of participants, giving each person an opportunity to speak; the facilitator can offer the chance to anyone who didn’t say anything first time to contribute after going once-round. It’s helpful to give thinking time to those about to speak, by indicating which way round you’ll be going. It can be combined with methods to limit the length of time of each contribution.
A way to introduce people to each other, encourage them to speak, relax, open up and feel they have a right to be there. It can be the start of building trust. They could share names and some personal details or experiences. A level of risk-taking or self-disclosure can help build a safer ‘container’ for the group.
If there are several issues to get ideas about, the group can be split into small groups, and move from issue to issue on flipcharts on walls, to put ideas on each and add to others. They are given an allotted time which reduces as the sheets are filled.
When issues or questions arise in discussion which will take too much time or that don’t seem immediately relevant to the current purpose, they can be written on a sheet to be looked at later on. Ensure you do come back to them!
Split the group into small groups or pairs to support everyone to be involved in discussions. It benefits quieter and marginalised participants, aids deeper conversations and thinking, and allows for quality participation. A rhythm of alternating small and whole group discussions provides variety and integrates discussions had at different levels.
As with small groups, it is a method of bringing out everyone’s ideas and opinions in a setting where power is more equalised than in many large group settings. Each person actively listens to the other and does not express their own opinion, sometimes taking notes, they then swap over.
When a group is given or has encountered a problem, arrange the seats in a circle with an empty chair. People take it in turns to jump in the ‘hot seat’ to practice what they would do in that situation. Ensure participants don’t describe what they would do, but instead give it an actual try.
A way of indicating participants’ agreement/disagreement or feelings about an issue. Create an imaginary line on the floor; in most cases, the two ends of the spectrum will be ‘strongly agree’ or ‘strongly disagree’; participants line themselves up accordingly. The facilitator can elicite reasons, to open up further discussion and encourage movement along the line as people listen to each other.
For larger groups, this is a method of observing an activity or discussion, and giving feedback. One group does the activity, the rest of the group form a circle around them to observe, monitor and note. There are alternate versions, for example, with an empty seat in the inner circle, which allows people from the outer circle to take the seat and join the discussion.
Instead of getting ideas on an issue, turn the issue on its head e.g. instead of: ‘what makes a good meeting?’, use ‘what makes a bad meeting?’ Adds humour and also elicits people’s intrinsic knowledge and understanding.
Usually used when a group is flagging or stuck, or after lunch, to refresh and get the blood flowing. Should involve brisk physical movement, some can involve brisk brain activity too. It can serve other purposes appropriate to that specific point of proceedings, for example an exercise that you can then debrief to draw out issues related to team-work, co-operation or diversity.
A debrief is a discussion that takes place following a shared task, activity, decision or action. It can be used, for example, to analyse what was done successfully and what was not, or to explore what was learned at a group or individual level.
Usually the final activity, evaluation can be done verbally in a go‑round, and/or on flipchart sheets or specially designed forms. It should reveal what people have got out of the session, how they feel about the facilitation methods, what has worked well and what needed doing differently. Where people are writing their own thoughts, anonymity can be used to encourage honesty.
Throwing it Back
When a questions arises, often directed at the facilitator, it can be thrown back to the group for answers or comments e.g.”That’s an interesting question/comment Mo, what does anyone else think?” It can be used when as facilitator you do not know the best way forwards or want to encourage the group to take ownership, e.g. “I’m unsure about what we should do next. We’ve heard…and also… What suggestions are there of next steps?”. It is an important way of shifting responsibility to the participants.
A vital skill in a facilitator, being able to assess the ‘temperature’ of a group and then naming it e.g. “I sense there is a lot of anxiety at this point”. Naming it may be enough, it may need discussing or you could suggest a change of direction or tempo such as getting everyone to do a short physical exercise, take a break or pause for a moment.
An important skill for a facilitator, to be always listening to the group and their needs, encouraging, reflecting what is being said, re-stating points being made, clarifying what is happening, checking and focusing. It is also an important skill to encourage in all participants.
A problem-solving method. Participants act out the story of the problem to the rest of the group, who, when they have an idea about how things could have been handled differently, jump in, take the appropriate role and let the action flow from there. More complex than hot seating.
A problem-solving method, where participants line up facing each other and therefore in pairs, and take or are given roles to explore ways to respond to a particular situation or behaviour. It is one-on-one and so unobserved except by the facilitator.
