10 Tips for Facilitating Groups – And Why School Holidays are like Boot Camp for Your Facilitation Skills

Sociometry was recently asked to attend a public meeting called to discuss potential changes to a public space with outstanding potential. My role was to observe the group facilitator. I was conducting a quality assurance review of a community consultation process. Around that time, I’d had a discussion with my two teenage girls about some of their plans for the Australian summer school holidays, and I was struck by the overlap in communication skills required for success in these two very different domains.

My review was a gap assessment of the consultation planning and preparation against the quality assurance standards of the International Association of Public Participation in Australasia.

together we identified some oversights and some opportunities to improve the execution of the plan. But in truth, the engagement was reasonably well-planned for the context. The conversation quickly turned to the facilitation of group processes.

I believe published standards can only get you so far in such a coaching conversation because group facilitation is a craft. This is particularly true when practising developmental facilitation – where groups learn ways to help each individual and the group as a whole to engage with its own will.  I have managed community consultations projects where a community working group or reference panels have needed a facilitator’s intervention to identify and address dysfunctional behaviours.

So to assist my colleague with his practice, I went back to my university studies in group processes and (with acknowledgement to my university facilitation trainer Dr Dede Bonner, to Dr Roger Schwarz, and older heads that have coached me), I put together a cheat sheet of basic facilitation skills. It might be a useful checklist for running meetings with your team or facilitating stakeholder workshops. Or even problem-solving with teenagers.

#1 Capture ideas in people’s own words

Whatever the method of capture, the key is using people’s own words. This validates the participant’s offering and you’ll often see body language as they relax knowing the point has been made. Avoid listening to someone and using your own interpretation. For example, avoid responding with “Did you mean to say…” or “I’ve summarised what you said as…”. Use people’s own words and seek endorsement before moving on to the next point.

How not to do it with teenagers: These school holidays, try summarising or finessing what your teenager has just told you and watch them switch-off.

#2 Encourage participation

We’ve all had groups that were initially quiet. My approach is to plan approaches that encourage people to participate and to speak their mind – often in safe, small groups. Presentations, whole group discussions, speaker panels, and questions from the floor of a town hall meeting – all tend to discourage participation in favour of just a few people. These techniques privilege these voices for reasons other than the merit of their ideas. Plan for paired or small group discussions, walking and talking, using tactile objects and pictures to encourage the less articulate to make a point.  If you can’t avoid large group discussions, then take care not to single out someone.

How not to do it with teenagers: Next time your teenager has friends around and you’ve asked “what’s new?” and have gotten no real response, try singling out one kid with a direct question and watch them squirm. 

#3 Be comfortable with silence

Acknowledge your own discomfort and create voids into which people can speak. Stop filling the silences with more talk. A useful rule of thumb is to allow at least five seconds of silence when asking a question.

How not to do it with teenagers: Many parents say they can best connect with their teenagers in a car. To understand how a facilitated group can feel, pepper your teenager with questions when captive in the car and time how long it is before they turn up the radio.

#4 Make workshop process instructions brief and clear

Over-instruction can kill enthusiasm – especially when people can see you have visual or tactile materials ready. Long introductions can raise anxiety about an activity. So take care not to promote over-thinking about an activity designed to allow people to learn by doing. Keep instructions short and to the point – you can always clarify by walking the room during the activity.

How not to do it with teenagers: Give your teenager your unlocked phone and ask her to check if its operating system needs updating, then (in your head) start to explain how to do that. See who finishes first. See what I mean?

#5 Transfer skills to the group

The goal of a developmental facilitator is to encourage a group to operate with increasing autonomy as it moves forward in its work. Groups of citizens, especially those operating over a short period of time or deliberating complex issues, may always need a facilitator. But by being explicit about group-work techniques, a facilitator can empower a group to develop its own capacity in group relations.  

How not to do it with teenagers: Imagine your teenager talks to you about a member of their peer group that tends to be domineering and monopolises conversation in the peer group. If you counsel your teenager to avoid this person or enlist the authority of a teacher or other supervisor to intervene, they might miss an opportunity to develop group-work skills. Alternatively, you could suggest to them ways to manage the interruptions,  for example, by:  acknowledging the person for making a key point and then quickly moving on to a new topic; using of hand signal and body language to recognise others trying to contribute to the discussion; and/or asking for the input of those that haven’t yet spoken.

