What does modern facilitation look like?

I write a lot about different facets of modern learning and of different models and theories that are useful to learn from and inform us better about the human condition. I spend a fair bit of my thinking time trying to place how these different bits of information help us be better facilitators.

Through practise, repetition, failures, successes and feedback I get a good sense of what works well, what could work better, and what I just need to change altogether.


I think that we’re I’m passed the age of getting people to do fun type activities. In truth, they were never a great way to start a session. As adults, we’re fully capable of exploring useful and interesting ways to introduce ourselves which don’t resort to “tell us something interesting about you that others won’t know” or “introduce yourselves through the art of mime”. It pains me that facilitators show how little thought they’ve put into the elementary part of facilitation by belittling the people they’re with. Instead it’s much better to allow people opportunities to express themselves and have adult based conversations. Let’s not force people to endure ridiculous and childish activities, let’s engage the adults we’re with through purposeful exploration.

On that note, why not use technology to help people do that? There are lots of useful tools that can help – a private Twitter DM group is easy to setup and costs nothing. Or using a site like Basecamp to share resources to initiate discussion and debate. Or using a tool like Slack to enable an online conversation.


Sure, we’ve always known breaks are important, but it’s not just the formal breaks that people need. Insights from neuroscience help us understand the brain can only use so much energy in one hit until it starts to become inefficient. That means you can ask people to do an activity for a period of time and then you need to give them something mundane and easy to do to allow them down time or engage them in a very different activity that is asking them to use a different part of their brain. That could look like doing an activity, asking them to discuss it and giving some reflection time and space that they use as they need.

Insights from cognitive science help us to know that asking people to do a difficult task like problem solving takes people time and they need to work their way through it, whereas having dialogue involves different functioning and mental processes.

Inclusion matters

In all my sessions I make it explicitly clear through my language that I welcome everyone’s opinion and I actively appreciate what they have to say. I don’t do this by stating as such, I do it through acknowledging every comment where I can and being mindful I’m flowing with the energy that it’s given (so if it’s humorous I’ll have fun with it, if it’s dialogue based, I’ll engage with it, if it’s critical, I’ll work with it). I also appreciate every comment with an appropriate response to let the person know their comment and contribution had value, regardless of what they feel their contribution has or hasn’t added.

I’m also highly mindful that in large groups not everyone has an equal or a fair voice. So I build into my facilitation different methods for how people can have a voice. We’re there to learn and discuss together, so why would I only allow this for those with a greater voice?

These types of approaches blend insights from positive psychology, emotional intelligence and adult based learning methodology.

Fair challenge

I’m always careful to ensure that if i think someone needs to be challenged in what they’re saying because it’s falling foul of some agreed principle or its flat out abusive or offensive I’ll call out the behaviour – never the person. If I’ve been facilitating well, then the group will understand how they can interject and offer their comment and thoughts on what that behaviour is.

We know from research into emotional intelligence and neuroscience that fairness is important to people at a fundamental level. If people feel either they’re not being treated fairly or are not being heard well, their anger will direct them in unuseful ways.

Allowing fair challenge also means designing the session so that people feel they can challenge one another in fair and supportive ways. Criticism for its own sake is rarely helpful and what can help better is helping people to understand how to do that well with each other.

Building on strengths

I’m a firm believer in helping people find their strengths in my sessions and find ways to build on them. When people feel great about their capabilities, it allows several things to happen for them and for the group. Research into positive psychology helps us to know that when people can do this well, when they are supported, and they are receiving positive feedback it helps build their resilience. When we feel resilient we can improve our wellbeing and we can choose to act in helpful and positive ways for us and for others.

Design and use of space

We can’t always account for or control for the space we’re using to be amazing or creative or inspiring. Sometimes we have to make do with a functional room. I try to always be aware of how a room is laid out, have clarity on what I want the group to achieve, and design or move things so that people can make the best use of the space and they can learn well as best as they can. I don’t think any one room layout or furniture is better than another, in most cases it’s about making best use of what’s there.

Food, energy, tea and coffee and phone calls

Where possible, I try to have a good range of food and drinks available for people throughout the session.  Who am I to determine when your body needs to be fed and when you need a top up of fluid? I often tell people I operate with adult rules. That means people choose to do what they need, when they need, and as they need to.

Fruit, nuts and water are all better for hydration and energy purposes over biscuits, sweets and caffeine.

I think that’s enough for one blog post. I hope there’s some useful sharing in this and I’m always glad to hear your thoughts, so please do add your comments for what works for you, why it does and how we can share that learning.

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