Return Facilitation in Design - Unpublished Paper in Organizational Development
Design Facilitation for Teams: Managing and Planning Team Interaction

Without facilitation, a design workshop can easily become just another meeting, and an average one at that. A facilitated approach is better because, simply, facilitation works better for maintaining the meeting process. While collaboration unfolds naturally within partnerships, it does not just evolve on its own within groups. Especially in larger groups, the evidence of experience and observation reveals that groups function as less than the sum of their individuals on a regular basis. Organizations have turned to facilitation as a method for inspiring group synergy, building teams, and managing group action toward producing deliverables.

What do we mean by facilitation? The root word facilitate literally means "to make easy", and the task of the facilitator is to create an environment where complicated work is made easier for the participants. However, facilitation has different connotations in industry and government. Facilitating in joint application design workshops is identified with a neutral individual guiding a group through the workshop agenda. In traditional industrial settings, facilitation is thought of as moderating between potentially disagreeing parties. Other facilitators are seen as process leaders or group leaders.

In joint application design (JAD) sessions, and other purposeful workshops, a facilitator primarily manages the group process, allowing participants to attend to the content of their work. This can be considered the traditional model of facilitation, one in which the group guide shepherds the team through the agenda but remains disinterested in the content.

A further look at facilitation shows facilitators must pay attention to at least three threads of interaction with the participants: structure, content, and process. Structure can simply be seen as the workshop itself, its agenda, exercises, deliverables, formats. Typically what most think of as process can be reduced to structural components. Structure provides the framework for activities, leading to deliverables. It is the "what" the workshop is about.

From a workshop and facilitation point of view, the content is the "why" of the workshop. Participants are most concerned with organizing, designing, and making something of value with their time. The requirements, design, models, and processes all deal with the content, the facts and ideas of the design effort. Usually the facilitator doesn’t contribute to this area, but must attend to its progress, to the productive creation of the content.

The other thread involves process. Process can be thought of as the "how" of the workshop, the way in which the workshop structure unfolds, the way in which content is developed. The facilitator becomes fully present to process trends in the group, along the dimensions of affinity, emotion, agreement, cooperation, values, and even spirit. Effective process facilitation requires taking the risk of dealing with human issues in the team, which raises the possibility of irritating those who merely want to proceed with "business as usual." Minor detours to handle group process concerns are often necessary, and these excursions prevent major delays caused when unmanaged issues blow up into conflicts later.

Recent facilitation approaches, evolving from teambuilding (Heermann, 1996) and learning organization approaches (Senge, 1994), have integrated concepts of emotion and spirit into facilitation. These approaches hold that the quality of the team’s working together is as important as the quality of work produced. In fact, it is doubtful that a fragmented and conflicted group is capable of producing quality results as a team.

One key to fruitful team development is in the device of the workshop. A "workshop" is used instead of a "meeting" for quite practical reasons. Meetings have specific connotations within most organizational cultures. The concept of "meeting" has history working against it, as well as a stigma. People don’t expect to work in meetings - they expect to meet. Workshops carry the notion of focused work within a structure of planned activities. The expectations participants bring to a "meeting" differ from those brought to a "workshop", even if they can be considered the same event.

As a facilitator, you probably have some influence over the presentation of your sessions.. By advertising development team sessions as workshops, you will have signaled to the organization your intention to produce something, to share the responsibility for producing with the participants. Sometimes this is enough to result in a positive attitude and a willingness to participate. Many organizations use the JAD workshop in this way, although even JAD is also subject to "meeting aversion."

JAD facilitators understand the reluctance of participants to spend time in meetings, as well as their desire to produce. Jerry Kail, senior facilitator with LEXIS-NEXIS, describes their use of JAD in a company where non-productive meetings have been visibly reduced by a proactive corporate culture. Since the company has a cultural injunction against non-productive meetings, some people are reluctant to participate in JAD for the extent of time required.

"There’s a core set of people that understand JAD is ‘not a meeting’, that its a working session, a group of people coming together to work on something. JAD is a very public type of event, and managers and participants both want to get something out of it." Kail describes how when JAD was first used in the organization (using The Method), the rules started getting in the way, and people had the impression that they were to sit in a meeting and follow a bunch of rules for their work.

