The Art of Facilitation

What is Facilitation? It is often understood as something someone, an impartial outsider, does to a group in order to make them do something or make them change. This is not what I believe.

The Art of Facilitation

Facilitation is often understood as something someone, an impartial outsider, does to a group in order to make them do something or make them change. This is not my understanding. I believe facilitation is the skilful participation in service of supporting a group to move forwards together in the midst of uncertainty, in a way that is purposeful and engaging.

This means that facilitating is more than just the application of technique - there's no formula to follow. Rather, because the dynamic of the group is constantly shifting as it makes sense of its work together - it requires constant flexibility, and the dynamic capacity to make rapid and ethical decisions in context. For this reason I think there are some fundamental skills of practical wisdom that can help facilitators to continue working on this ability.

1. Levels of Listening

There's a lot to do when facilitating a group, but the most important I believe is to listen well. Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Without the ability to listen effectively and at multiple levels, content, needs and values might be missed or misunderstood. There are lots of listening models out there but here's how I think about it:

  • Listening for Solutions
    • How often do we listen with the intent to give advice or help others with our own solutions. Paying attention to how often we listen at this level can keep us in check and stop us leading a group with our own agenda.
  • Listening for Content
    • Really listening to the details of what the person or group is sharing can be really important. Being able to reflect back what you've heard in accurate detail can make a person really feel heard and understood.
  • Listening for Needs and Values
    • Underneath our words and language, is an unspoken layer of deep-routed needs and values. Whilst paying attention to what the group is saying, it's important to also listen to what the group might be saying underneath - is there a desire for connection or trust? Do they value transparency and the current situation is in conflict with that value. Articulating what you're hearing in terms of needs and values can help to get to the real conversation.
  • Listening for Patterns and Assumptions
    • Whilst working with a group or individual over a period of time, their patterns and assumptions may become more apparent. When a group has obvious stuck behaviours or assumptions, as a facilitator you can then reflect back what your noticing and challenge them to see beyond their usual lens of awareness. This can be a very powerful way of shifting the conversation and increasing the quality of dialogue.

"If you're thinking about what to say next, then you're not listening..."

2. Reflexivity

Reflection is the skill of looking back at an event, particularly for the purpose of supporting deeper understanding and ongoing learning. This is important and should always be done post facilitation yet there is another component that I think is just as, if not more important... Reflexivity is the act of turning the lens of awareness inwards, in the moment, examining your own attitudes and assumptions and appreciating how they shape your responses moment-by-moment. As a facilitator, it is important to appreciate the effect that your own personal history has on your facilitation and recognise that you can never reflect objectively as we can never be outside of our own interactions. This is paradox of the individual and the social.

3. Reframing

Frames are the perspectives through which we view and organise our 'reality'. The frames which people use at any given moment will shape their responses and so encouraging reframing, through inquiring into other's perspective can be a powerful facilitation tool. The art is to:

  • draw attention to aspects not seen by the group
  • tone down the impact of a situation by putting it into perspective
  • reveal the boundaries within which each unique experience occurs
  • point out to the group what they might not be willing to see or admit

4. Emotion Regulation

Often we believe that emotions cloud clear thinking and that we should not bring our emotions to work. The reality is that this is impossible. Emotions are an inextricably intertwined part of the embodied activity of thinking. Emotion regulation is, therefore, not about doing away with our emotions but rather about increasing our sensitivity and awareness in service of greater adaptability and responsiveness.

A facilitator needs to come from a place of inner-resourcefulness; much communicated is non verbal. Your own anxiety about the process or whether or not a group will respond well, will often evoke resistance. The quality of your presence and relaxed authority increase the likelihood of your successful facilitation. . 

5. Improvisation

Improvisation is creating or performing something spontaneously or without preparation; making something from whatever is available. Often in facilitation, the needs of the group will shift and as the facilitator you need to be adaptable, flexible, and dynamic to ensure you can navigate the group in the right direction. When first facilitating I used to use my 'agenda' is a safety net - not wanting to go off piste - but with more experience, I am willing to throw it out the door - being much more present to the group and going with where they need to go, not where I wanted them to go. 

"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
Dwight, D. Eisenhower

6. Political Adroitness

 As a facilitator, we sometimes like to believe that we can operate outside of the politics of the group. Facilitators are participants in the political landscape. There are many dangers inherent in the role of the facilitator; they are often perceived of as being in a position of power, serving as disciplinary agents, or of surveillance, colluding with those in power. It's important to reflect on how you may be perceived by the people you are working with, the story you tell yourself might and often is, different to that of others. 

Your role, gender, appearance and position in the organisational social hierarchy etc. will all play a part in your facilitation. The key is not to pretend they don't exist but to acknowledge them and leverage them in ethical ways. 


Facilitation is something I am really passionate about, and I learn more about every day. If you want to continue the conversation, please email me at