Join 28,000+ readers for design news, cool links, and updates from Jake & JZ every... once in a while.

Thanks! We'll take a look at your information and write back soon.
Oops! Please try submitting the form again. If it doesn't work, email john@zeratsky.com

How to Be a Great Facilitator

Hint: It's mostly about humility

Be the smartest person in the room. Know the business like the back of your hand. Guarantee a great outcome. Oh, and don’t break from the script.

Follow those steps every time and I can promise you’ll feel… terrible.

These are common mistakes I made when I first started leading groups. I put way too much pressure on myself to have all the answers before finally realizing that I was missing the point completely. Your job as a facilitator isn’t to show off with your knowledge of the business; it’s to drive people through a process that lands on a desired outcome.

When I started making some basic changes and asserting myself in a different capacity, everything shifted. And while I’ve always had a leader personality, I can honestly say that a few learnings have completely transformed the way I facilitate today.

You don’t have to know everything

What a relief! When I first started facilitating I felt like it was my job to know everything about each client’s business and problem space. Now, I’ve learned that it’s more important to be unbiased and open as a facilitator than it is to have a deep understanding of all aspects of the business. Of course, I still do my homework and familiarize myself with the problem space before working with the team, but the real value a facilitator provides is in unearthing knowledge and ideas from the people in the room. It’s up to you to drive clarity in a way that allows the team to rally around the work, a concrete idea, or an important decision.

Here’s an example: Each industry I work in has myriad acronyms. Could I spend hours learning company jargon on top of preparing my agenda and materials for the session? Sure, just give me 20 more work hours every week. Instead, I exercise humility and simply ask in real time what an acronym means. This not only clarifies the definition for me, but also potentially frees other participants from feeling insecure about not understanding the same jargon.

Another example: Once I was in a meeting and asked a duo to use mad libs and drawings to break down exactly what it was they were making. After we pinned their answers to the wall we realized they had two completely different ideas. The team members weren’t at all aligned, but they were more afraid of sounding dumb or offending the other person than spinning out on the problem for months (or longer!).

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek clarity. You don’t need to be an expert about every industry you work in. Freeing yourself from that mentality will allow you to take your seat as a facilitator.

Know your role

As the facilitator, you are responsible for guiding the team. That’s why you were hired. Show up by being prepared. Have your agenda set. Intentionally guide the team through a series of methods — the Design Sprint is a wonderful, reliable formula to follow. It’s also your job to manage expectations so people know what they’re committing to (is the session multiple hours, or multiple days?). Finally, stay true to your agenda, call audibles when you need to, and intervene when participants try to monopolize the room, which leads me to my next tip…

Read the room

Being a facilitator requires a lot of empathy. I’ve picked up a few things over the years that feel absolutely critical now, including:

  • Make sure people feel heard. Always acknowledge their thoughts and never shut them down. If it’s not an appropriate time to have a conversation, politely let them know the group needs to move on. I also love the “parking lot” tool, where capturing their thought is just a matter of writing it on the wall without even really needing to come back to it if it’s not necessary. The key is to validate every individual so they feel empowered to participate and work collaboratively toward a solution.
  • Make sure everyone contributes. If you notice people are shy or are holding back, call on them. If you know there’s a strong personality or power dynamic in the room, call on that person last. Make sure to use exercises where everyone in the group is required to share. I also love doing activities that maintain anonymity. For example, I’ll have participants email their sketches anonymously before sharing with the group so the room isn’t swayed by WHO the idea came from. This can help manage internal team politics, and give equal weight to all ideas.
  • Make it a point to diffuse “bad vibes.” Sometimes a member(s) of the group may not be jibing with the others. Whether they’re energetically shrinking or seem angsty, it’s important to give them space to speak up, or call an audible and pull that person aside privately to ask a few prodding questions (“Tell me more…,” or “What do you mean by…”). Doing this helps everyone feels seen, included, and can sometimes reveal a kernel of insight that the broader group needs to address.

Practice patience

Trusting the process is critical to holding your own. If you’re facilitating a Design Sprint, you’ve got a proven, formulaic method to follow. If you’re designing your own agenda, you need to trust that you have designed a smart workshop that’s going to create a good outcome. The beautiful part of either of these approaches is that you can plan for things to meander a bit. Maybe you want the group to take a moment to do something unexpected, or have a sidebar conversation, or spend more time on something than originally anticipated. Those are good things! And following these avenues is not helpless — as the facilitator, you are making a deliberate choice to detour because it’s in the best interests of the group.

It’s common to want to know where you’re headed and when you’ll get there. The reality is, with this type of work you don’t necessarily know what you’re making when you walk into the room, but you do have an outcome you’re hoping to find. Get comfortable with finding out, not figuring out. It allows you to open up to the journey rather than forcing a certain route.

Get funcomfortable

It sounds cheesy, but regularly doing activities outside of your facilitator work that push and encourage you to get a bit uncomfortable will only help your journey as a leader.

I actually took an improv class early on. It taught me how to be nimble, present, and supportive of what all the “actors” in the room had to offer.

I also trained and taught as a yoga teacher for a number of years, which was so helpful in learning how to articulate clearly and inclusively. It was an excellent guide for cultivating empathy and mindfulness, which translates to knowing when a participant needs some grounding, or if the group is losing steam and needs an energizing activity.

Learning skills outside of your traditional trade delivers a healthy dose of humility, and will make you a more well-rounded and talented facilitator.

More advice, tips, and lessons

©2016–2021 Jake KnappJohn Zeratsky
This page may contain affiliate links. If you click one of these links and buy something, we may receive a small referral fee. This won’t affect the price you pay, and it didn’t influence our decisions about what we recommend here.