"People didn’t want to follow the rules and structure. It was like, ‘Oh, JAD - I’d rather eat my spinach’!" The process was changed, according to Kail, "to appeal to our internal clientele," which included business-oriented product managers and technical developers. The primary client, however, was the project manager, "the bridge between product needs and what gets built." Kail expressed that since facilitation work had been accepted and actively used, with JAD sessions held on a continual basis, that the methodology side must be developed more.

Kail’s experience is typical of business facilitators working at an internal corporate level. Facilitation has been adopted and accepted into many corporate cultures, even where a meeting mind-set is not evident. Internet and interdisciplinary discussions with facilitators reveal an evolving need and stronger emphasis on methodology among those practicing. As shown by Kail’s comments, participants don’t especially enjoy rule-bound highly-structured workshops. A key need is for flexible structure and methodology that can adapt to the context of the organization, work processes, and participants.

Flexibility in both facilitation and meeting structure is required for successful group collaboration. Structure and methodology is discussed throughout the remainder of the book. Not all the specific skills and resources of facilitation are not covered in-depth here, however. Many resources are available for developing facilitation skills from literature and training in group dynamics, teambuilding and team leadership, and group facilitation.

Being a Facilitator

Should you be a leader or an unbiased guide? Should you challenge the team or merely present topics and manage interaction? Are you expected to be an expert in a given area or totally content neutral? Misconceptions arise because these opposite poles are both encompassed in facilitation, and are even expected of the same facilitator at times. Facilitators bring a tradition of their experience into the job, they grow from different backgrounds. Facilitators in JAD, organizational development, human resources, teambuilding, conflict management, and human relations all have something to offer when building skill in facilitation.

A review of facilitation reveals as many approaches to the practice as there are disciplines avowing the use of facilitation. Rachel Vance, a facilitator for nonprofit organizations, conducted graduate-level research into the question and found a wide range of approaches and competencies associated with facilitation. Even within one organization, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), at least three different models of facilitation are presented in their literature. Two of the definitions support the model of the facilitator as "one who actively controls the event and group interaction although does not control the content or the outcome," (Vance, 1996). In their publication on Group Process Tools, this facilitation approach is supported by a definition with the roles of:

  • Management of the decision-making process
  • Responsibility for establishing a climate
  • Responsibility for focusing group efforts
  • Responsibility for applying a variety of techniques to encourage movement toward the goal of the meeting.

 Facilitator as Group Nurturer

Other approaches to facilitation, especially from the human relations disciplines, promote the role of the facilitator as more of a group nurturer rather than one that drives the process forward. Another ASTD definition supports this approach, wherein the facilitator does not lead or control the environment, but empowers other to control the process. Vance describes how Heron (1989) defines the facilitator as having the role of "helping participants learn in an experiential group." Both of these approaches are more suited for sensitivity training and personal growth than development teams. Even in corporate cultures, however, this approach is fostered on occasion, and it’s important to recognize when this style of facilitation is desired by your clients.

Facilitator as Process Guide

Moore and Feldt define the facilitator closer to that of the joint application design practitioner. They describe the facilitator as directing and tracking the processes of the meeting, including discussions, decision-making, and deliberations. The facilitator is explicitly not involved in the content of the group’s work, is not a contributor to the products or of ideas used in the team’s deliverables. "This person is, however, a deliberate manipulator of the process and the flow of the group’s work. He or she manipulates what the group does so as to maximize full participation, to minimize individuals dominating or interrupting the group, and to optimize the group’s performance and satisfaction," Moore and Feldt (1993). This definition also serves well as a baseline for development workshops.

