Blog > Improvised Facilitation – the heart of facilitation

July 22, 2007

Making choices is at the heart of facilitation. Choices are made from the moment we agree to a facilitation task – and continue throughout the design process AND, most importantly, when facilitating with a group.

Those choices include what to wear, how to act, what to say, what to do, how to respond… With so many choices and decisions – small and large – to make, you would expect many facilitators to be frozen with indecision. While there may be moments when a facilitator feels unable to decide what to do next, these are remarkably rare. Most facilitators assess the situation and make choices without anyone else being aware of the inner dialogue. Sometimes even they are not aware themselves.

This is what it means to be spontaneous – combining existing knowledge and skills with the possibilities and materials available in the moment to improvise. Many facilitators are not even aware that they are improvising. Others want to enhance their capacity to improvise – to feel more comfortable being spontaneous and to hone the skills that enable spontaneity.

The skills that enable spontaneity are not necessarily knowing more activities, or more games, or more processes (although it never hurts to have a solid and varied repertoire of activities to choose from). Spontaneity skills are more about the facilitator’s ‘internal landscape’ – what we are thinking and doing as we facilitate.

I used to believe that it was not always necessary, or even appropriate, to improvise when facilitating. Now I believe that improvising is at the heart of facilitation, because of the constant need to make choices. Even intuitive choices are best made in response to the available information. And it’s the information we receive while in the process of facilitating that is far more useful, relevant and current than any pre-workshop data or briefings we can collect.

Let’s visit improv theatre for a moment. There are many forms of improv – short and long form, Playback, TheatreSports etc. And what they all have in common is no script. Players stand in front of an audience and perform scenes without a script. They have to use suggestions made by the audience combined with their own skills and those of their colleagues. In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes improv as involving people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind of script or plot. What is terrifying about improv, Gladwell suggests, is the fact that it appears utterly random and chaotic.

But the truth is that improv isn’t random and chaotic at all. Improv is an art form governed by a series of rules. Performers practice together so much because they want to make sure that when they’re up on stage, everyone abides by those rules.

Improvising is not the same as being unprepared. Indeed, the ability to improvise requires a lot of preparation, of learning skills and techniques and of practicing. The art of improvising comes from mastering some of the core improv principles.

Facilitators, like improv performers, can practice and hone these improv skills.

Improv Skills for Facilitators

Accepting offers
Improvisers practice together and perform together. They can create memorable scenes in the moment because of one basic principle – they make offers to each other and accept all offers. They don’t prejudge, analyse or block. They say, ‘yes!’ An improv group can spontaneously develop a complex story on stage because they accept all offers – they don’t block each other, or stop to determine what might be the best way to proceed. They build on the offer, sometimes (OK, often) making mistakes, and accepting new offers. The story, and the meaning emerges from the action.

Facilitation application
Consider everything that happens when you’re facilitating as an offer. The data projecter hasn’t arrived. See it as an offer. Someone challenges the process you’re using. See it as an offer. Someone else is cynical, or angry, or withdrawn. See them all as offers. Try it and see how it changes your perspective. See what opportunities open up.

Be present
To receive an offer we need to be present – not just physically, but with all our senses. Attentive, alert, listening, feeling – being present for the group – not thinking about what we should have done, or will be doing next, but being present right here and now. Improv players have to be constantly alert to the offers of their companions. They practice listening to several people simultaneously while also taking in their surroundings and being aware of where everyone, and every thing, is on stage – which is even harder when all the props are imaginary!

Facilitation application
Be fully and completely present for the group. It shows, and they will notice. Practice listening attentively while observing with your peripheral vision. Be aware of who and what is in the room. Use all of the available space.

Do something
Improvisers often start an action without knowing what it is or where it will take them. Spontaneity is not about thinking quickly. Improv’s power lies in the physical rather than verbal spontaneity. Solution lie in actions, not words. Improvisers know to do something, anything – as long as it’s active, and to start anywhere, – as long as it’s active.

Facilitation application
When in doubt, do something. Start anywhere, but do something. Stop thinking. Stop analysing. Use your body. Move around. Get a different perspective. Ask the group to stand and to move. Meaning emerges from action – and stay alert to offers.

Be average
Keith Johnstone, the modern ‘father’ of improv, suggests that most people block themselves – they self censor. They think their first idea is not good enough, clever enough, original enough.

Facilitation application
Say yes to yourself, as well as others. Don’t try and be clever, or funny, or anything – just do something and start anywhere with the first thing that comes to mind – then build on it. No-one will know that you didn’t have a plan!

Make mistakes
Improv players celebrate failure. They acknowledge what didn’t work and move on. This is one way of remaining present. If you are dwelling on something that didn’t work in the last scene, you are not fully present for what is happening now. And growth comes from taking risks – and taking risks means that some things won’t work.

Facilitation application
Acknowledge and celebrate failure – to yourself and others. Take a bow. And do something else. Take risks – try something new.

Let go
When improv players are relying on each other and accepting offers, there’s no way of knowing where something will end up. They have to trust themselves and the group, and let go of preconceived ideas of where something will end up.

Facilitation application
Trust yourself. Trust the wisdom of the group. Trust your knowledge of, and skills with, process. Provide a process as a support for the group’s content – and then let them get on with the work they have to do. Be comfortable with uncertainty – and believe that meaning emerges.

How to practice being more spontaneous
o Join an improv group.
o Form your own improv group and perform whenever you can.
o Play improv games with family and friends. You can find improv games on the web at and Or there are many good books. For starters try these: Izzy Gesell (1997) Playing Along, Whole Person Associates, Duluth, MN; Kat Koppett (2001) Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning, Stylus, Sterling, Virginia.
o Play improv games with other facilitators – keeping in mind that the games are to develop your own skills as a facilitator. In some cases the games themselves might be useful to use with a client group – as long as you are clear about the intention and include a debrief so that everyone understands the point of the game.
o Practice on your own – accept offers, and be aware of blocking yourself or others; be present, even while travelling on public transport, for example, you can practice attentiveness; when you are stuck, do something, and reflect on the effect it had and where it took you.
o Improvise a meal. Don’t plan anything. Use your own skills and whatever resources you can find and see what emerges.
o Practice being spontaneous when you are facilitating. Be aware of how you felt, what you did, what existing skills and knowledge you drew on, the effect on the group. Remember this is “secret facilitators’ business” – there’s no need to tell your group that you are improvising.

Other uses of Improv for Facilitators
By all means research your group, know their objectives, prepare yourself, the space, materials you may need. But don’t be too attached to your plan. Try facilitating without a plan, taking into account the improv principles discussed here. Try it, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself, and delight the group with your spontaneity!

It’s important to remember that our role is to facilitate objectives – not to show how clever we are or how many activities we know. It’s not about us – it’s about the participants. As well as influencing our own practice of facilitating, improv activities can be used to make sense and explore abstract concepts.

Games and activities are a means to an end – not the end in itself. What is important is to know what end you’re aiming for – what behavioural change or shift you want – then the selection of activities becomes easy. Every activity, or game, is just an excuse to debrief and learn.

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