A good alternative to lengthy report-backs to the whole group. Each small group prepares a flipchart summarising its discussion. This encourages groups to identify key conclusions that can be clearly understood by people who weren’t in the discussion. Everyone else wanders around at their own rhythm to take in the flipchart gallery on the wall. One person from each small group might stay with their flipchart to answer clarifying questions.
Opening a Window
An action which can very much help change the mood of a group; it’s suprising how much a discussion and some individuals can be affected. It can provide a short break, allow things to cools down, and let oxygen or cool air into the room!
Essential to the maintenance of a group and energy levels. Provides a break from discussion and enables informal social interaction and thinking time, processing whatever is needed, intellectually and psychologically. They may be provided for the whole group in a break, at a self-selected time that suits each small group, or always available for individuals who are flagging to help themselves.
When it is useful for the group to have an indication of what everyone is thinking on an issue, a straw poll or show of hands can be used as a test of opinion. It is not a vote, and therefore not decisive. For more nuanced polling, coloured cards showing red for ‘no’, green for ‘yes’ and yellow for ‘more thought or discussion needed’/’undecided’ can be used.
Evaluation of a meeting or workshop is usually done filling in forms. There are many participatory methods, such as the dart-board – divide the target into segments to evaluate different aspects; ask people to put a dot in each segment, the nearer to the bull’s-eye the higher the rating; leave space at the edges for qualitative feedback on post-its that you distribute to participants. Don’t watch too closely!
Experiential learning comes from designing a participative activity or challenge that builds a relevant shared experience. It can then be debriefed by the group, reflecting on the experience, before learning the lessons (generalising) and thinking about what that means for their specific situation or issue (applying).
Building the Container
‘Building the container’ describes what the facilitator can do that aids participants to step into their discomfort zone where they learn more. It also allows trust and communication to build, so a group thrives and is effective. A level of risk-taking or self-disclosure can help build a safer ‘container’ for the group, as well as other tools and techniques to build communication and trust.
Eye contact may seem unimportant, but if used adeptly by the facilitator it can help people feel listened to, fairly treated, understood, and noticed. You can use it subtly to support those in the margins of the group to step into their own power and choose to speak up.
In any group there are all sorts of signals to read, going on individually, between people and in the whole group. Laughter can indicate many things, including being close to facing up to a challenge or something new. Everyone gives out double-signals; for example, beyond their confidence or hesitation, what else do you notice, and what might this mean?
Sometimes a group can turn on the facilitator and kick‑back, especially when you have taken a position or role that is there in the group but no-one is willing to take on. The art is in not taking it personally and using the feedback to uncover what you believe is going on, and figure out the next steps.
Supporting Mainstream and Margins
Every group has a mainstream and margins: those who set the norms and those who don’t. It’s key to facilitating that you support both the mainstream who are usually unaware of their role and the margins to step into their own power. Remember that who is in the mainstream or margins can change as the topic or dynamics of the group change.
Digging deeper is a technique to use at a group and an individual level. Below someone’s position are their interests and needs; you’ll be more likely to find commonality at the level of needs. Most groups and individuals function at the level of widely accepted reality. Sometimes however you may catch the whiff of shared dreams or deeper visions below, and can help the group bring them to life together.
Supporting Divergence and Convergence of Views
For a truly participative and creative decision-making process, you need to support a wide divergence of views, particularly in the first part of any meeting. If you don’t, you will probably get ‘business as usual’, and the group will be less effective. This may lead to a lack of energy and follow‑through. If you succeed, expect that there’ll be a bumpy middle part of the meeting before it’s time to help views converge to a fully agreed decision.
Regular summaries ensure everyone shares the same understanding of the situation, and aids the discussion to develop and to stay focused. Sometimes it is useful to use the actual words spoken by participants. Summaries can also be used to help pace a discussion, providing a reflective moment.
Framing is setting the context, boundaries and direction for a discussion. The wording and tone used influence the way the group develops; asking about concerns rather than fears is one example. Too tight a boundary can limit this growth and thus create conflict as people break out of the framing that was set.
It’s a balancing act to be able to observe the holistic picture of what’s happening with a group at the same time as focussing on detail – being at a distance and getting stuck in! One model of observation (and listening) is to do so at the levels of head, heart and feet, or thinking (including ideas and principles), feeling (including values & experience), and will (including intentions and energy).