Facilitation in Design Practice

Let’s look at some of the ways facilitation is used in technical and design workshops. A more significant technical responsibility is required by JAD facilitators than in basic meeting facilitation. JAD and design facilitation assume competence in both the group process skills and design methodologies. So that a project team’s technical members (systems analysts, developers, technical leads) can focus on the task at hand as full participating members, facilitators are called to lead teams in producing the actual design in working sessions. The technical facilitator must have both knowledge and experience in design methodologies, for at least developing artifacts such as diagrams, graphical representations, and group documents. Facilitators organize, plan, lead, and guide teams that conduct various development projects for the following major areas:

  • Designing and automating business processes
  • Capturing and defining product and system requirements
  • Designing and building information system applications
  • Planning and making group decisions

 Uses of Facilitation

For any workshop, facilitation can be used broadly one of two ways:

  • To create an environment in which participants are fully supported to create their own work products.
  • To lead development of the work products, supporting the team in using tools and methodologies, and by facilitating processes to organize participant inputs and developing models for use by the team.

Project Planning

Project planning, involving team planning for the project and its phases, presents a major opportunity for team facilitation. Planning requires the discussion of multiple activities and their priorities, and often requires negotiation and conflict resolution. After all, when a project is first established, it might be seen as threatening the resources available to existing projects or it might shuffle the organizational priorities that might have favored others. Project planning, whether for an internal or client-centered project, is an inherently political process that requires sensitivity to organizational impacts on budgets, talent, and other resources. Facilitation introduces the notion of neutral guidance, and can assist in managing the planning and structuring of projects with regard to both project and organizational needs. Facilitation is particularly useful for several aspects of project planning:

  • Project scoping and definition
  • Project scheduling and resourcing
  • Development planning
  • Organizational issues resolution

Facilitated project planning creates a productive atmosphere for working through technical and organizational issues. Facilitators can assist by guiding the process for defining scope, setting of priorities, handling emerging issues, and group decision making.

Project management consultants use facilitation for project definition, schedule development, and project kick-off, providing a combination of consulting advice and methodology. For example, TASC’s planning process involves facilitating consultants and scheduling specialists. Typically a knowledgeable facilitator guides a client group through the process of defining timelines, major milestones, and initial dependencies. The scheduling specialist either works the concepts out on whiteboard walls or uses a preferred scheduling software package in real time. At the conclusion of a project planning workshop, clients will have a project definition, resource plan, and bar chart schedule for the project’s lifespan, all developed with consensus agreement from the parties in the process. These facilitated deliverables provide a useful starting point for the project, as well as clear steps for following actions.

Requirements Definition

Requirements definition offers significant opportunities for facilitation, and is the phase that is most identified with facilitated processes. The typical JAD workshop focuses only on the requirements phase, after all, and JAD is a recognized alternative to requirements interviews and other analyses. Requirements definition facilitation tasks based on a generic lifecycle model are shown in the following table:

Major Activity Description Facilitation Tools
User/system Requirements Analysis Define scope of requirements analysis Facilitated scoping of project requirements
Identify scope and elicit initial requirements. Lead group requirements sessions
Describe current process Lead and diagram process mapping exercises
Identify users and user tasks Lead and diagram user groups and tasks
Identify current process/system problems Lead problem assessment
Requirements Definition Define user/system requirements. Iteratively review requirements Facilitated requirements processes
Alternatives Assessment Evaluate "buy vs. build" options Lead brainstorming of options
Define alternative solutions Facilitated discussion
Determine buy or build strategy and/or: Facilitated decision making
Evaluate and select alternative solutions Lead alternatives analysis
Analyze selected alternative(s) Lead alternatives analysis
Develop Prototype Cooperative design of concept prototype Facilitated prototyping
Requirements Specification Draft initial specification. Team development of document. Lead group development of document
Requirements Review Review plans and specifications Lead team review sessions

Facilitated Requirements Tasks.

Notice that, without exaggerating, facilitation can be instrumental in every requirements task involving team participation. The table shows not only facilitated activities used in each of the requirements definition tasks, but also shows how facilitated sessions can bring a team approach throughout a process that is traditionally considered an individual’s job.

Requirements work especially lends itself to teams because of the need to completely understand both the overall scope and the details of customer, user, and product needs. No one or two people ever have a grasp on all of this territory, except perhaps in smaller-scale specialized products. A facilitated team brings all available thinking and voices to the task, whether confident, introspective, expert, or hesitant. Including a wider variety of people in the team supports finding more innovative solutions, bringing a diversity of experience, intelligences, and opinions into the workshop. Providing facilitation ensures these voices will be heard and their ideas incorporated into the resulting work.

