What Makes a Good Facilitator?

There is nothing like a good facilitator to help a team communicate about important issues and reach needed decisions. At the same time, there’s nothing like a bad facilitator to make people irritated, or worse. By facilitator, I mean someone who is brought in from outside the group to help employees discuss issues. Facilitators can perform a variety of functions including leading retreats, mediating conflict, running strategic planning meetings, and so on.

So what distinguishes a good from a bad facilitator?

  • A good facilitator has some background in the issues, personalities, and challenges facing the group. It’s not just technique: the facilitator has to understand at least some of the dynamics, past interactions, code words, and key events that underlie the group’s discussion.
  • A good facilitator sees the group and its problems as unique. Participants will know immediately if the facilitator sees them not as individuals but as role players in a typical group dynamic. Related to this: the facilitator cannot seem patronizing or condescending. The facilitator serves a specific role, but he or she is not thereby “above” the group.
  • A good facilitator creates a safe environment where participants feel able to speak honestly. He or she also ensures that everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • A good facilitator has confidence and tells it like it is. This doesn’t mean he or she takes sides, but it’s important for the facilitator to jump in and clarify what’s happening and to tell the participants – diplomatically, but honestly – what he or she is hearing and seeing.
  • A good facilitator moves the meeting along. It’s not good to visibly rush the participants, but there are techniques that help ensure that no one person or issue will dominate the meeting and that the meeting will be productive.  For example, the facilitator can summarize the views that have been expressed as a means to transition to the next level of discussion,
  • A good facilitator knows how to squelch bad behavior in a way that doesn’t sidetrack the discussion. And if the behavior is such that the meeting does have to come to a stop, the facilitator knows how to deal with the problem and move back to the agenda.
  • Finally, a good facilitator likes people and sincerely wants to help them reach goals. No one wants to feel “processed.”

Any other ideas on what makes a facilitator good? ~Amy Stephson

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6 responses to “What Makes a Good Facilitator?

  1. Timely article! What are some practical strategies for a facilitator to help the group own the issues and tasks? I’ll confess my guilt of being a participant attending the meeting and leaving the responsibility of success with the facilitator. With the shoe on the other foot, how can I (as a facilitator) help people take responsibility for the success and ownership of the tasks? Thanks!

  2. Workplace Insiders

    Thanks, Derry. Regarding ownership of the situation, I have asked members of a group to discuss what part of the problem each one of them owns, or what each one of them can do to address the problem. Regarding ownership of the tasks, I’d be sure to have the agenda include development of an action plan (who is doing what by when) and a check back mechanism of some sort. If no one volunteers to take on the tasks, you have to get bossy! In a nice way, of course. Among other things you can tell the group that it’s their job to address the issues at hand. You can also ask: “What is stopping each of you from volunteering?” You might learn something interesting and helpful. ~Amy Stephson

  3. Very good! Does size of group matter? How to end side bars and bring them back to the group?

    • Workplace Insiders

      Thanks, Bill. It’s useful to start the meeting with some ground rules, one of which can be: no sidebars. If they happen, the facilitator can just gently ask that they stop, or if necessary, go silent until the sidebar stops. Having regular breaks helps too–people just like to talk to each other! ~Amy Stephson

  4. Workplace Insiders

    As to the size of the group – yes, I think that definitely matters. Generally speaking, if you’re looking to have a meaningful meeting in which all participate (that is, talk to each other), you’re better off not to exceed about 20 people. When you get above 20 people in the room it becomes pretty unwieldy. That said, even with 20 people I’d suggest breaking into smaller groups to really give everyone a chance to contribute – which of course can also be done with more folks in the room- they just can’t all talk to each other! ~ Daphne Schneider

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