How to be a Great Facilitator | The Big Bang Partnership

How to be a Great Facilitator

How can you spot a great facilitator?

A great facilitator has a fantastic ability to harness the collective creativity and wisdom from everyone in the virtual or physical room. They facilitate with confidence, have exceptional leadership skills and an intuitive connection with people, whilst also creating structure and process to achieve target outcomes from the workshop, design or innovation sprint, event or meeting.

A great facilitator makes the whole art and process of facilitation look natural and easy. A not-so-great facilitator makes for a painful experience, not just for the delegates but also for themselves too.

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When you think that one of the most common human fears is giving a presentation (called glossophobia, by the way), apparently affecting 75% of the population, imagine being in the position of leading a group of people for the duration of a whole event when it’s not going so well!

Being a great facilitator takes skill, practise and self-awareness, as well as preparation. And even if you’re a highly experienced facilitator, you can always grow and develop further. Great facilitators never stop learning, experimenting and sharpening their craft.

In this article, I share some of the things that I’ve learned from facilitating thousands of people, both online and in person, in innovation, strategy, training, team building and community co-creation events.

I’ll cover some of the key questions that I get asked most often when I’m coaching and training people rookie and more experienced facilitators.

What makes a great facilitator? 

For me, a great facilitator is someone who:

  • Is a great leader
  • Creates a process that delivers results and that is structured, yet flexible
  • Brings people together
  • Harnesses the collective creativity, wisdom, experience and energy of everybody in the room to deliver the objectives
  • Is mindful, present and intentional
  • Makes the meeting/workshop a positively memorable experience
  • Helps attendees to work through challenges
  • Has the ‘smarts’ and has done the research to be able to hold their own and stay apace with the contents of delegates’ discussions

1. Emotional intelligence is at the core of great facilitation

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence means being able to access, interpret, manage and express emotions, relate to others and understand their perspectives. It’s about how we pick up on and empathise with the emotions that other people are feeling and influencing others positively and with integrity.

It also means being ‘un self-consciously self-aware’. In the moment, mindful, focused, intentional and in flow.

This is important because we can then listen better, connect better, and influence not just individuals, but also the group. This helps to get the most from the process and experience and achieve the task at hand. 

Emotional intelligence is a key ingredient of great facilitation

Empathy is essential for great facilitation

One of the key ingredients of emotional intelligence is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to:

  • Appreciate other people’s points of view
  • Value all contributions 
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Put ourselves in other people’s shoes

Great facilitators are not judgmental and they appreciate others’ points of view. There is no view that they think is right or wrong. They provide space for all views, hence, they create psychological safety. 

Psychological safety means that people feel they’re in an environment where they can share their ideas, they can challenge, they can say what they think and speak out, and they feel their opinions, and point of view will be valued. 

Sometimes there are difficult or sensitive issues and being emotionally intelligent helps us to make sure that we tread the right path and that we lead attendees through that in a way that is psychologically safe. 

Emotional intelligence is also needed when we’re bringing together a new team, or people who haven’t worked with each other for a while and the group is just starting to build or rebuild that connection. 

We need emotional intelligence to read a room, whether it’s a virtual or a physical room. 

And, we need emotional intelligence to assess ourselves in the process, to ensure we are both self aware AND working through our creative subconscious. 

2. A great facilitator is ready for anything

The second key ingredient for how to be a great facilitator is to be ready for anything.

It may seem like a series of paradoxes here. 

With emotional intelligence, I talked about using creative subconscious and also being considered and focused. 

And here you need to have a plan, yet, be ready for anything. 

But they’re not paradoxes. These are actually complementary things. 

It’s super important to go into any session you’re facilitating prepared and with a plan. 

Think through contingencies and options for things you think might go different than planned. 

And while planning is important, so is being flexible. Sometimes it’s important to just put the plan aside, because your participants need to go in another direction to get the desired results. This could just be for part of a session, or the remainder of it. So be ready for anything. Be prepared to think on your feet. Stick to your plan, but don’t be wedded to it.

3. Design and lead an effective process to achieve your workshop objectives

It’s the job of a great facilitator to design a process that will achieve the desired outcomes. 