Solution Design

Solution design activities represent the invention or adaptation of a system that meets the requirements as defined. Again, note that team tasks only are shown in solution design. This is not to minimize the high degree of individual effort that normally occurs in this phase of work; it does show opportunities for team facilitation that are normally missed. Although in practice these activities are cyclical, conducted in an iterative fashion and not in lock-step sequence, the facilitation aspects can be used as a consistent form of team integration and coordination. Also, facilitation works across the multiple processes as a type of "team glue", maintaining communication and feedback throughout and between phases. At this point, however, the project manager or lead analyst might facilitate instead of a specific neutral facilitator as used in other phases. The reasons for this shift in the solution design phase include:

  • Team Maturity - the project team will have grown to the point where outside or neutral facilitation is not required to elicit and manage different viewpoints.
  • Responsiveness - the project team will be moving at an accelerated pace of work at this point, with multiple work assignments and perhaps multiple sub-teams. An outside facilitator would not be a productive fit within a team working at this level of performance. Only an "internal" facilitator, or facilitating team member, will be able to maintain the responsiveness needed for on-the-spot coordination of activities.
  • Type of Work - As the team moves into solution design, team meetings require less negotiation, discussion, and creative ideation. Processes that support facilitation are shown in the following table, and most of these coordinate the efforts of individuals rather than generate new design models or other creative artifacts.
Major Activity Description Facilitation Tools
Solution definition Iteratively revise prototype Lead team through design processes
Architecture design Develop system architecture model Facilitate group diagramming and definition of system models
Revise prototype Cooperative review and revision of prototype model Facilitate prototyping review and changes in team sessions
Solution design Produce design document Manage group document development and reviews.
Evaluation planning Develop plans for test and evaluation Facilitate discussion of evaluation approaches, planning, and criteria
Design review Review design and design document Lead group review, discussions, and decision making process

Facilitated Solution Design Tasks



Implementation processes are not typically viewed as suitable for team facilitation. It’s as if each phase further down the project timeline allows fewer opportunities for team collaboration in development. As work packages are distributed among team leaders, sub-teams split off from the lead team, and developers build modules individually, team leaders might assume that team-based activities have concluded for the time being.

Major Activity Description Facilitation Tools
Development environment selection Identify and select tools for development Lead any major decision processes for toolset choices or investments
System/product implementation Develop system or component products Facilitation as necessary for reviews with clients, feedback sessions, walkthroughs.
System/product evaluation Test and evaluate system/products Facilitate discussion and planning for evaluation execution
Implementation review Report and review results Lead group review, discussions, and decision making process

Facilitated Implementation Tasks

To the extent that coordination and communication are significant aspects of the project management, quality management, and execution of the development effort, facilitated team sessions maintain their usefulness. In implementation work, the project manager or lead analyst might continue the facilitation role, or others in the project team might accept the role on a rotating basis to foster skills growth in this area of teamwork.

Facilitator Roles

Facilitators often adopt different roles during a single workshop, and can also use a single type of role throughout an entire meeting. Part of the task of facilitation requires understanding your unique role required by the group and bringing the right mix of roles to the session. Roles can be active or passive, involved or neutral, or anywhere along a spectrum of group interaction behaviors. Roles of the facilitator can include that of a guide through uncharted territory, that of a group process coordinator that keeps the team’s flow of action on track, a gentle moderator that nudges the process along, or a trusted advisor with expertise in techniques to be used in the sessions. It is useful for facilitators to be aware of the various roles they might take on; recommending a certain facilitation approach to your client can head off any differences in expectation that might arise during the session. For those that have taken a strong role in guiding the group process when a laid-back approach was desired, or who have conducted "touchy-feely" group sensitivity sessions when a more technical role was expected, the need for presenting these role options will be evident.

