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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 manual. 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.

Creating the context

The word context comes from roots that mean to bring together, like braiding. The context braids together participants' understandings so they are working from a common perspective. The context becomes a framework that sets basic boundaries for a group discussion and gives participants a sense of where their freedom to express themselves lies.

The context can include any of the following:

  1. The agenda and format of the meeting
  2. Review of why the group is together (purpose, mandate, anticipated outcomes)
  3. Expectations of the session or series of sessions or project
  4. Usefulness of the discussion (how the results of the discussion or session work will be used)
  5. The givens of the situation (the internal or external limitations that must be considered or respected in the session)

Designing questions

Well-crafted questions help guide a group to a fruitful end. Many groups engage in discussions that are circular or spiral back without resolution. To avoid this, one approach is to design questions to flow through four conversation levels:

  • Objective-questions about facts and external reality as experienced through the five senses
  • Reflective-questions to elicit personal reactions and internal responses to the objective level information; may include emotions, hidden images, and personal experiences related to the topic
  • Interpretive-How have the needs of the organization changed? Or what benefits has this work provided to the organization?
  • Decisional-questions to elicit resolution, bring conversation to a close, enable the group to plan the future
Here's an example of questions for a team reflecting on its work:
  • Objective-What tasks has this team accomplished?
  • Reflective-In doing the tasks, what pleased you? ... surprised you? ... frustrated you? Or these less emotional questions: What was difficult? What was easy?
  • Interpretive-questions to draw out meaning, significance, values and implications
  • Decisional-Given the new needs, what would you like to have this team accomplish in the next six months?

Some tips to keep in mind for question phrasing:

  1. Do not ask questions that elicit a yes or no answer unless you are clarifying information or requiring a vote or decision.
  2. Do not imply an answer in a question.
  3. Do not ask leading questions ( You agreed that this was a good idea, right? ).
  4. Do not ask questions that give advice.
  5. Do not use slanted or manipulative questions (where you expect or want certain answers).
  6. Do not use threatening questions.
  7. Avoid most why questions because these may elicit a defensive response. Check to see if these might more precisely be asked 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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