To be effective as a facilitator one must remain neutral throughout the process.

The neutrality of the facilitator is important as it allows the facilitator to hold a space for multiple viewpoints without personally becoming attached to any of them. Their role is to enable the group to continually move forward and not to direct them.

Increasing your effectiveness as a facilitator requires the continuing development of an extensive toolkit of models that will enable you to design and guide a facilitated process, adapting in the moment, as required.

Designing a facilitated process is akin to designing a learning journey, as facilitators are often asking individuals and groups to take in new information, build meaning together, test ideas and decide on directions. This is a rather comprehensive cognitive process. Understanding how people learn and make decisions is a central part of the facilitator’s role.

One of the most widely useful frameworks we draw on is the science of cognitive difference, how people take in information, make decisions and interact with their environment, differently. Let’s unpack this.

Three dimensions of cognitive difference

Consider the following three questions as dimensions of cognitive difference:

  1. How do you gather information?
  2. How do you make decisions?
  3. How do you respond to situations?

For each of these Carl Jung believed there was a spectrum of responses with two extremes.

How you gather information – Sensing or Intuition


Those with a sensing preference like to use their five senses, i.e. see, hear, touch, taste and smell to make sense of the world. Sensing characteristics include:

  • Mentally ‘live in the now’, attending to present opportunities
  • Using common sense and creating practical solutions is an automatic instinct
  • Like clear and concrete information; dislike guessing when facts are ‘fuzzy’

Those with a preference for intuition see the future possibilities of situations and where things may go. Intuition characteristics include:

  • Mentally ‘live in the future’, attending to future possibilities
  • Using imagination and creating/inventing new possibilities is an automatic instinct
  • Comfortable with ambiguous, obscure data and with guessing its meaning

How you make decisions – Thinking or Feeling


Those who have a thinking preference make their decisions from the head. Thinking characteristics include:

  • Instinctively search for facts and logic in a decision situation
  • Naturally notices tasks and work to be accomplished
  • Easily able to provide an objective and critical analysis

Those with a feeling preference make their decisions from the heart. Feeling characteristics include:

  • Instinctively employ personal feelings and impact on people in decision situations
  • Naturally sensitive to peoples needs and reactions
  • Naturally, seek consensus

How you respond to situations – Extraversion or Introversion


Those with a preference for extraversion get their energy from other people and express themselves externally. Extraversion characteristics include:

  • Act first, think/reflect later
  • Feel deprived when cut off from interaction with the outside world
  • Enjoy wide variety and change in people relationships

Those with a preference for introversion get their energy from themselves and contain the energy internally. Introversion characteristics include:

  • Think/reflect first, then act
  • Regularly require an amount of ‘private time’ to recharge batteries
  • Prefer one-to-one communication and relationships

Involving difference in digital engagement

Digital engagement can open up different ways to contribute. For example, a video conference allows participants to post messages that respond in real time, or to ‘upvote’ questions they want to be asked during a Q&A.

However, having a number of channels doesn’t mean you should use them all . Use only those best suited to what you want to achieve, so as to avoid an overwhelm that could either limit responses or dilute your attention as a facilitator.

For example, if you were hosting a presentation to a large group of people you might request all questions to be captured in the messaging or Q&A channels. This allows you to group and respond to questions with some priority, and also allows you to capture questions you cannot answer within the timeframe and come back with responses following the session.

Non-verbal channels can be effective at engaging participants who are less comfortable speaking up during a video conference.

Regardless of the channels you offer, the role of a facilitator is to create a safe space for everyone to contribute, to recognise cues that someone wants to contribute and to invite contribution from those who have been quiet.

For example, with video-conferencing you might ask everyone to mute their microphone unless they want to speak, then, as a facilitator, when you notice that someone comes off mute but does not interject, you can invite their perspective through a simple “John, I noticed you came off mute, was there something you wanted to add?”.

Create psychological safety

If you’re not already of the view that diverse perspectives create better outcomes, the research is pretty compelling.

Google cites the most significant driver of performance across its organisation globally as psychological safety :

Can we take risks in this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

is even more important than…

Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?

Underpinning this is the concept of psychological safety. As a facilitator, your role is to create a generative environment, where ideas are built on and tested. There is always an important time for ideas to be challenged, but when they are, ensure the idea is challenged and not the person.

Recruit a Facilitation Team

While some engagements may only require one facilitator it is not uncommon to enlist a facilitation team whose primary responsibility is to ‘make it easier for the participants to do the work’.

