Facilitation for Designers

In July of 2016 I had the honor and pleasure of leading a group of designers through learning and practicing the foundations of facilitation.

It was a “meta” experience for me because I was simultaneously practicing my own budding facilitation skills. I felt nervous but mostly excited. This home-grown workshop was the first of its kind at DesignMap.

Facilitation is an art. So I learned as I prepared for this workshop. I had trouble finding a single definition of “facilitator” that truly captured the multi-dimensionality of this role.

So instead I decided to simply describe what a facilitator is and is not.

The facilitator acts as an organizer of the group's energy and creative resources. They create a container in which the group can feel safe to stretch, play, and fail. They care deeply about group dynamics and the relationships between participants. The outcome of the session is as much about achieving a goal as it is about the participants feeling bonded through a shared experience.

What surprises most people is that a facilitator does not need to be an expert in the subject matter at hand. This is because the participants already hold a wealth of knowledge and experience in the subject. It's the facilitator's job to help bring that wisdom forth by listening carefully, holding silence, and asking questions. Then by shifting the group's energy and attention, balancing participation, and encouraging connections between group members, synergy can be achieved. Synergy magnifies the group's effectiveness by tenfold.

Creating a container in which a group can reach its synergistic potential requires preparation, transparency, and agreement. Most facilitators do some version of these steps.

Define the outcome.

So that participants understand the purpose of their time together. It helps to be specific and flexible to ensure buy-in from the group.

Establish agreements and "ground rules".

So that everyone can orient around a common mindset. Different outcomes require different ways of thinking. This helps the group step into a frame of mind that can unlock the way of thinking that is needed.

Design or select a process.

So that the group's energy and attention can be used efficiently. Time spent together is precious. A solid process can't guarantee a perfect performance, but it provides the stage, lights, and props.

Plan the agenda.

So that the participants are able to complete the whole process. Doing this step helps the facilitator think through the entire session in a realistic manner, taking into account buffer time and breaks. Agendas can be timed down to the minute if necessary.

Set up the space and materials.

So that everyone feels comfortable and has access to the tools they need. Facilitators are sensitive to the ways physical discomfort can affect participants' energy and attention. They work to provide everything the group needs and to remove any variables that might get in the way.

Capture ideas, actions, and decisions.

So that the group's synergistic energy is not lost. Facilitators are aware that their presence is novel. The enthusiasm and hope a group can feel during the session can be easily lost once it's over. Facilitators try to generate momentum and empower the group to launch forth into the future on their own.

Once the container has been established, the participants are primed to work towards their goal. The facilitator's role at this point shifts from an architect to a gardener. They monitor the health of each plant as well as the garden as a whole. They balance the soil and climate, pull weeds when necessary, and remove any obstacles in the way of life's natural desire to bloom.

Reading the room

Facilitators shift the energy of the room towards one that is most conducive to the outcome. I asked one half of the room to remember a time when they felt incredibly bored and disengaged. After a moment, I prompted them to let that boredom show up in their face and body. I asked the other half of the room what they observed. What are the obvious cues? Subtle ones? How does it feel to look at them?

"Energy" is an abstract concept, so I described it as the overall emotional state of a group based on non-verbal signs and cues. As observers, we pick up on those non-verbal cues on both conscious and subconscious levels. This affects our emotions. So in addition to observing visual cues in the other, we can also monitor our own emotions to guess at the non-verbal messaging we are receiving.

Three Levels of Attention

Facilitators move their attention between different levels to gain a holistic view of the situation.

Focused attention is used to listen to a participant's words and watch their body language. It's also needed for writing, speaking and thinking. This type of attention is direct and crisp, and the facilitator is not aware of much else outside of the focus point.

Diffuse attention is used to take stock of the group or environment as a whole. The facilitator opens their view to take in the entire scene. They see the group as a single organism in the context of the space. This type of attention is soft and relaxed, and the facilitator is broadly aware of everyone and everything.