Other facilitation roles have been described in terms of problem-solving, coaching, and leading into unknown territory. These roles can be summarized as some of the following:

  • Creating a climate to foster team success.
  • Fostering problem-solving and breakthrough creativity, by enabling teams to open up the group’s knowledge and capability.
  • Guiding a team in using new methodologies and design processes.
  • Observing, coaching, and enhancing group interaction and performance.
  • Assisting groups in making decisions.
  • Helping a group move from their current state to where they want to be.

 The dimensions of involvement represent the two directions of group influence the facilitator can offer. The technical or JAD facilitator is typically in the center, and a facilitator can be understood to be "free" to select the best orientation fitting the context, as well as their abilities. It is not fair to insist that facilitation is always a neutral affair, or that it requires a specific background. Facilitation is basically a skill with many aspects, and no one facilitator will be strong in all aspects. Therefore, the diagram shows different aspects commonly associated with other professional roles that will emerge in facilitation.

Neutral Facilitator

To the extent that true neutral group guidance is required, the process-structure facilitator assumes the role required of pure facilitation with no technical or organizational influence. This is perhaps the traditional role expected of facilitators, and falls midway along the scale of team participation, and is very low in technical involvement. Typically, neutrality refers to the absence of bias in conducting the session. The facilitator is expected to not have a stake in the outcome, to not have a bias toward a particular technical solution, or to care about the content developed. However, the facilitator does have a stake in the quality of the process, and must be capable of determining when team results are satisfactory. This can imply a significant role in controlling processes, regardless of content neutrality. This role, as with any other in facilitation, should be communicated with the group at the outset.

Experienced facilitators understand the difficulty in claiming neutrality. Even when sticking closely to only process concerns, facilitation involves occasional "editorial" issues. For example, when managing discussions you might handle contributions from the group by promoting input from all participants. While in theory desirable, this can have an unintended effect of creating a biased outcome by having the inputs of "less-informed" participants emphasized as much as the contributions of the group’s experts. Another common process issue arises when the facilitator relies on user contributions in sessions predominantly over that of technical participants. The facilitator must therefore keep aware of the effect on the content caused by such "strong" management of the process.


The role of trainer is occasionally required of the facilitator. When leading group processes, a specific technique applicable to a design solution will be taught to the team. When leading discussions or conducting brainstorming, education of the team will be necessary at times to enable effective participation. Zimmerman describes the training role, as opposed to facilitation, as providing information supporting skills and knowledge by "offering understanding, initiating new skills competency, or further developing skills that participants already possess" (Zimmerman quoted in Vance, 1996). The trainer "role" might usually be limited to analysis and design techniques or group processes, but could also involve domain content if appropriate. The trainer role is different than the consultant-facilitator, however, in its lesser degree of group involvement. The trainer role teaches but does not recommend, and does not get involved in the solution. Trainer roles are temporary, in that design sessions that are facilitated are not training sessions.


Use the consultant role of the facilitator with caution, but understand that it may be desired and even expected at times. Although it might appear to break the oft-spoken rule of non-bias, a consultative role can be used in many areas outside of the specific content of the workshop. The consultant role is proactive both technically and organizationally, and is one where advice and education can be provided to the team in the sharing of methods, history, experience, and knowledge of competitors or other industries. A facilitator adopting the role of consultant will usually have worked closely with the project team, and might be in the position of working as a temporary member. When a facilitator has performed extensive analysis, pre-work, or preparation, the consulting role can be legitimately adopted within the team sessions. Sensitivity is necessary to understand when advising and informing the team is acceptable and required in a workshop.

Because this role has the most influence in the organizational dimension, it can be threatening to participants if the team context is not appropriate. Be especially careful if working as a facilitator at the behest of management with a user community team, and your clients expect consulting involvement as your dominant role. The consultant role actually works best with managers and other decision-makers who have some power of their own to balance the authority given the external authority designated to the facilitator, especially in this role.


The designer role is highly involved technically, and as a facilitator you might work as a co-designer on the product with the team. This role is one well-supported by design workshops, though it is far from a traditional facilitator role. Because its organizational influence and participation is about the same as a neutral facilitator (in the middle range), this role does not appear to participants as "leading the design." This is an effective and appropriate role to take on when facilitating a team of non-technical users or a highly cross-functional team with many different disciplines. By providing techniques and design involvement, the facilitator can provide the best value of their technical skills and their facilitation of group processes. However, it is a difficult balance to maintain at times, and is highly dependent on building effective trust relationships with the team members.

