10 Basic Group Facilitation Skills

November 17th, 2012

I’m in the midst of facilitating a training for an INGO on incorporating mental health and psychosocial support into programming. There’s a lot to write about that in another post.

One of the key lessons is that you don’t have to be a trained mental health professional to provide support to people suffering from mental disorders, whether that be due to a disaster they have experienced personally or as a part of their community, or if its because of chronic poverty or any other reason.

Throughout this training the topic of facilitating groups within communities has come up and I’ve been asked to provide some idea of basic facilitation skills. Here is my list (and I’m usually not a fan of lists – they tend to suggest something that is complete or finished or the last word. My list is none of those – it’s a random collection of thoughts to meet an immediate need that I thought I’d share.)

Facilitating is not for everyone. Here’s some skills that I think are important.

1. Capturing information in people’s own words

Doesn’t matter how the capture is done, the key is using people’s own words. Avoid listening to someone and then responding with “I think what you mean to say is…” or “I’ll summarise what you said as…” and use your own interpretation. Honour people’s own words.

2. Encouraging participation

This is a huge topic. My approach is to find, develop and use approaches that encourage people to participate and to speak their mind. This usually does not include presentations, whole group discussions, panels or Q and A sessions – all of which discourage participation in favour of just a few people. If you can’t avoid whole group discussions then at least avoid pointing to someone and asking them directly what they think. And encourage paired r small group discussions, walking and talking, talking through objects, pictures and so on.

3. Be comfortable with silence

People might be thinking, so stop talking. Stop filling the silences with more talk.

4. Give instruction clearly and briefly

Over-instruction can kill enthusiasm, raise anxiety about the activity and encourage thinking about the activity rather than doing it. I like to write up instructions in advance. Keep them short and to the point. Give the instructions then get people to work. You can wander around and clarify any questions once they get started rather than over-instruct.

5. Avoid dependence

The group can work without you and it should be your goal to enable them to operate without a facilitator. This is particularly true if you have an ongoing role with groups. I always try and encourage participants to learn the techniques I use so as they don’t need me at all.

6. Avoid leading the group or the discussion

Facilitators have opinions. We have ideas. But it’s not our place to lead the group down any particular path. Keep questions open and broad.

7. Set the context for the meeting

Let people know at the beginning why they are there, what they will be doing, why it’s important and when it will be finished. Honour all that.

8. Create a welcoming space

The space people work in matters. Move the furniture. Create a welcoming space. Make sure people are comfortable and able to move around. A welcoming space is not just physical, it’s also about the way you engage with the group, building rapport and trust.

9. Take care of time and pace

Be aware of the time. Make sure you finish on time. Adjust as necessary to do this. Be aware of people’s energy levels and vary the pace. Sometimes it’s important to speed up, sometimes it’s important to slow down.

10. Self care

Take care of yourself. It’s hard work facilitating. It’s tiring and takes a lot of effort to hold a group of people as they explore issues or struggle with ideas or decisions. Be self-aware enough to know when you need a break or what helps in your own self care.

And one final comment. Facilitating is a practice art. You can’t learn it from a book, or even from this blog 🙂 Get out there and practice. Just do it. Often.

7 Comments so far

  1. dwighttowers on November 17, 2012 11:04 pm

    excellent!! Number 5 is really difficult, of course, but crucial….

  2. Creative Space and Facilitation Skills Make for a Great Experience with Group Activities at Workshop « Workshop Louisville Blog on November 20, 2012 12:23 am

    […] you are a facilitator, this post from Beyond the Edge, “10 Basic Group Facilitation Skills” is a nice explanation of some of the most fundamental skills required for group […]

  3. Chris Corrigan on November 21, 2012 4:53 am

    I hate lists for several reasons.

    1. they seem like cheap link bait
    2. they’re too easy to make
    3. despite my reservations, I find them insanely useful, especially when produced by my friends that also hate lists!

    This is a good list, and covers off some key capacities beautifully. A nice thing to come back to for structuring teaching for beginning facilitators.

    Thanks Viv!

  4. Chris Corrigan on November 21, 2012 5:05 am

    I would also say that number 7 extends not just to the beginning of the meeting but to the invitation as well. The more people know why they are there, the better use they are while they are there.

  5. Wan Chung on November 23, 2012 11:45 am

    Hi Viv,

    Just want to affirm all the great stuff you are doing.

    I just came back from facilitating a 4-day workshop in Shanghai, and used a lot of the group process skills you taught us back in WV. The a-ha for me is not just in the integrated use of the various activities, but more with getting a feel of moving in the spirit of improv! For eg, I was asked along the way many times by the conference organiser to create this and that experience, and having the right activities in my toolkit (your list!) and operating ‘in the moment’ did wonders for improvising the forum to the delight of participants!

    Cheers to your work!

    Wan Chung

  6. Viv McWaters on November 26, 2012 2:47 pm

    @dwighttowers Yes indeed. It works both ways too.

    @Chris Corrigan LOL – all excellent reasons to avoid lists!

    @Wan Chung Thank you! I am always so excited to hear what you are up to 🙂

  7. group facilitation on October 15, 2013 3:56 pm

    All stuff is awesome and tips are really good for solving problems. A mediator sort out the problem easily, first capturing information from staff and then solve their conflicts.

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