14 Tips for Freakin’ Fantastic Group Facilitation

Ok, sorry for the overdoing of the ‘F’ alliteration, but if you’re in a position of leadership, chances are at some stage this year you will be asked to lead some form of session with a group of people.

Whether it’s a training meeting, a strategy brainstorming session, or a workshop, the way you facilitate your group can be the difference between sweet success or epic fail.

If this is something you will be doing on a regular basis, attending a specific course is probably worth the investment.  If you live in New Zealand, here’s a  good one.

Here are my 14 tips for freakin’ fantastic group facilitation:

1. Begin with the end in mind.  Knowing your objectives will help to shape the content and flavour of the session.

What are we trying to achieve by all of us coming together?
What will success look like?

Usually, you’ll find there are both primary and secondary goals.

For example, your goal might be to run a session on OSH where all participants are more motivated and knowledgeable on the company’s safe working practices.  But a secondary goal might also be for this particular group to come together to connect, share stories about their own experiences and challenges around OSH, and form stronger bonds as a management team.

Knowing both (or all) of your goals will help shape the content and processes of the session.

2. Spend time up front on ‘boring process’.  What I mean by this is to allow time and space for people to fully ‘arrive’ and transition from their busy work day into the pace and topic of the workshop or session.

This section is also about covering ‘how we will work today’, so things like rules of engagement, covering the agenda, and asking “what does everyone want to get out of today?”, apply.

3. Be participative.  Nobody wants to spend a whole hour (or day?!) listening to some dude standing up the front of the room engaging in an indulgent soliloquy (except maybe that guy himself?!).  Participation increases engagement. Engagement increases learning.

4. Decide the role you are going to play. It’s hard to be a full on participant and facilitate at the same time.  If you have to do both, divvy up the responsibilities like note taker, taking turns to introduce certain sections, etc.

5. Be flexible. Work with whatever comes up in the discussions, not sticking to your agenda at all costs. Give people some choices in deciding what they do and how. Be willing to give in to your rigid agenda.


6. Strike the balance between allowing valuable and rich discussion to develop and it going off topic completely.

7. Allow regular breaks. Obvious, but important.  Ninety minutes in one stretch is about the maximum time people can handle without getting tired, needing a pee or in some cases, checking their emails.

8. Notice the energy. What’s not being said? Be brave at naming and checking out what you see with the group.  If you sense everyone is losing interest, or is in disagreement, resist the temptation to plough on.

It’s better to say something like, “I’m wondering about everyone’s energy?” Or, “I sense some disagreement to this…?” and asking for others’ perpectives.

9. Shut up and listen.  If you have been following my blog for some time, you’ll know how hot I am on the value of leaders listening. No exception here.

10. Have a beginning, middle and end.  Like any good story, it helps to have a formula. For example, the introductory section is where we are introduced to the ‘characters’ and set the scene. This is followed be a content rich middle section, where we build on the points covered in the intro. Finally this leads to a conclusion, where all learnings are summarised and loose ends are finalised.

11. Be personality aware. Keep an eye on those that dominate conversation and those who are quiet and reserved. Ideally, you want to encourage participation from all, including introverts. As a facilitator of a meeting or workshop, it is best to put the participants at ease in the beginning. How you structure participation can help, for example breaking into pairs or small groups, or using structured rounds.

12. Pay attention to props. Ensure the your presentation is working, you have internet connection (if needed), all the materials you need, hard copies in case your presentation decides to spit the dummy, coffee, snacks, water, etc.

13. Get there early to get set up and refer to point 12.

14. Avoid death by PowerPoint. 50 million slides full of fine print is liable to put everyone to sleep faster than you can say “Temazipan”. Remember the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Do you have any workshop facilitation tips to add to this list? I’d love to hear your comments – please leave them in the appropriate section below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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