Summary of Roles

Regardless of the roles taken on, some basic expectations of the facilitator are usually not violated. The facilitator is not the technical expert, they are not the business expert, and they are not organizational experts. These roles might be required on the team, but the role of expert is not usually offered when facilitating. Another expectation is that facilitators might not engage as participants during a workshop. However, among experienced facilitators this is often kept open as a possibility, to role switch briefly as a participant. This can be done to illustrate a point, to demonstrate behaviors, or to allow someone else to facilitate. Facilitators might not agree on how this is done, but many allow for this possibility.

Facilitators have a strong role in team leadership during the workshop, but only in the group process. Facilitators don’t make decisions, they don’t really direct the meetings as much as organize and lead the agenda. Finally, they should not engineer specific outcomes at the request of clients. If a vice president wants a certain solution from a team, and will not accept the team’s consensus offering if it differs, don’t even bother with a JAD or facilitated workshop. It will only destroy morale and credibility within the organization, since participants will eventually realize they never had a real say in the matter.

A final word on roles. Many facilitators are entertaining in their presentation style, and use humor and wit, jokes and funny exercises. These approaches are excellent at times, and have their place within sessions. However, the purpose of the workshop should always be clear, and it is not to entertain the team or to keep participants amused. Keep the context of your chosen role in mind when facilitating and use a light touch. Allow humor to play a part in facilitation; however, like other ideas and contributions from the team, it works best when arising from the team and not the facilitator.

Skill in Facilitating

A number of skills are expected of any facilitator, most of which should be present in any given facilitator. Unlike technical specialists, the facilitator must be a generalist, at least in the facilitator role. He or she must also bring a commitment of service to the team, a tangible and authentic guarantee of support to the group’s work.

In many meetings, facilitation is only required as a communication tool, and technical work is not supported by facilitation. In design workshops however, the facilitator is assumed to be reasonably competent in design and development processes, to support the team’s progress on real projects. Regardless of the type of facilitation, strong personal communication skills are required of the facilitator. After all, what is being facilitated? Essentially, it is communication facilitation.

Facilitation Skills

Facilitation skills are described differently in every approach to meetings and group work described in the literature. Some of the skill models in facilitation concentrate more on the group dynamics, human relations, or negotiation aspects of the practice. Design workshops are oriented toward the very practical purpose of accomplishing system and product development, and an action-oriented viewpoint is required.

Skills deal with both facilitators actions as well as the necessary internalized qualities of the facilitator. A skill set outlined by Zimmerman and Evans represents a view of the personal competencies of the facilitator incorporating both areas of skill. Their framework has been expanded to identify other required skills for development workshop facilitation.

Informative Skills

Informative skills involve the capability of informing, instructing, and managing group processes, including:

  • Establishing structure - defining the workshop structure and guidelines.
  • Setting direction - directing the group when needed, leadership.
  • Creating objectives - identifying critical issues and integrating themes.
  • Requesting and providing feedback - informing the group and individuals of observations and the effect of behavior.
  • Establishing and maintaining group focus - controlling the attention of the group to maintain a common line of reasoning.
  • Providing explanation - defining, advising, and informing the group to support common goals as agreed by the group.

 Interpretative Skills

Interpretative skills involve the capability to listen, understand, make interpretations of communication, and to support the understanding for others, including:

  • Listening - skill in both active and reflective listening, attending to verbal and non-verbal communication, and understanding of verbal behavior patterns.
  • Flexibility - being able to change behavior, perspective, demeanor, and attitudes as called for during group interactions.
  • Separation of self from process - avoiding and releasing personal identification with group processes and interactions.
  • Openness - being able to accept feedback and change, being receptive to change and new understanding of the self and one’s expectations.
  • Interpretation - skill in understanding concepts and expressions, and making correct interpretations of behavior and notions that assist in the group process.
  • Translation - skill in interpreting and rewording thoughts and ideas among the group so that group-wide understanding is fostered.

