Facilitation Tool Print E-mail

Author: Mary Jacksteit, Public Conversations Project

Facilitation as used here refers to the activities of a person who has the permission and acceptance of a group to serve the role of helping the group talk and work together effectively. The focus of the facilitator is on the group’s process (how it is interacting and conducting its “business”), and on helping the group achieve its goals. In this model the facilitator remains impartial about the discussion content and has no decision-making authority. Facilitators work in various contexts:  within organizations (civil society, business, religious, etc), in communities, and for governmental entities. The group may be small or large. Its participants may be already related (such as a committee, work team or task force) or they may be coming together (or convened) on an ad hoc basis because of a matter of mutual interest. The goals of a facilitated process vary depending on the purposes: a consensus-based agreement/solution/plan; recommendations to a decision-maker; healing/restored/improved relationships; reduced tension and better communication, and so on.
Note: In other contexts the term facilitator has a different meaning. For instance the UN refers to itself as a "facilitator" when it provides any form of assistance.  A UN facilitator can have a broad range of responsibilities and a very active role. Also, even with this tool’s general model there are many variations, and trademarked facilitation processes. See References below.

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What is it?

What is it?

Facilitation is a methodology for helping a group work together effectively. For a good, concise overview see “Facilitation”, Brad Spangler.
http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/facilitation/. The essential methodology is incorporating the role of a person (or team) (the facilitator/s) having appropriate skills and the confidence of the participants, to provide structure, and a defined scope of guidance for a group’s effort. The facilitator holds the “front of the room” during face-to-face meetings, not to direct the work but to support the group’s efforts. Facilitators function with impartiality on the content, focusing on the quality of the group’s process. Facilitation supports groups to do a range of possible things together: dialogue, deliberate, plan, vision, solve problems, make decisions.

The Skilled Facilitator approach developed by Roger Schwarz offers four core facilitation values that are reflected in the work of many facilitators: valid information, free and informed choice, internal commitment to those choices, and compassion. Valid information means that everyone involved shares all relevant information and comes to an understanding of the information and its implications. It also means that joint learning/research is often an aspect of the process. The facilitator encourages and sometimes manages this information sharing and learning. Free and informed choice means that participants have the ability to define their own goals and ways of achieving them. A facilitator can help them determine or alter their goals, and assess whether a particular option or decision meets those goals. But the ultimate decisions are up to the participants themselves. Internal commitment to the choice means that people feel personally responsible for the decisions they make because of their involvement. Compassion means that the process allows and supports people to suspend judgment while seeking to understand those who think differently, to respond with empathy.  
See “The Skilled Facilitator Approach”
These core values reinforce each other. To make an informed choice, people must have valid information which includes an honest understanding of differing views. To discuss differences people need to feel understood (not the same as agreeing.) When people make free and informed decisions they become internally committed to them. When people are committed to a decision, they are likely to make the effort to see that the decision is implemented effectively.

One frequent, important role for the facilitator is helping a group establish and operate within ground rules/participation agreements (the terminology varies.) These are agreed communication and conduct guidelines intended to promote equality, free and open participation and fairness, and to restrain dominating, hostile or intimidating dynamics. It helps to think of three kinds of ground rules:  (1) those governing behaviour (e.g. we will treat others with respect, we will refrain from interrupting); (2) those concerning procedures (e.g. we will decide by [consensus defined as .......], we will turn off cell phones, we will attend personally and not send representatives); and (3) those defining the purposes or boundaries of the discussion (e.g. we are here to discuss X and not Y.) See Schwartz and Carpenter (Resources section.)  Where discussion is potentially very volatile due to deeply divisive differences (e.g. religious, ethnic, racial, worldview) and/or a history of severe conflict, agreements are particularly important to provide psychological safety, encourage participation and shift ingrained negative interactions. (See Chapin and Herzig, Public Conversations Project, see Resources.)

The duration and scope of facilitation varies depending on the nature of the process being assisted, which is dictated by the nature of the group’s purposes (and often influenced by practical issues of time and resources.) The process can be a single meeting, a series of meetings, or linked activities and meetings over an extended period.  For this reason, in this tool the terms “facilitated process” or “process” will be used to cover all the potentials.

How is it done?

How is it done?

Key elements of facilitation:

  • Collaboration. Facilitators engage cooperatively with those requesting assistance for preparation, in developing the facilitated process plan and during the process.

  • Preparation. This includes, in some manner:
    • Learning enough about matters such as purposes, assets, strengths, weaknesses (challenges), history, context, and the nature of the group and its members, to allow for developing and implementing a process plan that best serves the group’s effectiveness. Advance preparation methods include interviews of participants (all, or selected), questionnaires, review of written materials and other resources (e.g. internet.) If little advance preparation is possible, the facilitator can at minimum begin a meeting by inquiring about purposes, concerns, and hopes for the gathering. But advance preparation should be the rule.
    • Preparing and providing materials, at minimum the process plan, ahead of time, and at the meeting (or insuring this is done by others.)

