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Facilitation Skills Tips

Management Analysis and Development's experienced facilitators have developed a two-day course that teaches basic facilitation skills to people at all skill levels. The following tips are excerpted from the Facilitation Skills Course. For information about upcoming course dates and costs, call 651-259-3800.

What is a facilitator?

A facilitator provides neutral guidance to decision-making groups that need to reach conclusions or make decisions.

Among the facilitator's many tasks are:

  • creating a context that sets boundaries for session participants
  • designing appropriate, open-ended questions that elicit genuine responses without directing or dictating certain answers
  • facilitating group discussions that result in sustainable agreements

Creating the context

The word context comes from roots that mean to bring together, like braiding. The context braids together participants' perspectives so they are working from a common understanding. When people attend a meeting, they are looking for the answers to a few common questions right off the bat:

  • Who is here?
  • What is the purpose of this meeting?
  • What is the plan for achieving that purpose?
A facilitator can help set the context by asking people to introduce themselves; stating the purpose of the meeting in a sentence or two; telling attendees what their participation will require of them; explaining how the results of the meeting will be shared and used; highlighting any givens in the situation that must be considered or respected in the meeting; and, of course, presenting an agenda and format for the meeting.

Designing questions

Well-crafted questions help guide a group's discussion toward a constructive result. Many groups engage in discussions that are circular or spiral back without resolution. To avoid this, one approach is to design questions about:

  • Facts and what is known about the current situation
  • Personal reactions and responses to those facts (including personal experiences and feelings)
  • What the facts and people's reactions to them tell us about what is important and meaningful
  • What might be done to enable the group to move forward and plan for the future

Some tips to keep in mind for question phrasing:

  1. Ask open-ended questions that elicit more than a yes or no answer.
  2. Do not ask leading questions, imply an answer, or give advice as part of a question.
  3. Avoid most why questions because they may elicit a defensive response. Instead, see if the question might be more precise if worded as a what or how question. Examples:
    • From: Why did you do that? To: What was your reasoning for doing that? or What happened? or How did you come to this line of thinking?
    • From: Why did that happen? To: What were the circumstances that caused this? How did this evolve? Tell me what's going on here.
    • From: Why was this important for you? To: What was important about this for you?
    • From: Why do you feel or think this way? What is the reasoning or experience behind your current outlook? What in your experience has led you to this viewpoint? Explain this to me in more detail.

Taking some time to practice wording questions will assist you in your learning as a facilitator. Keeping lists of questions to reference or spark your imagination is easy and practical.

The material above is taken from a variety of resources, including The Art of Focused Conversation, Hatch Organizational Consulting piece on Tips for Framing Flip Charts ; a presentation on adult learning to the Twin Cities Complexity Consortium by Jan Berry, director of Learning Labs on Outcomes; Susan Mainzer, mediator and consultant; and an outline from Advanced Strategies, Inc., on questioning skills.

Other Resources

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