Intuitive Skills

Intuitive skills involve the capability to creatively adapt to and guide a group based on an immediate and deep recognition of possibilities among group members and affordances for action within the group process, including:

  • Creativity - skill in generating new ideas, images, inventions, and working with others to promote inventive and original ideation.
  • Instinct - ability to act naturally on one’s impulses when called for within group processes; a skill of behaving instinctually in response to new conditions.
  • Timing - skill in responding and interacting with groups with respect to timing of responses, flow of group conversations, and responsiveness of feedback.
  • Empathy - capable of empathic listening and responding, understanding issues and communications from the perspective of the individual.
  • Synthesis of ideas - skill in assembling, organizing, and recombining ideas and concepts to creatively develop new and useful constructs.
  • Integration of process - skill in identifying and acting on group processes that fit with the purpose and goals of the workshop.

Presentation, Listening, and Speaking

Before the team can communicate effectively, you as the facilitator must set the example and establish the tenor of the session. You must be the first to stand up for the integrity of effective communication. That’s what a meeting is all about, that’s why people have made time to get together face-to-face. Basic presentation skills are essential to effective workshops. Skill in speaking and listening are required, and what might seem like everyday behavior is anything but common. Speaking and listening are not usually practiced with intentionality and rigor, they are taken for granted. Unless that’s how you make your living, which is what you do if you’re a facilitator.

Facilitation requires you to manage multiple communication channels at the same time. The practiced facilitator maintains a conference of internal and external dialogues that would confound an average human being. The typical facilitator simultaneously manages:

  • The flow of the group’s progress toward meeting goals
  • Conversations on a one-on-one basis with each individual
  • Conversations with the whole group
  • Discussions and guided dialogue with the group
  • Empathy with individuals and with the mood of the group
  • Tracking group and individual schedules and time requirements
  • Issues that arise and must be handled within the session
  • Spontaneous decisions and issues within the group

 Facilitation requires the ability to maintain these multiple threads while gently guiding a group through conversations, processes, and exercises that generate results. And that result in consensus agreement. And that finally satisfy the group. And that satisfy the customer.

Listening Skills

As a facilitator, you are required to maintain clear communication. Your role demands that you speak succinctly, with clarity and directness. It demands that you listen actively at all times, to check on what you’ve heard, to ensure decoding of communication is effective.

As a facilitator, you are never a passive listener. Both active and reflective listening are necessary for facilitation. There are several basic actions required in both ways of listening:

  • Listen to the content of what is said. Each individual may have different ways of speaking, different favorite terms and buzzwords, some of which you might not understand. It takes a focused attention to extract the content at times from group members. Be willing to clarify communication when it is not clear to you, even if it appears to be understood by the entire group.
  • Listen to the intent of the speech. What is it the speaker wants to have happen? What influence do they attempt with the group? Is the intention to move the process forward or to stop proceedings due to discomfort with direction or process?
  • Assess the speakers’ nonverbal communication. Are they making eye contact? With you or with the group? Are facial expressions congruent with the speech? How are they sitting, are they tense or comfortable? Are they gesturing or restrained?
  • Listen to the "backchannel" or non-speech communications. Is the speaker "hemming and hawing"? Are they stumbling over their words or clearing their throat? Listen to inflections and voice pitch. What is the composite picture of the communication?

Active listening is more than a style of listening, it is almost a way of being with others. It requires a proactive attitude toward listening, where every communication is attended to and assessed for a response. Active listening, though apparently simple, provides the speaker with powerful feedback that they were heard. As other group members observe this process, a relationship of trust and respect is fostered. A basic model for active listening includes the following actions:

1. Fully attend to the speaker. Listen immediately to the first words they say and quickly comprehend the full statement made. Make eye contact while listening. If necessary, ask for clarification if the statement wasn’t clear.

2. Reflect and respond to the speaker’s verbal content. Use words to the effect of "what I hear you saying is …." Respond by repeating back exactly the words you heard. If interpretation is required, say "What I take this to mean is …"

3. Request acknowledgment or confirmation that your response was correct. Repeat the process if necessary.

Reflective listening is the other mode of listening, which is primarily used when participants have control over their own session and are managing group communications. Reflective listening is listening to others with empathy, with the purpose of understanding but with no requirement to respond. Reflective listening is attending without judgment, and without seeking to intervene.

