What is a Facilitator? Essential Skills for Effective Facilitation

We are all feeling it: the pressure to build smart, innovative organizations. How do leaders and their organizations craft a learning organization? By creating safe and involving environments where people can identify and solve problems, plan together, make collaborative decisions, resolve their own conflicts and self-manage as responsible adults. Facilitative mind and skill sets are essential ingredients to making real a learning organization.

What is a facilitator?

The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. They create an environment where everyone is encouraged to participate, understand one another’s point of view and share responsibility. In doing so, a group facilitator helps members look for elegant solutions and build sustainable agreements.

Some groups have little need for this kind of help. For example, those whose meetings are largely information sharing, announcements and reports. Or groups who meet regularly for routine decisions about standard problems like scheduling. Those kinds of issues can be handled without much need for meeting facilitation.

What about more difficult challenges groups face? For example, a product-launching group consisting of design, marketing, manufacturing and customer service. Despite a common goal of increased sales, their frames of reference are very different. What seems reasonable to one may place too many demands on another. And interpersonal communication styles are likely to be quite different as well. What’s the likelihood that the group will survive the push-pull of their group work?

Groups face other issues as well including clarifying roles for projects that have not been done before, resolving high-stakes conflicts, etc. In situations like these, groups will make better decisions if they embrace a facilitative mind and skill set to support them to do their best thinking. This is often accomplished by preparing a facilitator guide to help the meeting leader when facilitating a meeting and by applying fundamental group facilitation skills.

To what extent does a facilitative mind set exist in YOUR organization?

Trainer vs. Facilitator...what’s the difference?

Training and facilitating are two different activities. They require some of the same skills, and some different skills. A trainer is often a content expert, while a facilitator is a process expert. A trainer uses lecture, conducts demonstrations, supervises skill practice, and corrects the learners’ mistakes. A meeting facilitator leads discussions and helps participants learn from their own experiences and shared information. The trainer might lead a discussion about course content; a facilitator will focus more on the process of a discussion. Facilitation skills training often includes training skills.

Here are some of the common differences between a trainer/instructor and a facilitator:

Focus is on…

  • Trainer/Instructor: What is discussed – to get the work of the group done
  • Facilitator: How the discussion progresses – to hold the group together and foster ownership

Attention is on…

  • Trainer/Instructor: content and task, objective/purpose, result/outcome
  • Facilitator: methods and process, participation of all, group dynamics

Knowledge needed includes…

  • Trainer/Instructor: Subject matter expertise
  • Facilitator: Group dynamics expertise

Competencies include…


  1. Prepares for instruction
  2. Sets a learning environment
  3. Uses adult learning principles
  4. Uses lecture
  5. Conducts discussions
  6. Conducts learning activities, demonstrations, skill practice, etc.
  7. Gives feedback to learners
  8. Handles problem learners
  9. Evaluates skill performance
  10. Uses audiovisuals


  1.  Plan meetings using an agenda
  2.  Set a productive climate and begins a discussion
  3.  Gets the group to focus on defining and reaching outcomes
  4.  Helps group communicate effectively
  5.  Supports and encourages participation
  6.  Fosters self-discovery of alternatives and solutions
  7.  Helps the group make decisions
  8.  Helps select a team leader
  9.  Handles disruptive participants effectively excluded from the group

Which of these two roles do YOU play more frequently in your organization: team facilitator or team trainer?

Facilitation skills: What every facilitator must do…and not do!

Although facilitator jobs vary in focus, there are ten key facilitation techniques all skilled facilitators use to manage the group process:

  1. Initiate, propose and make suggestions
  2. Divide participants into subgroups
  3. Use questioning to draw people out, elicit information and opinions
  4. Use silence to make space
  5. Keep track of multiple topics and build on the ideas of others
  6. Use flip charting to generate additional discussion and record ideas
  7. Listen for common themes, bar irrelevant details and redirect discussion
  8. Organize the sequence of speakers
  9. Paraphrase to clarify or show understanding
  10. Have group members relate specific examples to a general idea or make a summary

How many of these skills do you use when facilitating meetings? Which could you add to make your group facilitation more effective?

There are some things skilled facilitators expressly do not do when facilitating meetings. Consider the negative impact on your group and the process if you, as the facilitator …

  • act as the technical expert
  • train
  • drive the agenda
  • act as the scribe
  • impose your personality on the group
  • own the group’s ideas or outcomes
  • give unsolicited opinions
  • make a presentation

Avoiding these mistakes should be part of any group facilitation training.

Be a better facilitator: facilitate meetings and discussions with impact!

A discussion is primarily an exchange of opinions and feelings, and of facts secondarily. Successful discussions include listening to others. Since opinions are neither right nor wrong, facilitator training must include practice of process whereby the facilitator encourages everyone to contribute to the discussion. The role of a facilitator is to come to a discussion prepared, knowing what kinds of questions to ask to elicit the desired outcomes.

Learning through discussion takes place when participants are made to think. Your team facilitation discussions will be more successful when you use the following steps:

Step 1: Set up the discussion by telling the participants the objective of the discussion, what they are going to talk about, and how the discussion will be conducted.

Step 2: Facilitate the discussion by asking questions and evaluating responses to build to a learning point. Help participants to summarize the main points of the discussion.

Step 3: Have participants share and interpret their reactions to what was discussed by answering facilitator questions about what happened to themselves and to others during the discussion.

Step 4: Ask participants to identify concepts from the discussion by answering facilitator questions crafted to elicit what was learned and the extent to which the meeting objectives were met.

Step 5: Ask participants to apply what was learned during the discussion by answering facilitator questions designed to help them use and apply the new information learned from the discussion to their own situations.

During a discussion, it is not appropriate for you as a facilitator to act as the technical expert if the content of the discussion is meant to come from the participants; so refrain from making a presentation. Also, do not offer your unsolicited opinions. Outcomes from a discussion are the product of the group’s thinking. The facilitator’s fingerprints should not be on the results.

How do you stay out of the discussion and stay IN the role of facilitator?

Make your facilitation count!

Skilled facilitators call upon a wide range of skills and techniques to help a group understand their common objectives and assist them to achieve them. They are experts on, and champions of, process not content. Each group facilitator will express a personal style and approach. It is that unique approach, the authenticity of it, that makes a facilitator’s contribution possible.

Melissa Smith and Maria Chilcote, Managing Partners, The Training Clinic

For more information contact The Training Clinic at

info@thetrainingclinic.com or www.thetrainingclinic.com