Home > Webinars > Webinar Rewind: “Facilitation Matters”

Webinar Rewind: “Facilitation Matters”

June 2017 Learning Webinar

Your company or agency is about to embark on a new project that will affect a lot of people and is very technical, very controversial, or both. How do you make sure the public is as engaged as possible?

That’s where facilitation comes in, and in our June webinar, Rebecca Sutherns of Sage Solutions and Kate Bishop of the City of Guelph, Ontario, reprised their popular session from the 2016 IAP2 North American Conference, “Facilitation Matters”.

Facilitation is a specialized skill – which is why there’s an International Association of Facilitators with a certification process – and facilitators can lift the burden of running a meeting and facing sometimes unpredictable crowds off the shoulders of the technical experts. Facilitators do their job, and let the technical experts do theirs.

Facilitation, according to Rebecca and Kate, involves “a structured series of conversations that guide participants to a shared result that they have created, understood and accepted.” It has to be intentional – with attention to detail, experiential objectives and especially an eye towards making it worthwhile for someone to come to a workshop or open house.

You can watch a video, “What Do Facilitators Do?” here.

Some of the key points:

  • Sweat the small stuff: if a poster has incorrect information, the venue is poorly laid-out or even there aren’t enough cups for drinks, the reaction will often be, “What else did they get wrong?” and trust will be damaged.
  • Ask questions that people can answer: technical explanations may work for technical staff, but if people don’t understand what they’re being asked, the information you get from their responses won’t be of much use. “What they see is what you get”.
  • Plan for different scenarios: if your main plan goes sideways, you need Plans B and C to fall back on. And if Plan D is what actually happens, the process of planning for the other scenarios will make you more nimble in handling it.
  • Design to Engage: make it fun – quizzes and prizes can go a long way to make people want to take part. When you do that, the meeting makes people fully involved, rather than passive listeners, and the exercise is truly worth their while.
  • Plan for “Various Kinds of Smart” (also called “Multiple Intelligences”): different people engage in different ways, and this Howard Gardner chart shows eight such ways. The philosophy that “variety increases inclusion” helps bring as many people as possible into the conversation.MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCE
  • Sometimes, particularly vocal participants or a protest group can disrupt a meeting and side-track proceedings. Setting ground rules at the beginning can help, but you need to be judicious: they can be unnecessary or obvious or even a bit condescending – implying that the facilitator expects that participants are likely to behave poorly in the meeting. They can be provided to, or developed with/by the group.

A good facilitator both anticipates the public’s expectations and shapes them. Kate and Rebecca used four case studies from their own work to illustrate. A traffic calming study; a plan for a community “hub” in a city park, a re-write of an animal control bylaw and developing a community investment strategy, all presented challenges and required customized, deliberate techniques and tools to meet them.

The recording of the webinar, along with collateral materials provided by Rebecca and Kate, is available to IAP2 members on their affiliate website. You can also continue the discussion with Kate Bishop at kate.bishop@guelph.ca or Rebecca Sutherns at rebecca@sage-solutions.org.

The June webinar was very interactive, with people taking part by asking questions and sharing their own experiences. Below, you’ll find some of the remarks made by the participants. Many of the questions were answered in the actual webinar.

Check out the IAP2 USA Webinar Archive for the full recording

But how would you answer them? What are your experiences and insights. This has proven to be a stimulating conversation, and we hope you’ll help keep it going: please use the “Comments” section at the end to do so.


What are some unexpected situations you’ve had to deal with when facilitating?

  • Rock band practice upstairs of workshop. Ask about other activities at your event location.
  • We were part of a national, multi-site public engagement event on, ironically enough, transportation. That Saturday, metro KC had its huge marathon event. Half of our facilitators were trapped on the wrong side of the event and had to go miles out of their way to get to the site. I learned to check for other events after that experience.
    • Ugh!
  • For a visioning exercise, I used the dotting exercise (e.g. dotmocracy) to brainstorm guiding principles and narrow in on top 5. After the exercise, one of the participants said he didn’t like the exercise. In hindsight, I should’ve had other mechanisms in my back pocket. And, I should’ve made sure the group is ok with my plan at the beginning of the workshop.  
  • Consultation burnout and other related engagement events occurring at the same time…and creeping into our meeting agenda.
  • Walls of windows; bumpy walls; walls covered in art
  • Participants are happy to help with set-up, if asked, so don’t be afraid to ask.
    • Response from Rebecca:  While it’s true many people wouldn’t mind helping, I wonder if it also makes the facilitation team look poorly prepared and less professional, depending on the context.
  • Sometimes facilitation is not appropriate if you cannot assemble the critical stakeholders. Lower commitment modes engagement (surveys, interviews etc.) might be more appropriate.
    • Agreed – or for other reasons. This is part of asking questions participants can answer – if they are not well positioned to do so, then don’t ask them.

General questions:

I would be interested in recommended learning resources and tricks of the trade for newer/beginner facilitators.

There is a response to this on the recording re: IAF and also http://sage-solutions.org/training/e-courses/ I’d encourage you not only to deepen your facilitation toolbox with techniques, but also to pursue learning when it’s most appropriate to use each one. 

What do you do when there are people protesting outside meeting and media present?

Response from Kate: You should ensure that senior managers or technical experts are present to answer protesters separately and away from planned event. I also commented that I had used this same technique to effectively manage individual vocal participants on a one on one basis. 

When you prepare your participants with the background information etc. do you also include group norms or engagement rules?

To facilitate or not to facilitate? How do you decide whether a facilitative session(s) is the right tool for your situation and at this point in time?   

What are some effective/successful ways to facilitate meetings (under 20 persons) and take notes at the same time?  

Something that we’ve been thinking through recently is the role of electeds (politicians) in a workshop format.  

How would you deal with a Steering Committee member whose “hidden agenda” is to derail the process on behalf of his/her stakeholders to ensure that an forthcoming legislated power is not pursued by the municipality – and won’t admit to it?

I’d recommend being as forthright/explicit as reasonably possible. Conflict is more easily handled when it is named and addressed.

What about when the senior manager is the particularly difficult participant?

There are numerous strategies to deal with difficult people and with power differentials in a room. Good process usually trumps bad behaviour. If people are feeling heard through the process, they rarely feel the need to assert their voice in inappropriate ways. In this case, it may also depend on whether the senior manager is also the project sponsor/client. If so, perhaps you can speak to her/him in advance about how s/he can be the most helpful presence possible in the room. 

Many facilitations are part of larger efforts to change complex systems. How have you assessed the impact of isolated facilitations within the broader project?

It’s true that individual facilitated meetings are usually part of larger systemic change processes. It’s been my experience that people value being heard, having confidence their feedback will be meaningful/useful, and having their time used well. We do have experience assessing the impact of both individual sessions and the broader processes in which they are embedded.

What tools do they use in face-to-face meetings to gather answers (e.g. Mythbusters quiz)?

This is a very broad question…specific tools would depend on the design of the session – its purpose, size, length, positioning within a larger process, level of strong emotion etc. I’d be happy to answer direct questions on this, grounded in participants’ actual scenarios and do provide facilitation coaching for doing so. 

General comment:

For participants’ information – Facilitation Impact Award nominations are open. https://www.iaf-world.org/site/facilitation-impact-awards. The Facilitation Impact Awards (FIA) honour organisations that have used facilitation to achieve a measurable and positive impact as well as the facilitator(s) who worked with them.

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