In all listening behavior, the facilitator:

  • Responds to behaviors and ideas, not to the speaker personally
  • Responds in the present case, not referring to the past
  • Responds by describing, not evaluating or making judgment

Many times during effective workshop sessions, the facilitator may appear to be only listening, and not actively engaged in working with the process. Notice when you facilitate your next session, whether this level of listening occurs with you. It is a signal that participants are taking responsibility for producing in the session, and have created a sense of ownership. As a facilitator, the best thing to do is to appreciate the team’s ability to perform in this way, and to observe for the next opportunity where your support is required to guide to the next step in the process or agenda.

Speaking Skills

When speaking as a facilitator, always be aware of the words selected and the meaning they imply. Be aware of the correct pronunciation of words, and use words with which you are very familiar. In most facilitation, technical jargon and complicated expressions only hinder comprehension anyway, so use words that come naturally from your experience. Also practice enunciation so that your words are heard clearly by all. Some people have accents or speech mannerisms, but these are not necessarily barriers. Using an accent to your advantage will make you presentation style enjoyable to others, if it is not overused by speaking too often during the proceedings!

Try not to rely on "filler" utterances that reveal discomfort with pauses in speech. Pauses and spaces are natural, and should be used to effect. Don’t try to fill in pauses between words or phrases with "ums" and "ahs." Most people when speaking do not hear themselves say these fillers. They are a highly unconscious means of expression, which makes them difficult to attend to and restrict from natural speech. Videotaping your speaking or facilitation is the most effective means of pointing out ineffective variations in speaking style. Feedback from your colleagues from internal presentations and other speeches can be of use in self-training for speech improvement.

The most important speaking of the facilitator involves what’s said while interacting with the group to promote discussion, to draw out and motivate others, to move the processes forward, and to promote trust. In these intentions and others, the facilitator uses questions and probing to a great extent. Questioning is a powerful facilitation tool, and can be used to draw forth participation and creative involvement. Open-ended questions that do not imply an answer are best used in facilitation, as they allow the group to respond freely. Open-ended questions are those that allow free response, such as:

  • Soliciting input: "What do you think? What would you add to this? How else could this be done? What more could follow?"
  • Requesting advice: "What do you think we might do here? What options might we consider? How has anyone else done this before? What do you think might work here?"
  • Probing others for response: "Jeff, what do you think? Laurie, would you be willing to add to this?"

When you are asked questions as a facilitator, be cautious about quickly responding. If asked a question to contribute to the content, toss it back to the group, such as:

  • Participant: "What (activity, element, entity) do you think we should use in this case?"
  • Facilitator: "I really can’t say (or "I don’t know"). What does anyone else think?"

Especially if you have been carefully neutral, or if controversial areas have been discussed, some participants might want to know where you stand and put you on the "hot seat." A harmless sounding question might have the intent to draw you into taking a side. To prevent a slip, again bounce these questions back to the participants. If asked directly, you might clarify your role by saying "now it doesn’t really matter what I think. I’m not allowed an opinion - it’s not in my job description" or something similar that diffuses the team’s attention on you.

Use questions and probing often, to maintain the focus of action on the team and not on you. The goal of your speaking should always be to have the team take responsibility for their efforts and to progress on their objectives.


Heermann, Barry. (1994). Facilitator’s guide to Team Spirit. Dayton: Expanded Learning Institute.

Jones, P.H. (1998). Handbook of Team Design. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moore, A.B. and Feldt, J.A. (1993). Facilitating community and decision making groups. Malabar, Fla: Krieger Publishing Company.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday Currency.

Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook. New York: Doubleday Currency.

Vance, Rachel. (1996). Characteristics of effective facilitators. Personal communication.

Zimmerman, A.L. and Evans, C.J. (1993). Facilitation: From discussion to decision. East Brunswick, NJ: Nichols Publishing.


Return Return

Copyright 1997-2002,  Peter H. Jones