Facilitating Success

More often than not, consultants are given (or assume) the role as group facilitator at some point in a consulting engagement. The dictionary defines "facilitate" as to make easy or easier. The function of a facilitator is to make things easier. In particular, consultants often make arriving at a decision or solving a problem by a group easier than it would have been without them.

What are the skills essential to good facilitators? What have experienced facilitators found to be the most important talents and techniques for helping groups achieve their mission in an easier way?

Rate yourself on the following skills and see how you measure up as a facilitator.

1. Preparation. Effective facilitation begins long before the group first assembles. Good facilitators invest a great deal of time and energy in preparations. Recommendations for first rate preparation include:

  • Articulating a clear objective for the group. For example, a clear objective might be, "Identify five viable options for reducing the turnaround time for accounts payable by 25%."

  • Determining the problem-solving processes that will be used. Whether it's brainstorming, flow charting, force field analysis, SWOT analysis or other techniques, determine in advance which work best for the objective, and prepare to explain the model to the group.

2. Setting the Stage. Once the group begins its process, the facilitator must set the tone and direction. Ideas for effective stage setting include:

  • Establishing ground rules early. As facilitator, part of your role is to set and enforce ground rules to improve group process. Lay them out clearly and completely to the group and assess their comprehension before proceeding.

  • Posting the Objective. Put it on the wall where participants can see it and refer to it. If the group begins to stray from the purpose, the facilitator can remind them of the objective and bring them back on track.

  • Starting with a specific participant. To begin the process, call on one person to start. This focuses attention quickly and starts in the right direction. If you sense that the called-upon participant is reluctant, quickly call on someone else.

3. Going For Results. The facilitator's job is to make getting to results easier. Stay focused on achieving the outcome of the group. Ways to keep on track toward results include:

  • Asking open ended questions. Rather than using questions that will elicit simple "yes" or "no" answers, choose questions which elicit more. Try starting questions with "How..." or "In what ways..."

  • Encouraging examples. If a participant makes a suggestion or an observation, ask for an example from real life. This helps clarify issues and stimulates discussion.

  • Watch for "plops." When a person advances an idea and no one responds and the discussion moves on, this circumstance is called a "plop." Make certain that all creative ideas and thoughts are heard and given credit. Groups will often move too quickly past good ideas.

  • Ask participants to "tell me more." These three magic words will often bring clarity and definition to an idea, and usually stimulate more discussion and consideration from others.

  • Remain neutral. Remember, the facilitator is not a decision maker. When the facilitator begins to champion an idea, he or she loses credibility with the rest of the group.

4. Handling the Domineers. In almost every group, a few will tend to dominate the discussion at the expense of the more quiet. I remember once teaching a college course, I had the class involved in a group problem solving exercise as a way of teaching group dynamics. It was a smaller class and I had ten students in the group and three observers. One of the ten participants was a very quiet young lady who seemed to be intimidated by the other group members. But our observers noted that she had solved the problem on paper on her own about ten minutes into the exercise. The group process took over 50 minutes, and the group never solved the problem. Had someone noticed her in the process, the problem could have been solved much earlier and with much better results. So, how should a facilitator deal with dominating group members?

  • Direct questions to others. Be specific in asking others who are not active participants to be involved.

  • Ask the domineer to "hold that thought." Treat him or her respectfully, but keep the process moving.

  • Never criticize a group member. As soon as you are critical of one, the others will begin to wonder when you will attack them. Stick to the mission, and don't analyze or criticize personalities.

  • Take the domineer aside. If nothing else works, visit privately with the domineer during a break. Tell him or her that the input offered is valuable, but that you sense others are reluctant to participate without that person assuming a lower profile.

5. Managing Conflict. Groups operating under a problem-solving mandate may often see conflict arise. Being able to handle conflict positively and diffusing hostility is one of the most important functions of a facilitator. Some keys for effectively managing conflict include:

  • Diffuse the pressure. When two or more members are mowing toward conflict, ask other members to restate the dilemma. Often involving others in clarification can cause those in the conflict to moderate their positions.
  • Look for commonalities. Rather than focusing on differences, which is the point of conflict, look for common threads in the two differing points of view. Start with the things that united, and then work to resolve the things that divide.
  • Encourage active listening. Steven Covey calls this "seek first to understand, then to be understood." Ask one party to the conflict to articulate his position and have the other party restate it to the first person's satisfaction. When one point is thoroughly understood, ask the parties to change roles. Often, when both parties fully understand the other, the conflict is narrowed if not eliminated.

6. Coming to Closure. Now that the group has identified alternatives, it is important for the facilitator to bring them to their objective. Consider the following techniques for reaching closure.

  • Summarize. Give the group a set amount of time to review the ideas submitted and ask any needed clarifying questions.

  • Use the $100 spending limit. Tell each member of the group that they have $100 in play money to spend on the different ideas. They can spend it all on one idea, or spread it around based on their attitude about the ideas. This will begin to bring focus to the best ideas and identify the level of support.

  • Narrow further. If this sort of exercise doesn't get to a top five ideas, narrow the field by eliminating the lower ranked ideas and have the participants vote again. Continue to narrow until you reach your goal.
7. After Care. Just like patients who are healed or cured need some follow up to make changes to their lives, group members need after-care to assure that the results are real and accurate. Follow-up ideas include:

  • Record the process. Make a permanent record of the process. If you used flip chart pages for recording ideas, have them typed up to keep. Add annotations as needed to make them clear for posterity, and do this soon so the process and results are fresh.

  • Summarize the findings. Prepare a written summary of the results to present to the decision makers. Again, annotate these as well with the rationale and the process by which they were determined.

  • Keep the record. File the records of the process in a way that they can be accessed again easily in case the results are unacceptable or the process is challenged. Be prepared to defend the process and its results.


Good process and results from a group are the results of good facilitation skills and active participation and ownership by the group. Using best practices in group process as discussed in this article will help improve the process and indeed, as the facilitator's mandate suggests, make it easier.