What makes a good facilitator?

In thinking about what makes a good teacher, I’ve been trying to determine particular skill sets and characteristics in order to provide training materials and workshops for my colleagues. Currently at the top of my list is being a good facilitator. In fact, when I think of how I describe my own teaching philosophy, facilitating is the main verb I use. Because I’m heavily influenced by critical pedagogy theory, I see my role as a teacher to students, staff, faculty, and colleagues to be one in which I’m facilitating their learning, while they’re also facilitating mine (whether or not they see it that way).

While not as flashy as some other active learning techniques, discussion seems to be one of the most important. Conversation is harped on as the way to improve relationships of all kinds and as a tool to build understanding. As bell hooks writes in Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), “Learning and talking together, we break with the notion that our experience of gaining knowledge is private, individualistic, and competitive. By choosing and fostering dialogue, we engage mutually in a learning partnership” (p. 43). This resonates with me because I believe very strongly in creating shared understanding/knowledge as a core piece of any healthy relationship, collaborative, institution or country.

What does a good facilitator do?

  • actively listens
  • tries to build/develop the discussion
  • draw out as much (constructive?) dialogue as possible
  • pays attention to body language of participants
  • does not overpower the discussion, but also does not allow anyone else to
  • uses body language to indicate receptivity to the person speaking
  • makes space so that everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so

It’s interesting to me that there is a lot of overlap between what makes a good teacher and a good leader. I’ll just leave that there to think on for another day.

I’m curious as to what other people think about facilitation as a skill. I feel like it’s been undervalued in a lot of places and that people don’t often think of it as something that requires practice because it’s thought of as a “soft skill.” I have also heard the role of a facilitator described as “neutral,” which I find troubling. A person can’t be neutral, just as nothing is objective if it’s been created by a human. As soon as I enter a room, other people perceive me as they have been socialized to see me, so how is it possible for me to be a neutral figure in the discussion?

Anyway, please leave your comments below to continue this discussion! 😉




5 thoughts on “What makes a good facilitator?

  1. Yes girl! I’ve recently been keeping an open dialogue with folks about this topic. In a workshop setting, something I personally like is setting community agreements as a group and then making sure that everyone has the opportunity to introduce themselves + answer a question; could be what they hope to get out of the session or something more playful like who their favorite artist is and why.

    As part of active listening, I think it’s super important to find a natural break in conversation, synthesize information exchanged, and repeat it back to folks.

    Breakout sessions with small groups.
    Validate participants.
    Control the process, not necessarily the conversation.
    Encourage those who know they like to talk to be conscious of creating space for others who may be quieter or less inclined to speak up. Prioritize space and time for those who historically have not been a part of the conversation & decision making processes.
    Allow reflection time.
    Capture information exchanged on sticky notes and big sticky pads.
    Allow folks to write down what they don’t feel comfortable saying.
    Have group report-outs.
    Continue the conversation by transcribing the collective notes and sending out to attendees.

  2. Being a good facilitator is something I’m trying to work on, too. I agree with everything you’ve said, as well as Amanda. I think another thing I would add is setting an agenda and paying attention to everyone’s energy. Sometimes discussions need more time and space, other times the discussion peters out sooner than expected. Sometimes people need a chance for a biobreak, or just to get out of the space.

    Handling those that overpower conversations is definitely a struggle, and my professor is going to give us some strategies for that this semester. I think a facilitator also is there to ask “what” and clarifying questions that maybe others don’t feel comfortable asking. I think this relates to the idea of neutrality, because being able to ask questions others can’t is key to the fact that facilitators do have some power.

    I also find it important to make the space comfortable. How is the room set up? How are the tables arranged? What supplies do people need at their tables? How about candy on the tables, or water/food for full day meetings? In my last planning retreat, we assigned small groups to different tables, and I named each table and put out table cards. Not that it mattered, but it gives the space something different.

  3. This is wonderful, Sofia! I would add in time for reflection as essential to productive discussion. I am very much the introvert, and am someone who often needs to gather my thoughts in writing. As much as I facilitate discussion in my classes, I also try to build in equal time for reflection. I find that helps even things out a bit; those who might not be the type to jump in to discussions right away have some time to think about what they feel comfortable sharing, and those who tend to speak up first will have a chance to ask themselves, “is this really what I want to say?”

    I also think a good facilitator is comfortable with constructive conflict. It’s what helps us grow and challenge our thinking. By constructive I mean a respect for difference and a willingness to learn from others’ experiences and knowledge. Some of the reading I’ve been doing lately has stressed how white supremacy and patriarchy have benefited from suppressing overt conflict and challenge to “accepted” ideas.

    I am intrigued by the parallels you draw between teaching and leading. I realized in the past 3 years that if I can’t learn from my leaders and my leaders aren’t interested in learning from me, our relationship is going to come to a standstill.

  4. I find that one of the most important facilitator responsibilities — meaning things go sideways pretty quickly if it’s skipped — is setting expectations and guidelines for the conversation right up front. What outcomes will you have from the discussion that will let you know it was successful? What’s your number one goal? Get that out in the open and then let the participants set some boundaries around it, such as agreeing to take turns or promising to adhere to the “no criticism of ideas” rule when brainstorming.

    Providing multiple forms of participation works great, e.g. talking for those who are comfortable, passing index cards with ideas to the facilitator to share for those who aren’t comfortable talking, having a mix of individual thought, small group, and large group participation — and flowing well between all those forms.

    People are highly motivated by progress. I find that ending any facilitated session, whether teaching or running a meeting, with a summary of “here’s what we said our goals were at the beginning and here’s what we accomplished during our time together” helps people reflect and internalize what just happened. They also then get a chance to chime in with their own observations of progress. Sessions that end this way send people off with a good feeling that something worthwhile got done.

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