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Facilitating groups and how to do it better!

Working with and in groups can be the most exciting and sometimes the most scary and challenging work. If you facilitate a group and want to do it better or realise just how well, you are doing; then this is the blog for you.

Facilitating teams is something that I have been doing for most of my working life,

when working for the Probation service, as a Director in the Health Service, training as a psychotherapist, and latterly as a Consultant in Organisational Development and change. I am referring to any size of group that contains more than 2 people. Some of this is very practical, most is grounded in experience and some is a little bit of magic I’ve picked up over time.

Facilitation is about helping others to take responsibility for learning, for outcomes, for processes, for group dynamics. It is aimed at assisting people own their own learning which is, I’m sure you agree, is how learning sticks! The facilitator needs to remain neutral and avoids taking a particular position during discussion. The group may seek clarification on specific topics or facts, but the aim of the facilitator is to encourage the group to make their own decisions and judgements.

Facilitation isn’t passive, however, and whilst we need to be able to think on our feet and flex during activities and events, we need to have a clear idea of what we are aiming at and be well prepared. Musicians can only innovate when they have mastered and honed their technical skills. Facilitation takes work and practice too! You might have a PowerPoint presentation up your sleeve but just reading it from a screen isn’t facilitation.

Each time a group of people come together the experience itself is unique for all concerned. The group process itself has a pattern to it; what I call a wave of being. The interpersonal dynamics of the group and the relationships that exist in the group are quite unique and cannot ever be replicated, we create themes and patterns, scripts and stories, but we can never predict or experience the same detail.

Some of the key qualities of a facilitator are:

  • Openness including being open to learning during workshops

  • An understanding of group dynamics

  • Flexibility

  • Love of the work, good facilitators enjoy the process, I believe the group can feel this spirit

  • Being positive, a sense of humour and not afraid to play

  • Being a good listener

  • Grounded

  • Deeply respectful of groups and the group process.

When you are asked to facilitate a group, let’s think about some of what you need. I’ve presented a number of topics below and provided brief information on each. Each of these topics is useful but the key to being a good facilitator is; being interested and being present at all times. The key topics I offer for consideration are: Preparing yourself; Preparation; Contracting and ground rules; Flexibility in the process; Write outcomes up; Feedback. Brief information is presented below whilst greater detail about each will be presented in subsequent blogs.

Preparing yourself

Practice what you are going to say and, for some of us, rehearsal is everything. Some of us prefer a looser and more flexible approach. Whatever your approach, make sure that you know your ground. If you are nervous, there are lots of Ted talks and self-help books to help you calm your nerves, remember nerves are there to help you know that it’s an important event, use them as a resource.

Actors talk about stage fright, Laurence Oliver dubbed stage fright “the actor’s nightmare”

Barbra Striesand’s 27-year hiatus caused her drying up mid song in front of 135,000 people in New York’s Central Park in 1967. According to Matt Trueman, Guardian September 2012 Its not just actors, musicians are susceptible. In 1986 survey 27% of orchestra players admitted to taking beta blockers to combat its effects.

I am not saying that facilitating a large group is quite the same as Barbra Striesland in Central park, but I have felt visceral stage fright when facilitating over 200 stakeholders at a mental health conference event.

To focus, practice this technique. Find something in your vision at the height of your eyesight a few feet away then focus on that spot and centre yourself. When you are fully focussed, use your peripheral vision to go as far out from the central point as you can until you think you can almost see behind yourself. Stay in this mode for a minute or two before coming back into the room.

Take care that you don’t end up trying to do everything including making the tea and arranging the signing in and or you will get a headache. Depending on the group itself you may want to assign some tasks to assist you in let’s say for example… assigning a time keeper, sharing the scribing work and a prompter who can help you and the group keep to its purpose and script.

Find yourself a supervisor to help you develop and bounce ideas off, be hungry for experience and learning and certainly at the start of your career running groups, write a learning and reflection log, seek feedback from learners (structured and otherwise).


Make sure you have joining instructions and people know where they are supposed to come to. At the start make sure that everybody is in the right place. Make sure the room is big enough, if it’s possible there’s an OK temperature. I usually assign a temperature monitor in a humorous way who can take responsibility as the regulator who checks with the group.