Internal attention is used by the facilitator to manage their reactions, assumptions, and judgements. The facilitator brings their awareness into their own mind and body. They notice their emotions, thoughts, and sensations. This skill allows the facilitator to remain a neutral party by giving them the choice to act or not act based on their conditioned responses.

Participants check in with themselves by directing their attention internally.

Participants check in with themselves by directing their attention internally.

Active Listening & Paraphrasing

Facilitators need to hear and understand what's being said in order to stay attuned with the group. In pairs, I asked participants to simply listen and express non-verbally that they are present and engaged as their partner shared their thoughts. Afterwards, they paraphrased what they heard without judgement or interpretation.

Feeling that we are truly being heard opens our minds to the significance of our own thoughts and ideas. Hearing our reality mirrored back to us by another person forms a sense of understanding and safety. When facilitators listen and paraphrase, they honor each participants' contributions. This elevates less privileged voices in the room and rebalances the power in the group.

Asking Questions

Facilitators use questions to nudge the group's thinking in different directions. 

Clarifying questions keep the thinking in place while requesting more information from the speaker. Examples are, "What do you mean by...?" and "Can you repeat...?"

Bigger Picture questions help the speaker zoom out and see their ideas from a bird's-eye view. They bring the speaker out of the details and into the conceptual realm. Examples are, "What's important about that?" and "What's the essence of this idea?".

Digging Deeper questions invite the speaker to get concrete about their idea. To think through their idea in more detail and with more groundedness. Examples are, "How would you do that?" and "What does that look like?"

Moving Forward questions move the speaker laterally through thoughts at the same level. It pushes the speaker to come up with different ideas. Examples are, "What else?" and "What other ways...?"

Finally, Circling Back questions connect the speaker to a past idea that might yield interesting combinations or revelations. Examples are, "How does this relate to...?" and "This reminds me of..."

Participants prepare to practice asking questions that nudge their partner's thinking in different directions.

Participants prepare to practice asking questions that nudge their partner's thinking in different directions.

Creating Synergy

To put it all together, I asked participants to form groups of four or five. Each group selected a facilitator and was given a brainstorming prompt and a writing surface to record ideas. The facilitators were asked to use the skills practiced thus far to generate synergy among their group. Specifically, they were asked to pay attention to each person's participation level, draw connections between different people's ideas, and stimulate the discussion with questions.

Most importantly, the facilitators were asked to let go of their own ideas and opinions in order to allow the group to shine. They were encouraged to trust the wisdom of the group.

Ultimately, the workshop was only able to provide a small taste of the art of facilitation. Even so, the energy in the room felt enlivening and connected, and participants expressed desire to incorporate facilitation into their work.

When conceiving of this workshop, I considered not doing it. My lack of experience in the topic justified my self doubt and fear of failure. I decided to take a leap and trust in the principles of facilitation - that with a strong container and wise group I would be OK. It turned out to be much more than that, and I couldn't be more proud of myself and my participants.

Comments from participants:

Thank you so much for leading this workshop! It was such a positive experience and really made me feel more confident in the fact that I CAN be a facilitator.

It was a fun workshop! It's nice to work on skills with other people around the studio who I don't get a chance to work with often. Feels like team building. Thanks for leading!

Really appreciated what a "ground-up" approach you took to this. Most workshops and workshop activities are terrible failures and frustrating for participants. This was the complete opposite and I wish every workshop could be like this!

Putting it to Use

I asked the group for volunteers to take these skills to the next level. Eight designers took on the challenge of organizing and facilitating a 40 minute brainstorming session with their studio-mates. Leading a session like this was a stretch for several of the designers. I watched trepidation shift to resolve as they slowly raised their hands. This was exactly what I had hoped.

Several weeks later, DesignMap held an internal studio-wide brainstorming effort led by the volunteers from this workshop. That day I felt like an entirely new avenue was opening for the studio to become a true learning laboratory.