Where a facilitation team is deployed, there is often a lead facilitator who takes ultimate responsibility for the facilitation of the engagement.

Additional members of the facilitation team may include:

  • Process facilitator – focused on ensuring the processes supporting the engagement are as seamless as possible.
  • Documentor – focused on ensuring all content and conversation is captured.
  • Participant support – focused on ensuring participants are able to access and use tools required throughout the experience.
  • Technical lead – focused on guiding input, discussion and output on any specific domain expertise required throughout the engagement.

Red Teaming (or Response Planning)

The term ‘Red Teaming’ comes from the military and is an exercise where a group seek to exploit flaws in a plan. To find every possible hole they can exploit with the aim of causing the plan to fail. This is performed to test both the rigour of the plan along with the groups’ ability to respond to unforeseen situations.

The learning that comes through this exercise may or may not directly change how you approach the engagement though it will challenge you to be able to respond to such challenges and consider how you will keep the group moving toward the desired outcomes.

Something will go wrong, what can you do?

There are two obvious causes of something going wrong:

Inadequate preparation, and situations that could not have been anticipated.

And it’s fair to say that the more complex the topic, the more likely #2 will occur, which is where experienced facilitators prove their worth.

Some common problems may include:

  • Participants or guest speakers having problems joining the session.
  • Unstable internet connections cause disruptions in a discussion.
  • Participants or guest speakers having video or audio problems.
  • Running behind schedule or discussions taking much longer than anticipated.
  • Software or tools malfunctioning.

Regardless of what has caused something to go wrong with the engagement here are two tried and tested responses to reset the course.

Call time out

Rather than stumbling through a situation, don’t be afraid of calling it for what it is. Let your participant group know you’re going to call 5-10 minutes with your Facilitation and/or Design Team to reset the agenda, then take your side meeting to review how you can recover the situation, and if not recoverable, agree on a position to close the engagement on.

Throw it back to them

This tactic may require more experience, or at least courage, but can shift the situation in an extremely positive way. By reflecting back to your audience two things: the objectives of the engagement and the current situation, before inviting their perspective on how we move forward, you create a heightened level of engagement in the process, they are taking ownership of the way forward. Once you have agreed on a way forward with the participant group you might then take a time out to reset the process with your Facilitation and/or Design Team, if you do this, consider providing the participant group with something useful to do whilst you regroup, such as forming working groups or discussing a topic in 3’s until you come back to them with the detailed next steps.

Change Your Position Change Your Energy

This is perhaps one of the simplest of hacks to improve your energy on video meetings; change your position to suit the energy and tone of the meeting, for example:

  1. Stand up if you need to present with impact or simply want to feel more energised yourself. While people may not know you’re standing your physiology will trigger different body chemistry which fundamentally changes your energy (side note, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk)
  2. In the physical world, there are plenty of situations where we would have headed to a coffee shop or just a lounge space. Whether it’s a social catch up 1:1 with your boss or a performance conversation, consider taking your video call away from a desk and see how it feels.
  3. What other setups have you played with online and how have they affected your energy and engagement?

Increase Presence through Breathwork

One of our all-time favourites hacks for presence inspired by Adam Fraser’s Third Space concept. Adam came across a tiny habit that some of the best performers in sport and work have adopted and we all have the ability to do this one right now. Adam calls it Rest, Reflect, Reset, as a process of transitioning from one space into a new one, whether that’s moving between conversations with different people, moving between different types of work or moving out of work and into time with friends or family.

Don’t limit this one for yourself, share it with those you work with by guiding some breathwork at the beginning of your next meeting.

Execution and Follow-through

Set yourself up to be 100% present to facilitate the collaboration including setting your email responder and voice message to include your situation, and turning off all notifications that do not relate to this collaboration.

Something will go wrong. That’s okay. Know that you can change your position to change your energy, sometimes that’s all it takes, and if you need more, remember the tips above in ‘something will go wrong, what can you do’.

As soon as you can, following the session, distribute a summary of the outcomes and next steps to participants and perhaps include a message of thanks (gratitude can go a long way!).

Timely follow up communications demonstrate professionalism and can build momentum to drive further action. Consider providing a high-level summary of the session outcomes and next steps within 24-hours of closing the session where possible, and if there is further work to be completed, include it in your next steps.

Follow through and follow up on commitments, especially yours.

Connection Tools & Tips

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