#6 Avoid leading the group

Facilitators are human. We have opinions. We have ideas. But it’s not the developmental facilitator’s job to lead the group in any particular direction. There’s a long discussion to be had about ethics and understanding group context, but the simple, practical tip is to keep questions open-ended and broad.

How not to do it with teenagers: Parents have a difficult job. One one hand, we want our kids to make the best choices and benefit from our experience. On the other, we want them to grow, develop independence and self-esteem by solving their own problems more often. And anyway, they often see problems and solutions very differently to us. Conduct an experiment: one day during school holidays, approach your teenager while they’re still in bed and suggest a menu of activities “so they don’t waste all day on Netflix”. The next day (if you’re still speaking), wait until they’ve emerged and had breakfast, and then ask what plans they have for the day. Compare and contrast! 

#7 Set the context

At the outset of a group process, share control and seek authority by letting people know why they are there, what they will be doing, why it’s important and when it will be finished. Role Expectation Theory tells us people are more likely to perform a role well if the expectations of them are made explicit. Demonstrate you’ve kept to your end of the bargain by checking progress against meeting objectives and finish on time.

How not to do it with teenagers: Spring a surprise city or bush walk on your teenager. Don’t tell them where they are going or what they’ll need or why you want them along. Just when you get there, turn around and come back to do something else.

#8 Create a safe and welcoming space

The space available for group-work affects mood and enthusiasm. Move the furniture to create a welcoming space. Make sure people are comfortable, able to face others when they need to and are able to move around. Make sure the facilitator can move around and use body language to control the tempo of the meeting. A welcoming space is not just physical, it’s also about the way the facilitator engages with the group, building trust and confidence.

How not to do it with teenagers: How many of us have fallen into the trap of trying to have a challenging conversation with our teenagers as a meal is prepared, just because they’re around and semi-captive? If they feel hungry, it’s rare to get a quality discussion happening. Avoiding eye contact has its place in difficult conversations, but trying to communicate across the length of a room is unlikely to be productive.

#9 Take care with time and energy

An important part of the facilitator’s contract is to finish on time. Adjust your session plan as necessary to do this. Be aware of energy levels within the group and pick up the pace at signs of boredom, frustration or low energy. Slow down to promote productive discussion or if the group’s thoughtful participants go quiet.

How not to do it with teenagers: I often have two part conversations with one of my daughters. In the first part, she brings up a topic and is super-interested in a brief explanation and any real-life experiences I can relate quickly. The second part is characterised by a distracted air, impatient body language and clues that her energy levels are falling quicker than my self-esteem as I realise (again) that my backgrounding on social justice issues is just a bit boring to the average teenager.

#10 Take care of yourself

It’s hard work facilitating and you need to take care of yourself. It can be tiring and take a lot of effort to hold a group of people as they tackle issues, explore ideas or struggle with decisions. Regularly invest time to evaluate a session, reflect on the limitations of your role and what helps with your own self-care. During group-work sessions, monitor your own energy/anxiety levels and have go-to tactics (including breaks) when those levels are triggered.

How not to do it with teenagers: At work you will normally have a good sense of your own self-worth and what’s unfair or unhealthy workplace behaviour. But if you’re like most mums and dads, you need to be told that you’re of value and that it’s okay to take time to take care of yourself. Test yourself: when was the last time you gave yourself quiet time for self-reflection, wrote a journal about your relationship with your teenager, spent time in nature, or tried a new hobby? Sometimes practising self-care means asking other adults for help. So don’t be afraid to ask your spouse to give you a break one night a week while you take a yoga class, or ask a neighbour or friend to take a walk with you each evening.

Which brings us back to the IAP2 public participation quality assurance standards as a tool for reflection and continuous improvement and my review of a colleague. Consultation monitoring and evaluation processes are most useful when the process is valued as important to organisational learning and when practitioners can turn to colleagues for support to improve their practice.  We public participation practitioners should conduct more peer reviews.

Whatever your level of experience with group facilitation at your workplace, if you have a teenager at home or have cause to be around them these school holidays, I urge you to take time to notice your mistakes and perhaps experiment with some of these 10 practice tips. My daughters regularly tell me my parenting skills need work, so any of your learnings that you are prepared to share will be much appreciated!

Daniel Marsh, Principal Sociometry