A top tip is to have an idea of the timings of your group. How do you plan to engage your learners emotionally and what do you want them to learn? Does it really matter if you cover everything? Maybe think at the outset what is a must to do and what you can leave till next time or indeed cover in a different way. Some groups require more structure than others and it’s important to make good judgements about how much structure is required.

Keep the group up to date with your process and the facilitation process, check to determine if you are going too slow or too fast. Sometimes I plan to cover prepared material, but I may decide not to cover it because the group don’t seem to have the appetite for it, or the dynamic has changed. Sometimes the group becomes interested in something else as the discussion has moved on, or the whole system has shifted and, what we all thought to be important last week, or last time we looked, is not crucial any longer.

Basically, trust in the process, keep an open mind and be prepared to change the plan. Experience and confidence help us here, a lot! If you appear confident, the group will usually go along with what you suggest.

Contract and ground rules

I can’t stress the concept of contracting and setting ground rules enough. I work in the NHS a lot so a good one is “What is said in the room stays in the room unless it damages patient care”. I usually pre-write them and stick them on the wall and ask what people want to add and add as I go along. Some facilitators prefer to let the group originate the ground rules and this works well too.

Set the timings in the ground rules. Ask permission from the group that the facilitator keeps the group to time, thus apologies in advance if it looks like you are cutting anybody short, it is not personal, it is keeping the group to time so that you can finish on time and get through the material planned. I’ll deal with tips on dealing with latecomers in another blog.

If you become irritated that people are late, keep it to yourself or, better still, let it go. The group is likely to sense your mood so try keep negative emotions in check and keep them contained. This is one of the most important pieces of advice I constantly give myself, if I’m pissed off, the group will know it, if I am treating everybody with respect then the group will recognise that too. Remember you are OK, and everybody is the group is OK. This relates to many aspects of the group process; lateness is just an example.

Flexibility in the process

Tune in to the energy in the room, if the group seems disconnected and getting tired and sleepy, then you need to change tack. Rather than just ploughing on and doing exactly what you planned, why not trust in the process? You can ask the group if they would like to do something different, maybe a different exercise or cover different material, maybe you are labouring a point too much, maybe the group needs to move, change the energy and get them to stand up stretch, or break the group up and do some work in pairs. The group, just like all things in life, can become a bit stuck. As facilitator it’s your job to use that stuck feeling and put your whole self into connecting with it and deciding what to do with it.

Every time a group gets stuck there is a lesson behind it, what can we learn? Be brave and use the feeling of what happens.

Sometimes a group you are running or a training session you are facilitating starts to go wrong, somebody walks out, somebody starts a difficult conversation, you get a challenge about you personally or professionally. If somebody gets very upset, maybe ask them what they need, break for a chat to take time for them on a 1-2-1. If the group is getting angry or some people are saying they want something else, well you know the most powerful and up-front thing is to name the issue and ask the group what they would like to do. Remember it’s your group and you can’t just run off. If there are feelings in the group and emotions are high (negative or positive) then talk about the impact it has on you and enquire the impact it has on others. Stay calm not to labour this, but don’t shy away from it either.

Write outcomes up

Go into to running a group with the end in mind. Be clear if there is another meeting or follow up, when that is, what is expected of people and what comes next. Make sure that there is a write up or log of what you have done. Great now that we have smart phones and that we can just take a picture of the flip chart story or peoples notes. Get permission and photograph the story. Even if you feel that you are running out of time, make sure you have a five minute at the end to summarise state, or draw what next….

For me I always finish on time, unless I gain agreement from the group. This helps me pace my energy and keeps my contract with the group. I may give a countdown in time or just say, its time to finish now.


Where possible at all times seek feedback about what you are doing. Ask the group as you progress and, if you are lucky enough to have a co-worker, ask them at the end of the session, three positives about how you worked with the group and three things that you might work on as your “learning edge”. Taking feedback is crucial and remember any feedback that makes you go “ouch” is often more valuable than we realise.

Follow the presupposition that there is “No such thing as failure only feedback” which helps us take a learning approach. Carol Dweck 2018 in her book “Fixed mindset”, talks about a fixed and a ‘Growth mindset”, I don’t have to tell you which mindset attracts success and learning and growth.

Learn how to effectively and respectfully deal with feedback during sessions. Always acknowledge and account for what someone is saying or asking. Aim to take what is being said to a conceptual level to seek agreement and then offer options so someone can make choices about what they wish to believe or what action they want to take.

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