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Jon Miller


Ten Tips for Better Facilitation

Getting the most out your training

Published: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - 09:00

Facilitation is the art of guiding but not leading, bringing learning but not lecturing, engaging but not directing. Coming from the Latin facilitar, meaning, “to make easy,” the role of the facilitator is not to do for others, but to bring out the ability of a group to accomplish a goal. There are many books and manuals on facilitation, yet like many proven business tools, the role of the meeting facilitator is not explored enough. Beyond the basics, and even with facilitators advanced and skilled in their practice, it is not hard to fall into counterproductive patterns. Stepping into a facilitator role again recently, I caught quite a few of my own failure modes. Since then, I have collected a few more as I observed or coached other facilitators to make this list of 10 tips for better facilitation.

1. Unpack the agenda.

As a time-management tip, leaving room for discussion, questions, or extra exercises is usually a good idea within a scripted facilitation session. Even for meetings, too many items on the agenda are a sure formula for just talk and no action. Leaving some space for learners who learn at different paces or in different styles, as well as time for reflection, discussion, or hands-on exercises is useful for facilitating workshops designed to “learn and do,” such as kaizen events.

2. Avoid the back-to-back class drawback.

Don’t be the professor rushing to her next class, or the trainer who scrambles to rearrange the chairs in time for the next group. Sessions should be at least 20 minutes apart, provided minimal set up and clean up of the room is needed. Who are we kidding when we plan back-to-back, one-hour meetings in this age of no instant transportation? Constraints force us to be more effective. Limiting the usable time for meetings by having time to get set helps us start and finish on time, bringing professionalism.

3. Practice image training.

Just as athletes run through the race, fight, or game in their mind in advance, preparing their bodies’ neural pathways for the real thing, professional facilitators should close their eyes and mentally walk through the session. More often than not, one will recall a detail or two that may have been missed on a checklist. Image training can include considering difficult situations and practicing how to handle them calmly, rehearsing jokes or stories, or simply imagining the group smiling. When it comes time to execute the facilitation, the mind is ready.

4. Respect the PowerPoint power law.

For every PowerPoint presentation, after the 10th slide, attention and interest drop off precipitously. This is a made-up law, but in practice it seems to work as a good rule of thumb. One approach is to put less information on each slide, making the slides flow more quickly. But ultimately, in a facilitation situation, the visuals should be organic, on the fly, and fit to the purpose of the situation rather than prepackaged.


5. Just stop by the jargon junction.

The role of the facilitator is to make it easy for people to speak naturally but also for others to understand them. This may require paraphrasing or asking clarifying questions for the benefit of the group. The facilitator should also be careful to watch out for and manage the use of jargon. Jamming a lot of technical terms, acronyms, or $10 words into a meeting is a sure way to make people feel less valuable in a group situation. The “jargon junction” is a section of white board or a large sheet of paper in a high-traffic, highly visible area that becomes the home of new jargon, acronyms, and technical terms as they are introduced.

6. Make lists.

Perhaps this is a personal obsession, but organizing the thoughts of the group into a numbered set by saying, “Let’s review. I hear you saying three things... ” or giving the objectives for the next hour in numbered fashion gives people a sense of order and time. Many times these lists are reusable from group to group, or can even become best practice tips.

7. Put the agreement in writing.

This is always good advice in business. In facilitation, this means that when the group comes to consensus on a point, it is valuable to have them write it down in their own words. Seeing it in black and white allows everyone to see clearly what was agreed upon or proposed, and triggers either closure or the verbalization of disagreement as some fully grasp what is written.

The written agenda, rules of the road—such as no cell phones or laptops, and the list of topics to avoid because they sideline discussion—are all examples of what can be put it in writing. Even for small group discussions this is very effective. When the group is required to write down their thought process visibly, it becomes less of a discussion between a few vocal members and more a team discussion.

8. Body language blindness

In communication, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. The longer and more information-rich the intended communication, the more this tends to be true. Someone listening and watching you speak may tune out of the words and tune into the language, especially in difficult facilitation situations. It is important to be aware of body language and the role of nonverbal communication. A facilitator should practice and exhibit positive and appropriate body language. However, as a facilitator, a certain degree of body language blindness can come in handy. What is common is for experienced and sensitive facilitators to pick up on tense body language or tone of voice and react to that situation or that individual, rather than letting the situation play out naturally. This is not to say ignore body language, but only to greet a certain amount of crossed arms, scowls, and shaking heads with equanimity and smiles.

9. Talk less.

Facilitators and trainers, thankfully, aren’t paid by the word or it would be a disaster. Facilitators need to activate the group, and then shut up. Facilitators should rerail derailed conversations, then shush. Facilitators can ask questions, point to people who deserve their turn at answering, and then let the group members carry the discussion. The more facilitators speak, the more they expose themselves. The more the group members speak, the more they expose the issues.

10. Take and use feedback immediately.

While meeting evaluation forms have value, the “you won’t hurt my feelings, please tell me a few things I can do better next time as a facilitator” can be a humbling growth experience, if accepted with an open heart. Ask for the last three minutes of the group’s attention and don’t miss these opportunities.

For more information on team training, check out Quality Digest’s Knowledge Guide, “Eight Steps to Team Problem Solving.”


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.