It’s a key skill that comes in many forms, with a fundamental starting point that a group can be trusted to have the answers they need. What kinds of questions will help the group and the individuals within it? Non-leading elicitive ones? Follow-up “why…”s? ‘Assertive questioning’? You can use it to show curiosity and interest in someone’s views, supporting margins e.g. “Ezra, it looks like you might have something to say?”
Reflecting in Action
Reflecting in Action is the skill of thinking on your feet as the meeting or workshop is happening, adapting how you frame interventions and changing what you had planned next. It is, in essence, responding to what is happening in the group, at all levels. Reflection on Action is what you do after the event through self-evaluation or debriefing.
Naming the elephants in the room means naming something that some people or the whole group may be struggling to acknowledge. When done well, this can relieve the pressure that comes from sensing that something is present but unnamed. It can help people who don’t feel they can speak up to step into their own power.
Throwing it Back
As one means of shifting power and ownership to the participants, the facilitator can throw a question back to the group e.g.”That’s an interesting question/comment, what does anyone else think?” You can also ask the group for proposals or ideas to help the group move forwards if stuck.
A vital skill in a facilitator, being able to assess the ‘temperature’ of a group by actively listening, and then naming it e.g. “I feel there’s more agreement at a fundamental level than we’re hearing” or “I sense there is a lot of anxiety at this point” and suggesting an appropriate activity in response. Try to avoid interpretation.
An important skill for a facilitator, to be always listening to the group and to individuals in it, encouraging, reflecting what is being said, re‑stating points being made, clarifying what is happening, checking and focusing.
Designing a Plan
Advance thought on how you schedule activities for a session always pays off. Reflect on what you know about the group, desired outcomes, power dynamics, and build in the ability to respond and adapt on the fly. The flow or order will depend on the purpose of each section and how the plan builds on itself; how long they need will depend on the design & expected content of each exercise.
Giving Attention to One Individual
There are many reasons to do this, some perhaps counter‑intuitive. It could be because they are marginalised in the group, or have disengaged; ask them about themselves in a break. When they are dominating, rambling or repetitive, they may need attention in order to help them move on or it could be that they are trying their best to name elephants in the room or take on an unvoiced role or position for the group that is needed for the overall process.
Timing and Pacing
Timing is the art of both managing the usually limited time available and doing the right thing at the right moment. You need to be able to intervene to help the group stay on time or adapt to the group’s changing needs. You always have to be thinking forwards and backwards, to re-plan as a result of what’s happening, whilst staying focused on the present! Pacing is the skill of moving the group forwards not too soon and not too late!
There has been the image of a facilitator as a neutral party, but when we are there as part of a group our feelings and thoughts are part of what’s happening. It’s essential not to abuse the power of our role, so we aim for multipartiality, that is to say, being able to understand and side with everyone’s position whilst being aware that power is not balanced equally.
Working with Conflict
It’s easy in mainstream British culture to avoid conflict, seeking to harmonise a group or resolve conflict at the earliest opportunity. But conflict can be a creative and necessary process for a group to fully explore their purpose and make decisions. You can help the group by how you build the container and frame the discussion, aiding individuals not to take it as about them personally.
Noticing and Using Your Feelings
Self-awareness around your feelings as facilitator can help you discern: how much of what you are noticing is your stuff and how much is connected to what’s happening. Working on what might come up for you in advance can help. Notice how your body is feeling, e.g. tense or anxious, or are you feeling e.g. empathy or frustration? What does this mean for what’s happening in the group, and could naming it aid the process?
Enabling Full Participation
Enabling full participation does not necessarily mean getting everyone to speak in a go-round or starting a meeting by sharing feelings, though it could. Everyone participates in different ways at different points, although for the sake of the group and the task you may encourage people to leave their comfort zone at times. It’s your role to enable people to step into their power and for the group’s process and decisions to feel owned by all.
Humour and Smiling
Humour is a useful tool for lightening the mood and engaging people; it can be tricky to judge the appropriate moment and kind of humour that matches a group’s culture. A ‘reverse ideastorm’ is a good example and generated by the group. Smiling in many cultures can be used to put people at ease, and show you are listening and interested.
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