Key skills for exceptional facilitation (PART 1)


On the surface, being a facilitator might not sound like much to anyone. Indeed, it may seem rather simple: how hard can it be to lead a meeting or guide a group discussion? However, the truth is quite different.

Facilitation is a delicate process that can only be carried out by a person who has certain competencies together with adequate knowledge about the process as well as the people involved. It is not as simple as talking about time management or avoiding digressions – it’s about engaging, supporting, and directing individuals so they can come to necessary conclusions and accomplish set goals. The mindset and skill of the facilitator determine the outcome of meetings and large-scale collaborations.

So let’s start from the beginning – definition of facilitator:

A facilitator is a person who guides a group of people through a process that achieves their client’s desired outcome. Everyone in the group contributes to, understands, and accepts the results because the facilitator supports a process that maximizes participation, creativity, and productivity.

From this definition, we can see the fundamental responsibilities of a facilitator:

  • Understanding the event’s purpose
  • Creating a process that will achieve the desired outcome
  • Guiding the group through the process to reach the outcome
  • Remaining neutral on the subject matter of the event

As good as it is to master these four responsibilities, being a great facilitator extends beyond just that.

Interpersonal skills of a great facilitator

Here are skills and tools a facilitator must master to design and execute excellent outcomes for meetings and events.

These interpersonal skills can be incredibly hard to master but will ultimately help shape you into a better facilitator, teammate, and employee. 

Nowhere else is it more important than in the interpersonal skills which any competent facilitator must have and which we are going to analyze for you in this blog series.

So, let’s get started.

1. Understanding the Value Possible

When it comes to facilitation, a great facilitator knows what can be created and achieved through effective facilitation.

Skills required:
  • Visioning and Goal Setting: The ability to describe probable outcomes and benefits of the chosen style of facilitation.
  • Business Acumen: Recognition of the business environment and the benefits that may be achieved through correct implementation of facilitation.
  • Outcome Focused: Ensuring that the activities of the facilitation are directed toward the achievement of the facilitation objectives.

Background: A Scrum Master is facilitating a sprint planning meeting for a software development team at a mid-sized tech company. The team is tasked with developing a new feature for their flagship product, which is expected to significantly enhance user engagement and generate additional revenue.
Facilitator Behavior and Skills in Action:
o Visioning and Goal Setting:
Scenario: Before the sprint planning meeting begins, the Scrum Master schedules a short session with the Product Owner and key stakeholders to understand the strategic importance of the new feature.
Action: The Scrum Master helps articulate a clear vision for the sprint. They outline how the new feature aligns with the company’s overall business strategy and how it will benefit end-users.
Communication: During the sprint planning meeting, the Scrum Master presents this vision to the development team, ensuring everyone understands the "why" behind the feature. They use visual aids, such as a vision board or a roadmap, to highlight the desired outcomes and key milestones.
o Business Acumen:
Scenario: The Scrum Master recognizes the competitive market pressures and the importance of a timely release of the new feature.
Action: They facilitate a discussion on prioritizing the most critical aspects of the feature that deliver the highest business value. This involves understanding the market needs, the user personas, and the financial implications of different backlog items.
Communication: The Scrum Master explains how each prioritized task contributes to the business goals, helping the team make informed decisions about task estimations and workload distribution.
o Outcome Focused:
Scenario: As the team discusses potential tasks for the sprint, there is a risk of getting bogged down in technical details that might not directly impact the immediate goals.
Action: The Scrum Master consistently brings the conversation back to the sprint goals and the overall product vision. They ask guiding questions such as, “How does this task help us achieve our sprint goal?” or “Is this the most valuable thing we can deliver in this sprint?”
Communication: They set up measurable sprint goals that are aligned with the larger project objectives and ensure these goals are visible to the entire team throughout the sprint. This might include setting up a sprint goal board or using digital tools that track progress towards the goals.

Outcome: By applying visioning and goal-setting skills, the Scrum Master ensures the team understands the broader business context and remains focused on high-value deliverables. This alignment helps the team prioritize effectively, stay motivated, and deliver the new feature on time, which in turn contributes to increased user engagement and business growth.

This example demonstrates how a facilitator who understands the value possible can leverage visioning and goal-setting, business acumen, and an outcome-focused approach to guide their team toward successful and valuable outcomes.

2. Supporting the Environment for Creativity

A facilitator must also master the art of fostering creativity within a team. This involves creating an environment where team members feel safe and motivated to express their ideas freely.

Skills Required:
  • Creativity Techniques: Awareness of different creative thinking methods such as brainstorming, mind mapping, and more.
  • Psychological Safety: Ensuring a lack of conflict and that everyone is free and willing to share their creativity without any negative backlash.
  • Encouragement and Motivation: The ability to mobilize participants and encourage them to use their creativity.

Background: A facilitator is leading a brainstorming session for a marketing team at a consumer goods company. The team needs to come up with innovative ideas for a new product launch campaign.
Facilitator Behavior and Skills in Action:
o Creativity Techniques:
Scenario: The facilitator starts the session with a warm-up exercise to get the creative juices flowing. They choose a well-known technique called "Rapid Ideation."
Action: The facilitator gives the team a challenge related to the product launch and sets a timer for five minutes, encouraging team members to write down as many ideas as possible without filtering them. Afterward, they use "Mind Mapping" to visually organize and expand on these ideas.
Tools Used: Post-it notes for individual ideas and a large whiteboard for the mind map, where the facilitator helps connect related ideas and identify emerging themes.
o Psychological Safety:
Scenario: The facilitator notices some team members are hesitant to share their ideas.
Action: To create a psychologically safe environment, the facilitator explicitly states that all ideas are welcome and that there are no bad ideas. They emphasize that the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible without judgment.
Techniques: The facilitator introduces "Yes, and…" to build on each other’s ideas positively, rather than criticizing or dismissing them. They also use anonymous idea submission for those who might be uncomfortable speaking up initially.
o Encouragement and Motivation:
Scenario: Throughout the session, the facilitator sees that some team members are more active while others are quieter.
Action: The facilitator actively encourages participation by recognizing contributions and showing enthusiasm for each idea. They call on quieter team members by name, asking for their input in a supportive manner.
Motivation Techniques: The facilitator introduces a fun element, such as a small reward for the most creative idea or a team vote on the top ideas to foster a sense of competition and excitement. They also periodically energize the group with short breaks and energizing activities like quick, creative exercises.

Outcome: By applying creativity techniques, fostering psychological safety, and encouraging and motivating the team, the facilitator creates an environment where all team members feel comfortable expressing their ideas. This leads to a rich pool of innovative ideas for the marketing campaign. The team selects the best ideas and develops a unique and effective campaign that stands out in the market.

This example demonstrates how a facilitator who supports an environment for creativity can effectively use specific techniques, create a safe and inclusive atmosphere, and actively encourage and motivate participants to think creatively and contribute their best ideas.

Check out PART 2.