10 Basic Group Facilitation Skills

17 November 2012 7 By Viv McWaters

I’m in the midst of facilitating a training for an INGO on incorporating mental health and psychosocial support into programming. There’s a lot to write about that in another post.

One of the key lessons is that you don’t have to be a trained mental health professional to provide support to people suffering from mental disorders, whether that be due to a disaster they have experienced personally or as a part of their community, or if its because of chronic poverty or any other reason.

Throughout this training the topic of facilitating groups within communities has come up and I’ve been asked to provide some idea of basic facilitation skills. Here is my list (and I’m usually not a fan of lists – they tend to suggest something that is complete or finished or the last word. My list is none of those – it’s a random collection of thoughts to meet an immediate need that I thought I’d share.)

Facilitating is not for everyone. Here’s some skills that I think are important.

1. Capturing information in people’s own words

Doesn’t matter how the capture is done, the key is using people’s own words. Avoid listening to someone and then responding with “I think what you mean to say is…” or “I’ll summarise what you said as…” and use your own interpretation. Honour people’s own words.

2. Encouraging participation

This is a huge topic. My approach is to find, develop and use approaches that encourage people to participate and to speak their mind. This usually does not include presentations, whole group discussions, panels or Q and A sessions – all of which discourage participation in favour of just a few people. If you can’t avoid whole group discussions then at least avoid pointing to someone and asking them directly what they think. And encourage paired r small group discussions, walking and talking, talking through objects, pictures and so on.

3. Be comfortable with silence

People might be thinking, so stop talking. Stop filling the silences with more talk.

4. Give instruction clearly and briefly

Over-instruction can kill enthusiasm, raise anxiety about the activity and encourage thinking about the activity rather than doing it. I like to write up instructions in advance. Keep them short and to the point. Give the instructions then get people to work. You can wander around and clarify any questions once they get started rather than over-instruct.

5. Avoid dependence

The group can work without you and it should be your goal to enable them to operate without a facilitator. This is particularly true if you have an ongoing role with groups. I always try and encourage participants to learn the techniques I use so as they don’t need me at all.

6. Avoid leading the group or the discussion

Facilitators have opinions. We have ideas. But it’s not our place to lead the group down any particular path. Keep questions open and broad.

7. Set the context for the meeting

Let people know at the beginning why they are there, what they will be doing, why it’s important and when it will be finished. Honour all that.

8. Create a welcoming space

The space people work in matters. Move the furniture. Create a welcoming space. Make sure people are comfortable and able to move around. A welcoming space is not just physical, it’s also about the way you engage with the group, building rapport and trust.

9. Take care of time and pace

Be aware of the time. Make sure you finish on time. Adjust as necessary to do this. Be aware of people’s energy levels and vary the pace. Sometimes it’s important to speed up, sometimes it’s important to slow down.

10. Self care

Take care of yourself. It’s hard work facilitating. It’s tiring and takes a lot of effort to hold a group of people as they explore issues or struggle with ideas or decisions. Be self-aware enough to know when you need a break or what helps in your own self care.

And one final comment. Facilitating is a practice art. You can’t learn it from a book, or even from this blog 🙂 Get out there and practice. Just do it. Often.