This process should be well thought out. Processes that are structured step-by-step work really well. 

Plan for all sorts of different activities, textures and levels of energy all the way through so that the process feels good for the attendees. You’ll find my articles on How to Design a Virtual Innovation Sprint and How to Get Ideas Flowing helpful.

One of the things I see with newer or less confident facilitators, or facilitators who haven’t planned too well, is if they lack confidence about what they’re doing or they’re not clear about where they’re going with something, the attendees will try and take over the facilitation. 

So be strong and confident. Be prepared to lead through the process. You’re not giving the answers or coming up with the outputs, but you are making sure that everyone is working with the process to get them to the end result.  

IMPORTANT: If the group is working on something and doing what they need to be doing, it’s okay for you to step back for a while and let them do their thing. You don’t want to get in the way of great progress. 

4. Generate collective energy

A great facilitator is magnificent at generating collective energy. 

Energy is infectious! So If you are energetic, positive, and enthusiastic, people pick up on that and they will enjoy being led by you.

Sometimes you might need to be a bit calmer, maybe you need to be a bit more thoughtful, because you need your attendees to be calmer and thoughtful at those points for different types of activity. 

You lead the energy of the room through what you do. You set the tone, style and the pace of where you need people to be. 

Think of it as leading your participants on a journey. There are times where people need to be really highly energized, working quickly and moving around quite rapidly. Then, at another time, something may need some thoughtful reflection. 

5. Combine strength and warmth

Great facilitators combine strength and warmth. 

A great facilitator needs strength to lead. As a facilitator, you need to keep people on task, intervening if a conversation goes off on a tangent, or if somebody is dominating the conversation. So an appropriate level of assertiveness is important.

However, warmth is important too. 

Research shows that attendees do better and enjoy sessions more when they have a good rapport with a facilitator, when there’s a likability, connection and mutual respect.

Showing that you care about the delegates, their experience, and that you value everybody’s contribution, goes a long way to bring warmth into the meeting. 

So what we need to do is dial up strength AND dial up warmth, to get the right balance for any situation. 

Here’s an example. There are instances when I’m facilitating that I really need people to be on time, and I’ll be very clear about that. I may say “Please be back at this time with this task completed.” I give a clear instruction, say it nicely whilst making it very clear by my tone that this is important and that I need everyone to be back on time. 

Warmth is about engaging, appreciating, recognizing everybody’s contribution, and being non-judgmental. 

And that combination, strength and warmth, are the two ingredients that when you put them together, create what we call CHARISMA! It’s a great way to dial up your facilitation X-factor!

6. Just add YOU

And finally, just add you!  You are the magic ingredient in great facilitation. 

Be yourself. Don’t try and be anybody else. Don’t try and do things the way another facilitator does them. 

Use your style and lean into the authentic you, because people will enjoy that. 

And it’s better to be an authentic you than a poor copy of somebody else. 

So find your style. 

I’ve got a free masterclass for you on how to find and develop your authentic signature facilitation style. There’s also a blog with all the videos and a playbook as well. 

So just add YOU. Be distinctive. Be memorable, for the right reasons. 

Every great facilitator is known for who they are, what they do, and how they do things. Create your facilitator brand; that is, your personal presence. And bring that to the room every single time.

How to be a great facilitator – putting it all together

When we put this all together, at the heart of it is YOU! Your authentic self, your personal brand, your facilitation style, which is powered by your emotional intelligence.  

How to be a Great Facilitator graphic. Copyright The Big Bang Partnership Limited 2021.

You’re tuned into what is going on, honing in on what you’re doing, ready for anything.

You’re generating the energy that you need in each moment, utilizing different energy throughout the session, leading with the just the right blend of strength and warmth. And, you’re effectively taking people through the engaging, highly effective process and series of activities that you’ve designed. 

You’ve designed an excellent process to achieve the objectives of the event, and everyone wins. 

Next steps

If you’d like to develop your facilitation skills further, and be part of a wonderful, supportive and like-minded community of facilitators, come and join my FREE private Facebook group, Idea Time for Facilitators. You’ll be the first to find out about new articles and videos, too, when you join. Can’t wait to see you in there!

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