  • Process design (developing the process plan.)  A plan describes the activities/steps through which the group will pursue its purposes. A written plan provides:
    • Clarity, insuring a common understanding about the process;
    • A “road map” for participants, promoting transparency and ownership.

      In negotiating time and resource availability, the facilitator should only proceed with a designed plan that can feasibly meet the agreed on purposes.

      The facilitator may face the need for “re-design” or adjustments to the plan/agenda during the meeting in response to newly emergent priorities or concerns, or other unforeseen circumstances (a collaborative decision.)

  • Agreement to the role the facilitator will play (in advance and at the start of the process). Some call this “contracting.”

  • Time management. Facilitators help the group use its time effectively to achieve its purposes. Usually this means suggesting time allocations for segments of a meeting, monitoring the use of time, and sometimes, requesting that individuals observe time limits in speaking. Two premises are operative that may not operate in every cultural context: One is that time is a scarce resource so that  stewardship of this resource will increase the group’s effectiveness; the other is that time limits may in some instances produce positive effects (e.g., promote focus, reflection, consideration for others.)

  • The use of questions, timed and phrased to elicit answers from participants that help the group’s work.  This may be for example, by, bringing clarity, surfacing needed information or gaps in knowledge, revealing misperceptions, expanding understanding, and increasing awareness of the group’s dynamics.

  • Reflecting, summarizing, rephrasing and/or reframing what has been said by participants. This may be done to distil points/themes, to demonstrate that listening has occurred (and discourage repetition), to highlight areas of agreement and/or disagreement as they develop, to mark progress through the process plan.  Care must be taken by the facilitator to test his/her perceptions, e.g., “I am hearing general agreement about X. Am I right? “

  • Observing group dynamics/interactions and at times offering a process observation to elicit input/decisions about how to proceed. For instance:  “I’m seeing that everyone is talking over their time limit.  Do we need to allow more time for speaking about this, which will mean less time for X? Or is it feasible to stay within the time we’ve allotted?”  “I’m feeling people’s attention lagging. Do we need to take a break or is something else going on?  Shall we move on from this topic?”
  • Giving positive reinforcement and offering encouragement. E.g., “You’ve accomplished a lot!”, “People are really listening attentively”, “This is complicated, but you’re getting through it.” “You’re taking on a very hard conversation but I sense that you have the will to do it constructively.”
  • Maximizing inclusion by encouraging the expression of all viewpoints and offering opportunities to people who have not spoken (or spoken as much.)  This requires addressing any participants who start dominating the process, holding up the group’s agreements about its process, its ground rules and its purposes.
  • Staying mindful of one’s own (the facilitator’s) impact on the group. What is being communicated or might be communicated by non verbal behaviours, facial expressions, movement in the room, tone or volume of your voice, energy level, etc.? What is one’s own emotional state? Do you feel your anger or disapproval aroused?  These can have positive or negative impacts. Awareness maintains the facilitator’s ability to self-monitor to avoid inappropriate or unintended impacts.
  • Recording, note-taking, report preparation (doing it and/or making sure it is done, and done accurately.) “Recording” has a particular meaning here:  making visible to everyone, in real time, the issues, ideas and decision that are being generated. Unless the conversation is purely for understanding and relationship building, or other sensitivities suggest otherwise, a group is greatly helped by visible recording. It demonstrates listening. It also helps with organizing, evaluating, synthesizing, and prioritizing. The simplest method is to have large sheets of paper (taped to the wall or on flipcharts on easels) with writing done large and with markers.  A laptop computer and projector can be a good tool especially if the desired outcome is agreed upon language. Accuracy without interpretation is critical. Note taking makes possible a more complete later documentation of what has taken place in a Report to participants summarizing what has taken place in the process (not formal or verbatim minutes.)  Whether there will be recording, note-taking and/or report preparation (and by whom) are issues to be decided during preparation and contracting. So is the context of the reports. Particularly when the facilitated process extends over several meetings, or a period of time, summaries are important to document progress and create continuity.

An effective facilitator possesses strong verbal and analytical skills, has the ability to organize ideas, and possesses a capacity for self-awareness and objectivity. Experience with groups is important.



  • Facilitation greatly increases the chances that a group of people can -
  • Achieve broad participation
  • Consider a range of viewpoints and ideas
  • Generate areas of agreement
  • Learn together
  • Stimulate creative/fresh thinking
  • Clarify differences
  • Increase understanding- WHILE ALSO
  • Connecting with one another in a positive way and
  • “Getting something done”, i.e., producing positive outcomes.

