20 Questions for facilitators


August 9th, 2009

When I meet with a client to talk about a facilitation gig, I have some key questions I ask. Not in any particular order, and not all are needed avery time. I usually say very little to begin with, wanting to hear in my client’s own words what they want. I’m listening for clues, for danger signs, for hopes and fears.

1. Can you give me a little background to this workshop?

The response might be as brief as one sentence, or last half an hour or more. A lot of questions might be answered during that time.

2. Why now?

This helps me place this workshop into some sort of timeframe – what’s happened leading up to this, and what’s coming.

3. What else is going on?

It’s useful to know what other activities are underway that may affect this event. I remember a planning workshop with about 40 staff one day which was all but a waste of time given that the week before a restructure of the organisation had been announced and many people realised there was no longer a place for them. Long story, for another day maybe.

4. Why do you need a facilitator?

I’m trying to find out two things here: what they think a facilitator will bring; and why they want an outsider.

5. What do you hope a facilitator will bring?

If I haven’t yet heard what they think a facilitator will bring, I’ll come right out and ask.

6. What happened last time?

It’s pretty rare these days for a workshop to be a one-off. I’ll ask about past experiences to give me clues as to what worked, and what didn’t.

7. What do you hope will happen?

This starts to get at what they want to achieve, without the the baggage of ‘corporate-speak ‘

8. What do you hope won’t happen?

This taps into some fears and concerns, either about the participants or the processes. Typically I’ll hear stories about the last time this group met and how so-and-so just took over or had a fight with the woman from accounts. Or I’ll hear about the ‘disastrous’ process where everyone had to do something distasteful (usually ‘touchy-feel’). Which nearly always leads me to my next question:

9. What do you mean by [insert any abstract term] eg touchy-feely, consensus, agreement, creative, innovation, strategy etc

10. How much time do you have?

This is often already known, but sometimes, just sometimes, clients will be willing to negotiate on this.

11. How many people?

There’s always a starting point – the actual number, and composition, may vary greatly.

12. What’s going to happen after this workshop?

Sometimes the client hasn’t even thought about this, they are so focused on the event itself.

13. If you could only achieve one thing during this day, what would it be?

THIS is the question I’ve been leading to all along – ask it too early and you’ll get a shopping list. It helps me determine the heart of the workshop.

14. What is the general mood of the group?

This question often surprises people. It gives me a sense of what I’m stepping into.

15. How often do you meet as a group and what do you do?

I want to know if they have some established processes in place, some patterns or habits that are useful to know, either to reinforce or to introduce a circuit breaker.

16. What would happen if you didn’t have this workshop?

This gives the client an ‘out’. Often workshops are NOT needed. Our conversation may have made that perfectly clear. And if not, it helps reinforce the importance and/or urgency.

17. What role do you want to play?

Once I asked this question and my client responded: “Oh, I won’t be there!” Yikes! It’s an easy way of asking ‘will you be at the workshop?’

18. If there’s already an agenda: What’s negotiable and what’s not?

When the process design starts, I need to know that the guest speaker is already locked in, for example. ¬†And I need to know the givens – what’s not negotiable, especially for the participants. this question helps me tease out the difference between ‘givens’ and ‘this is the way we do things around here’.

19. Who has the authority for the final decision?

This is another killer question that I always ask. I need to know in advance whether the participants have the final authority to make a decision (if that’s what’s needed) or if there’s a higher authority. If there is, I’ll want to know why they’re not participating.

20. Be quiet – and listen!

The best question of all is no question. Just silence. Give them time to think, to reflect, and to talk.

Maybe you’re wondering about the questions I don’t ask – such as, what product do you want? what outcomes? shift in behaviour or attitude? These are often provided, in a brief, or during our conversation. I steer away from what I can’t deliver and what is somewhat delusional to expect. Sure I can get people to create a document by the end of a workshop, but it won’t mean much.

If I have done my job well I will have set up the preconditions for whatever transactions need to take place to emerge as a result of the workshop. And the best way I’ve found to do that is to open space for conversations, and to get out of the way!

What are your favourite questions?

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