10 tips for first-time facilitators

“Do I control everything or go with the flow?”

This question is one that frequently comes up in our workshops on teams or brainstorming ideas. It’s my observation that people tend more towards one or the other throughout whatever event they’re facilitating. What they take away from the training is the insight that they need to do both, but at different times. So at some point they’ll be out of their comfort zone or preference.

The best facilitators understand that working in groups sparks off all kinds of dynamics between people, many of which get in the way of coming up with good ideas.

Generating ideas requires us to make new and often strange connections. Children do this quite naturally – just watch them play inventively in the box their Christmas present came in. For adults it’s more of a challenge than we realise.

The more experienced participants are, the harder it is for them to let go of their points of view, opinions and ways of doing things. These people can get frustrated when generating ideas – their own and others’. The less experienced can hold back offering suggestions for fear of looking foolish and/or being put down by others.

So as facilitators we need to ensure that the environment is both supportive and positively challenging to enable people to step out of their comfort zone. We’re responsible for the process much more than we are for the content.

  1. ‘Contract’ or reach agreement with the group right at the start, by clarifying the aims of the session and agreeing ground rules for how you will work together.
  2. Clearly brief all activities, ensuring everyone is clear on the what and how. You can use a flip chart or distribute written briefs to all participants.
  3. Ensure equal airtime within the group; manage grandstanders and more reticent contributors
  4. Listen well to what is said and how it is said. Listen to hear rather than to respond. So don’t ‘reload’ when someone’s speaking (meaning diverting your attention to coming up with your response to what they haven’t yet finished saying).
  5. Design activities so that each person or group generates their own output, so that no one person has to play ‘scribe’ all the time.
  6. Manage any conflict in the room constructively, referring back to the ground rules if necessary.
  7. Pay attention to your own feelings as a barometer for how the process is going.
  8. Vary the activities and techniques used to manage both energy levels and different preferences for ways of working.
  9. Observe group behaviour and body language to assess the dynamics of how the process is working and give feedback as you do so.
  10. Show enthusiasm for the group’s work.

You may also find these blog posts useful:

Facilitating idea generation – DOs & DON’Ts

5 myths about brainstorming sessions – and what to do instead

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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