Welcome to the second in our seven-part Facilitation Tips series. In this blog, we examine key traits of a good facilitator.
As an educator, you are responsible for learning experiences that change behavior. Good facilitators guide learning and are advocates for their learners. Facilitating is no easy task; you’re not only responsible for securing productive participation from all the individuals in the room, but also for guiding those individuals with different personalities and work styles to a common outcome. It’s enough to give you sweaty palms just thinking about it.
However, here’s the good news: there are certain skills you can work on or acquire that will help you in your journey to becoming an effective facilitator. Many thanks to Hannah Feldberg-Dubin who provided these great tips:
- BE PREPARED FOR ANYTHING
Most skilled facilitators spend about 3 to 4 times as long preparing for a session than the amount of time they spend on the actual session itself. However, as we’ve all learned in life, nothing ever goes as planned! You need a Plan A, a Plan B, and most likely plans C-Z. Start by scoping your facilitation preparation with at least a 2-1 investment of time. Important details that will inform your preparation and planning include:
- The session objectives—what will success look like?
- Does the group need to do any “pre” work before meeting?
- How long do you have to run the session? Is the time allotted realistic to meet the goals of the session?
- KNOW WHO’S IN THE ROOM
While definitely connected to preparation, knowing who’s in the room is an essential skill for effective facilitation. Find out as much as you can about who will be in the room before you get there. The more you know about the group, the individual personalities and the dynamics at play, the better you’ll be able to plan for a successful session and a positive experience.
- BE ABLE TO CREATE AN INCLUSIVE ENVIRONMENT
When planning your session and while you’re in the room facilitating, you need to find ways for the entire group to be on an equal playing field. Finding ways for everyone in the group to participate is a key component to getting the group to buy in and own the process—inclusivity is the name of the game.
It could be as simple as arranging a seating plan that is equal and fair, where everyone is on the same eye level, in a circle and with no one’s back to anyone else.
- EFFECTIVELY SET GUIDELINES
As a facilitator, you need to help set a tone for the behaviors and attitudes of the session. You can think about these guidelines yourself or you can simply ask the group what behaviors and attitudes will help them get the most out of the experience.
You’ll need to get agreement from the group that they’re all on board with the guidelines. Just ask the group directly. If you get head nods, you’re good to go! And you can always return to your guidelines to make sure you’re still on track or to edit them to make them fit the group’s needs better.
- MASTER THE ART OF GIVING CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS
So much of facilitating is asking a group of people to accomplish a task—and that’s a whole lot easier with good instructions.
Clear instructions make it easier for your group to get to the outcome you’re looking for. Some easy ways to do that include having the directions pre-written on flip chart paper or a powerpoint slide and asking the group the repeat the steps back to you to make sure everyone understands the activity.
- ACTIVE LISTENING IS A PREFERRED WORKOUT
In an effective group session, everyone will walk out aligned—on the same page and speaking the same language. To achieve that, you’ll need to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and to hear each other. The best way to do that is to flex your active listening skills and encourage your group to do the same.
Mirroring, paraphrasing and tracking are three tools you can leverage to help you with active listening. Mirroring is when you repeat back the speaker’s words verbatim. It helps the speaker hear what they just said, shows neutrality, and can help establish trust. Remember, with mirroring you’re keeping your tone warm and accepting and you’re using the speaker’s words, not yours.
Paraphrasing, on the other hand, is a straightforward way to show the speaker and group that their thoughts were heard and understood. Paraphrasing, unlike mirroring, is when you use your own words to say what you think the speaker said, “It sounds like you’re saying… [Insert paraphrased content]. Is that what you mean?”
And lastly, tracking is when you’re keeping track of various lines of thought that are going on simultaneously within a single discussion—helping to summarize the different perspectives and show that multiple ideas are equally valid.
- MANAGE TIME LIKE A REFEREE
Group activities have time limits—there are only so many hours in a day. That means you’ll need to plan out how long the different components of your session will take and how long your group will have to reach the session’s goals. There are a few different ways to keep track of time: use a watch or phone and let people know how much time is passing, use a large clock that the whole group can see, or delegate timekeeping to individuals or smaller breakout groups.
Choose a method that will let you pay attention to what’s going on in the room and allow your group to easily track the time for each task. Whatever method you choose, consider giving people warnings as the time for each activity draws to a close. You can say it out loud or hold up a sign (“2 minutes left” or “1 minute left,” for example) so you don’t need to interrupt the group’s work flow or conversation.
- BE THE FACILITATION VERSION OF MARY POPPINS
You need to have your own bag of tricks to help a group get to their end goal. Sometimes a group session will get off track or the plans you originally set up aren’t working out like you expected. Consider keeping a grab-bag (it doesn’t have to actually be bottomless; Mary Poppins is an aspirational goal) of activities to pull out just in case Plan A isn’t doing the trick.
Write down at least 3 name games, icebreakers, energizers, and team building activities and keep all the needed materials and props ready to go. Have extra paper, markers, and supplies ready in case you want to change the way you are thinking about running an activity. That means you can pull something out of your bag and make it work for the group in the moment—and that flexibility is super valuable.
- BE AN ENERGY GAUGER
We’re not talking about chakras here. It’s simply a fact of life that sometimes a group of people walk into a room and convey an energy—maybe it’s tired, lethargic, excited, hyper, silly, negative, shy, nervous—whatever! Sometimes you need to match the activity you have in mind with the energy of the group and sometimes you need to find ways to boost a low-energy group’s enthusiasm and excitement.
Keep a few energizer activities on hand that get people moving, bring energy up, focus the group, lighten the mood, and get people thinking creatively. No one does their best work when they’re feeling low or tired and a few fun activities can go a long way toward bumping the mood of the room up to a fun, productive level.
- BE FLEXIBLE AND ABLE TO ADAPT ON THE FLY
Part of your job as a facilitator involves checking in with your group on progress and process. Think about how often they might need a break. Make a point to periodically ask how everyone is doing and whether it’s time for a break. Maybe you originally planned on taking a break in 30 minutes, but the group needs it now—so give it to them! It’s about taking care of your group to help them operate at their best.
Like most things worth doing, becoming an effective facilitator takes practice. The good thing is that all of these skills are totally learnable—you just have to get out there and try them out! Each group is different and as you work on these skills, you’ll figure out what works best for your team and your organization. With your expert-level facilitation, all those different learning styles and personalities can come together to produce awesome outcomes.