Too often people’s experience of participatory group processes is at least one or many of these:  lack of focus, domination/monopolizing of time by a few people, wandering conversations, conflicts without positive management, lack of closure, “nothing gets accomplished.”  Facilitation allows a group to interact productively and to achieve important purposes in a way that builds cohesion, respects people’s investment of time and energy, and supports values of participation, and democratic governance. Paradoxically, it is the structure and boundaries provided by facilitation that can actually empower and increase the capacity and efficacy of both the group and group participants and increase their collective and individual impact.

When a facilitated process results in a decision/recommendation/ resolution – participants have a high level of commitment to the outcome.  They are more likely to be satisfied with the decision and with their involvement in it, because of the benefits inherent in the agreement itself, an agreement they helped to bring about.  

A positive experience of a participatory group process builds confidence in such processes and encourages future use and participation.  A negative experience produces the opposite.

Challenges and Lessons

Challenges and Lessons

  • Strong emotion and conflict.  Facilitators prepare as much as possible for this by developing agreement on purposes and ground rules.  But during the process the expression of strong emotions and the outbreak of conflict call for facilitator responses relying on strong skills in listening and reflecting, and seeking the collaboration of the group in addressing the situation.

  • Presence of an authority figure that raises concerns about roles, purposes and/or the ability of participants to speak openly.  Prevention is the best, i.e., exploring this ahead of time and addressing during planning.  But in the process, possible facilitator responses might include:
    • Privately coaching the authority figure on doing more listening than speaking.
    • Exploring the potential of setting some time for participants to talk without this person, and to report a composite set of ideas/concerns (with no individual attribution.)
    • Insuring transparency about the role of the authority figure, and on the meaning of participants’ engagement (e.g., are they included in the decision-making or only giving input/recommendations?)

  • Objections to the process plan (as incomplete, etc.)  If the group is amenable, and it is relevant and feasible, an additional topic can be added, or a commitment made to address it at some other place and time. “Future agenda items/topics” can be listed on a posted sheet of newsprint.

  • Getting behind or off-topic ,i.e., the group has strayed from the agenda topic or time frames. The course of the process is ultimately the group’s decision, not the facilitator’s.  A recommended response is to pause the group and point out the situation and apparent implications (describing, not disapproving), solicit suggestions, make one yourself and ask for participants’ input. This should be addressed as quickly as possible by the group and move back to the substance of the meeting.  Possible facilitator interventions:  
    • “We have spent a half hour on a subject that does not appear to be directly relevant. Is it essential to pursue this here?  Should it be added to the plan?  Can it be addressed in some other forum?  “Can we move on?”
    • People are late returning from lunch so we are an hour behind.  We will have to adjust our schedule.  We could……..Does anyone have another idea?

  • The facilitator’s expertise in the subject matter, or strong personal views, are drawing him/her into the content discussion or into an obvious strong emotion.  Facilitator success depends on maintaining self-discipline, continuing to listen and not injecting oneself into substance in an impactful way.  Upon becoming aware of what is happening,  the facilitator should refocus on the basic principle that participants ultimately decide the purpose, process and product of their work.  If the behaviour has been obvious, or is identified by a participant, it may be appropriate or even necessary to openly acknowledge what has happened, state an intention to pull back to an appropriate role, and test if the group’s confidence in the facilitator remains.

Key Resources

Key Resources

Googling “guidelines for group facilitation” will bring up a plethora of on-line resources.  There are also many simple meeting facilitation guides for uncomplicated situations.  One example is “Facilitating Group Discussions: Guidelines and Techniques”  http://www.mothergooseprograms.org/articles/2022.pdf.

The following are more in-depth treatments of the subject.  

Brad Spangler “Facilitation”, http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/facilitation/   A good overview article.

Roger Schwartz, The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups, Jossey-Bass 1994; The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches , Jossey-Bass, 2002; The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers and Coaches, Jossey-Bass 2005 (with Anne Davidson, Peg Carlson, Sue McKinney and contributors)

Michael Doyle and David Strauss, How to Make Meetings Work, Jove Books, 1976,

Franklin Dukes, Marina Piscolish and John Stephens, Reaching for Higher Ground, Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Maggie Herzig and Laura Chasin, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides, Public Conversations Project 2006 http://www.publicconversations.org/docs/resources/Jams_website.pdf  (downloadable, also can be purchased in hard copy.)

Carpenter, Susan L. and W.J.D. Kennedy. Managing Public Disputes. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988), 118-119.

Notable Specialized Facilitation Approaches/Methodologies:

Case Studies

Case studies

The cited references all have useful case studies.


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