Collaboration is an imperative skill in any workforce. However, being able to facilitate groups toward successful collaboration, is a skill that can make you a superstar in any organization.
Whether you are organizing business strategy or an office potluck (remember those before the pandemic?), helping teammates communicate effectively and reach consensus with one another can be difficult, but also immensely rewarding.
Each facilitated activity is different and may require its own set of “rules” for success, however, I’ve found that the tips below are helpful — regardless of how simple or complex your activity may be.
So, here are 5 Dos and 5 Don’ts to consider the next time you find yourself in the seat of the facilitator.
The 5 Dos for effective collaboration
1. Model the behavior you want
Group members will mimic the behavior of other members in the group, especially the facilitator. If you’re acting like the activity is a chore, then the group will believe it’s not worth their time. However, if you’re bringing positive energy and engagement to the work, you’ll see the energy of the group change in response. Be mindful of the belonging cues you’re sending out. Everything from your expressions, eye contact, body posture, energy, and most importantly, the language you’re using. These cues demonstrate to the group how they should engage with one another.
Note: If you're collaborating remotely, turning on your camera is important for facilitation. The group needs to see that you’re attentive and engaged. Again, many will follow your lead. If you have a group that’s resistant to turning on their cameras, turn yours on. You may be surprised to see others follow your lead.
2. Create clarity
The primary role of the facilitator is to help the group find clarity. This can be achieved by simply being curious and inquisitive.
Examples: “Susan, can you tell us more about that?” or “Jeff, it looks like you want to jump in here, do you have something to add?”
You want to be constantly engaging group members, watching their body language, and helping them clarify their thoughts, so each member is heard and understood. This achieves two important things: First, it helps the group understand each other — of course — and second, it fosters trust between you and your group members.
3. Be inclusive
As a facilitator, it’s your job to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to contribute. But here’s the thing to remember: each person contributes in their own way. Great facilitators are attentive to each group member. They’re empathetic and don’t treat facilitation as a “one size fits all” strategy. If you have members in the group that are shy or quiet, it may just mean that their style of collaboration isn’t to just “jump in and start talking”. Consider providing multiple ways to contribute to the discussion.
For example: Having them type comments in a chat window (or writing them on Post-Its), or taking turns to comment, or pairing up in smaller groups. All of these strategies can help less-vocal members contribute.
Also, be considerate of group dynamics and hierarchy. Appreciate how those forces may be affecting a member’s willingness to speak freely. A junior employee may need support and advocacy if she’s going to speak up in a meeting full of her superiors. In those situations, a great facilitator can be a powerful ally.
4. Be positive
This may seem self-explanatory, but the facilitator must maintain the voice of positivity within the group. As a facilitator, you’re looking to remove tension, not add to it. Constantly reminding the group that they’re running out of time or that they’re off track doesn’t help. It adds anxiety and makes facilitation more about your need to control the group, rather than helping the group work effectively with one another.
Your tone should always be supportive and encouraging. If you have someone in the group that’s combative, do what my father-in-law always says, “You gotta kill ’em with kindness.” While difficult group members can be a chore, they can also be a fantastic opportunity for you to model positive, collaborative, behavior to the rest of the group. (More on how to deal with difficult group members below).
Remember: The quickest way to show that you’ve lost control of your group, is by losing your cool.
5. Have fun!
Listen. I get it. Work is important and we’re all trying to achieve serious things. But I just don’t understand how we’ve convinced ourselves that work should be completely devoid of fun.
Great facilitators find small ways to interject fun into any activity. Perhaps it’s sharing a quick story of something embarrassing that happened to you this morning (also, you’re modeling vulnerability to the rest of the group. Double win!).
Or maybe you can try asking everyone about their latest Netflix binge or what new song they’re obsessed with (then play that song during the next activity). You don’t have to put on a comedy routine, but adding a bit of levity can go a long way when group members are tired or anxious.
5 pitfalls to avoid for effective collaboration
1. Don’t be afraid to lead
You may have come to this list because you’ve been asked to facilitate a group activity for the first time. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit of imposter syndrome and you’re unsure of asserting yourself as the lead of the group.
