The Art of Facilitating

Good facilitating is an art.  A skilled, well-prepared facilitator will bring the best out of a crowd of people and lead the way to dynamic and interesting dialogue. From what I have seen, the common pitfalls of poor facilitators tend to fall in one of two camps.  The first is the mousy facilitator who just sort of stands there and never intervenes– yammering people go on too long, the conversation drifts way off topic, and the facilitator is a wallflower who just watches it happen.  At the other end of the spectrum is the facilitator who has way too much to say and acts as a super-participant, chiming in and adding his or her opinion as a flavoring to anything which is said.  Neither is appropriate.  What is?  I’m so glad you asked.  Here are my tips on effective facilitating.

fa·cil·i·tate /fəˈsiliˌtāt/

to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.)

The work of a facilitator is to guide a group’s conversation forward.  This involves balancing the voices in the room—drawing out the more reluctant participants and preventing outspoken people from dominating the dialogue .  It also typically includes having a prepared list of thought-starter questions and/or exercises to engage the participants and gently re-centering on the topic when things go off course.  Effective facilitators are not generally participants in the conversation; they are the hosts who strive to get the most productive conversation to happen.

[room preparation]

Round tables are always better for conversation than rectangular ones if they are available.  Having markers and folded card stock on the tables for people to create name cards can be helpful.  It may be useful to have large easels with paper to summarize key points as people contribute.  A visual record of the conversation helps people feel they have been heard and allows dialog to move forward once a point has been made.


Welcome participants to the room.  Invite people to sit down and write their names on folded card stock so it is visible to others.  Once everyone is gathered, introduce yourself and invite others to do the same.  You may choose to ask people to share a fun or interesting fact about themselves (which may or may not be related to topic of conversation) to get people warmed up. Use names whenever possible throughout the session.


Here are a few useful phrases for managing the conversation.

“Tell me more about that” // the essential facilitator phrase to encourage dialog without introducing any judgment.  (often effective with teenage kids too—try it!)

“What did you notice (about the film, exercise, etc.)?” // way to get people to respond to something without getting stuck on likes/dislikes

“Good discussion.  Let’s refocus.” // a way to redirect dialog from a tangent to main topic

“Who haven’t we heard from yet?” // elegant way to invite new voices into the conversation and quiet the dominators

“One more comment on this, then we have to move on.” // respectfully keeps things moving

“Great question.  Let’s talk about that.”  // a way to shift topic

“It seems like X and Y have two different opinions on this.  Let’s capture them both.”  // validates opposing views and ensures both feel heard

“OK, let’s talk about this as a larger group.”  or “Let me gather you back in if I could.” // way to quiet side conversations and draw them back into the group dialog.  Most effective if you walk over to where the side conversation is taking place in the room.

“I appreciate that feedback.  Others have found this useful so let’s give it a try.” // a great alternative to apologizing if a participant is less-than-enthusiastic about any of your approaches or exercises.


“We have about ten more minutes for conversation.  Are there any final areas we should explore together today/tonight?”  // As the closing time nears, let people know that you are aware of the time so people don’t get anxious about being delayed past the stated end time.

“There has been a lot of great participation today.  Thank you for coming.” // gracious hosting 101 and a signal to your participants that you are wrapping up

 “We encourage you to…” OR “You can engage more with this issue at [next event].” // Consider closing with a call to action.  Are you hoping people will take next steps?  What are they?

“I’d invite you to share contact information with one another so you can continue to work on these issues together.” //  If you are hoping people will stay in contact with one another to take action, invite participants to trade contact information with one another.

“Thanks again everyone.”  //  pat yourself on the back and smile– well done!

{click to download PDF of Effective Facilitating Tips}

© October 2012 by Pam Daniels. All rights reserved.


One Comment

  1. Could not agree more. Thanks Pam. I teach Facilitated Dialogues in two of my graduate classes and was happy to share your tips with them. They take turns in teams of two to lead half of the class in fishbowl dialogues on each week’s topic. Your comments served as a refresher so we can have more robust and constructive dialogues.


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