Five things I’ve learned as a facilitator of collaborative sessions

As a communicator, strategist and client relationships manager, I have had the opportunity to dive into the world of facilitating collaborative sessions including workshops, focus groups, stakeholder interviews, and team meetings. Facilitation has become a fundamental part of not only my role but my professional career path. Learning the ropes of facilitation has taught me a lot more than just how to lead group sessions and 1:1 conversations. There are key takeaways that have allowed me to tap into a whole subset of skills that are relevant in all realms of my life. 

The definition of facilitate is to make easier; help bring about. It sounds straightforward yet it’s extremely broad, and that’s what relationship management and communication is all about – being a facilitator. Making a piece of information easier, more digestible and engaging, and also to listen and bring out what others really want to say lies within great facilitation. 

Here are five of the biggest takeaways I’ve gleaned as a facilitator:  

  1. Always ensure there is a clear purpose and goal for the session 
    In advance of any type of interactive session, clarify the purpose and goal(s) of the session for not only the facilitator, but the participants. When developing exercises, talking points or baseline questions, having a purpose and goal will allow you to work backwards to ensure you get the information you need. Share the goals and objectives for the session at the very beginning and ask the participants what their intentions or desires are for the time together in order to align with those who may not have been involved in the planning of the session. 
  2. Active listening is key to asking deeper Q’s
    Active listening enables you to not only make the people involved feel heard, but it gives you, the facilitator, an opportunity to adjust as you go based on the needs of the group or individual. If you have your active listening ears open whether it’s in a workshop, 1:1 conversation, or team meeting, it will help you get to the bigger picture and ask those deeper questions that might otherwise be missed. For example, when you hear an important concept, comment or question, say it back to the individual, write it down on a white board or ask others to weigh in for further input.  
  3. Learn by doing
    Like many aspects of life, learning by doing is what allowed me to hone my facilitation skills. From planning, note taking, and diving in to lead exercises, I was able to strengthen my skills because I had the chance to learn and adapt with each workshop, focus group, interview and team meeting. Learning by doing never really ends, and each interaction is an opportunity to gain experience and learn something new. There are also plenty of tools out there to help guide you on approach and expose you to more situations. For example, I went through the Facilitation Fundamentals Workshop with The Design Gym. This session took my facilitation skills to a whole other level. The training gave me the space and exposure to think differently about how to handle challenging situations in a room, keep people engaged, how to think through the experience and develop an interactive session, and, perhaps most importantly, how to focus on what the people in the room want and need. 
  4. What’s in your facilitator bag matters
    In a sense, I mean this quite literally. Our team has an actual facilitator bag that travels with us. Aside from the typical sticky notes and sharpies, we like to add a few fun surprises when we lead workshops. This includes stretchy string fidgets, gum, candy, etc. These little things make a difference. It tells the participants we care about them and have thought about what they might want and need throughout the time they spend with us. Taking an extra step to show people you’re looking at something through their eyes opens the gates for an open and trusted dialogue. 
  5. Be flexible and open to adaptation in the moment
    Things change, life is messy, and sometimes that includes the conversations you’re covering in a discussion or workshop. This insight may be the most important takeaway I’ve learned as a facilitator, and it may be the hardest one to execute. Flexibility and willingness to adapt in the moment can truly make or break an experience and the outputs you gather. I am the first to admit that when I take the time to plan a workshop or meeting, I’ve put a lot of thought into it, so of course I want to ensure everything gets covered. Letting go of perfection is hard, and that’s exactly what you have to do in these moments. It’s a shift in mindset, but pulling in the active listening you’re doing in the moment and taking what you’re hearing as you go to guide the group or individual (whether it’s in line with what you were planning to cover or completely different) is critical to the success of your outputs.

Facilitation has allowed me to rethink all of the interactions I have both inside and outside of the workplace. These skills have helped me with managing Integral’s client relationships, planning internal team meetings and approaching difficult conversations (both personally and professionally) with an open ear and keeping the reality and perspective of others at the forefront of my mind. 

One last fundamental takeaway I’ve learned on this journey is that facilitation is not something you perfect and all of a sudden have nothing to work on. Similar to writing, you can continue to learn and always improve. It’s an evolution and something I believe is key to what makes successful communicators and leaders. 

Want to talk about all things facilitation? Drop me a line at I’m all ears!