You may be tempted to be agreeable and passive, ensuring that you don’t come off bossy or controlling. That’s not a good strategy.
Your job as a facilitator is to lead, so feel comfortable in that role and take charge where needed.
If the group is off track, jump in and assert yourself — gently steering them back to the activity.
Example: “I really like the energy around this discussion, but I want us to return to the question we’re trying to answer here: <restate question>.” A statement like this redirects the group’s energy, in a positive way, and re-asserts your role as the group’s organizer.
2. Don’t pretend to have all the answers
Don’t fall into the false belief that, as the facilitator, you have to have an answer to every question that comes your way. That’s just not possible.
One of the downsides of being a great facilitator is that the group may often put you in the role of mediator or “judge.”
“I have a question,” someone clever might ask, “do you think it’s a good idea to keep pursuing this strategy, if we don’t have all the information?”
Don’t take the bait. Instead, use it as an opportunity to re-engage the group.
“That’s an important question! What does the group think?”
Your goal as a facilitator is not to have all the answers, it’s to help the group find their own answers.
3. Don’t do all the talking
You may be tempted to talk your way through a group who’s quietly struggling. Do your best to avoid this.
Awkward silence can be brutal, but it may also be necessary.
Sometimes the best thing a facilitator can do is let the group rest in the silence. If the group isn’t talking, it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged, they’re confused, or that they don’t care — it could just mean that they’re processing their thoughts.
Throughout the activity, be mindful of your talking-to-listening ratio and make sure that it trends more toward listening.
4. Don’t seek consensus on everything
Not every decision needs to be reached by consensus. Especially decisions around how the group should organize themselves for the activity or how the work should be delivered. Where you can, do that work upfront and save your group’s “consensus energy” for the decisions that matter.
For the smaller decisions, go for the presumptive close and move on.
Example: “There seems to be a lot of interest in option A, so let’s start with that one.”
5. Don’t ignore non-inclusive behaviors
The most common situation I’ve mentored other facilitators on is the dreaded “difficult group member”. We know these group members all too well. They might talk over other group members, they roll their eyes at others’ suggestions, act aggressive, or pout when they don’t get their way.
Fear of having to deal with bullies is the number 1 reason most people avoid opportunities to facilitate groups. But they shouldn’t. There’s a lot of info and great strategies to help you deal with these difficult collaborators. If you’re looking for a really good resource, I’d recommend The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. It’s one of my favorites.
Bottomline, the best approach is to have a few tools ready should a situation arise. In my experience, the worst thing you can do is just ignore the behavior, hoping it’ll go away (spoiler: It won’t).
How to manage non-inclusive behaviors
Take note and keep moving: If you have a group member that is insistent on making a point that is tangential to the work being done, the best strategy is to just acknowledge it and move on. Example: “That’s a really good point, but I want to move us back to the activity. I’ll make note of it over here (demonstrate that you’re capturing the idea), and if there’s time we should definitely return to it.”
Redirect: If a group member seems fixated on one idea, give them an opportunity to generate an opinion on something else. Example: “I really like your idea on this. I’m curious though, what are your thoughts on <the thing you want them to focus on>? Do you have something else we should be considering here?”
Draw others into the conversation: If one person has held the spotlight for too long, feel free to move it to someone else. Example: “Anyone have thoughts on what he’s saying here? Is there anything else we should be thinking about? Tom, I noticed you got cut off earlier, did you have something to add?”
Make connections: One of the most powerful tools I use as a facilitator is having the freedom to say what others might not be able to say themselves. A great way to do this is by making connections between other group members. Stating the differences in opinions you’re hearing can help nudge the conversation in a healthy direction. Example: “That’s a really interesting point Mike, but I feel like I’m hearing something different from Teressa. Teressa, do we have another thought on this that I should be considering?” Note: Notice the use of I and we here. I’m using myself and the group as a proxy between Mike and Teressa, helping diffuse any tensions while creating clarity between them.
Just like any other skill, facilitating takes practice. While this list can help you focus on the right behaviors, be sure to give yourself patience and space to master them.
Regardless of your aspirations as a facilitator, one thing is for sure. The world needs more people willing to invest in tools that help us collaborate with one another.