The five dos and don’ts of engaging facilitation

Or – How to keep participants awake during a lengthy meeting or strategic planning session

by Kirsten Avison

Have you ever facilitated a session only to look out into a sea of disengaged participants nodding off as you go through your slide deck?

Jury duty has nothing on poorly facilitated strategic planning sessions.

Anyone who’s been crammed into an airless, fluorescent boardroom for hours, only to leave the session with the distinct impression that his or her opinion went unheard, will do or say just about anything to get out of having to attend another one. As a facilitator, you never want participants to leave your session and say: “that’s a day of my life I will never get back”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Good facilitation that leaves participants feeling energized, optimistic and validated is possible. Here are five do’s and don’ts:

1. Understand the overarching objective.

Don’t show up with pre-conceived notions and pre-scripted agendas.

DO: Good facilitators understand that every organization is different. They prepare for sessions by researching each client’s business to better understand its market position, financials and organizational structure. They also conduct advance interviews with session participants to determine opportunities and challenges. Only then do they design an agenda and exercises to address the real issues.

2. Don’t be the boss’s lapdog.

Don’t try to force the agenda of any particular stakeholders, even that of the CEO or board of directors.

DO: Good facilitators listen to all stakeholders, even those reluctant to speak up, in order to unearth the collective agenda of the group and help lead participants towards a strategy that aligns with the corporate vision and resonates for everyone. The magic of strategic planning comes through shared creation and ownership of goals and solutions. Often the leadership (CEO and board) is pleasantly surprised by what their colleagues have to contribute, even when it veers from their original expectations.

A facilitator must always ensure that they hear from all participants. A simple tool is to have each participant write down their perspective and then go around the room and share.

3. Adaptability wins engagement.

Don’t rigidly stick to your planned agenda.

DO: Good facilitators are flexible. They know how to read the room, read the body language of their participants (hint: head bobbing = bad) and adjust their plan to keep people engaged. They are willing to let discussions go off course, but at the same time they check in with other participants to ascertain whether the new direction is worthy of their collective attention.

If you are looking for a tool to keep things on track if you feel the meeting is diverging from its original intent, try this: walk through the agenda at the outset of the meeting and ask participants to give you permission to steer them back on course.

4. Steer clear of your own inherent prejudices.

Don’t hold a vested interest in the session outcome, which could drive results by putting words in participants’ mouths or only hearing what you want to hear.

DO: Good facilitators understand their own biases and try to remain objective. They do this by purposefully practicing active listening—repeatedly framing and reframing the issues participants raise to create common language and ensure that everyone shares a collective understanding of the issues and the various points of view. Ultimately they trust their participants and rely on the collective knowledge of the group to identify credible, practical solutions.

As a facilitator, you will also know when you hear a comment that will guide the group in the right direction. When you hear this, pause, and allow for silence. Then, ask the participant to repeat what they said. You will have subtly raised the awareness of the group to the important point.

5. Avoid the temptation to cram everything in.

Don’t try to accomplish too much in too little time.

DO: Good facilitators are good editors. They are not tempted to jam-pack their sessions, paring down the program and holding a few items in their back pocket on the rare occasion there is extra time. Good facilitators also know that it’s best to hold energy-intensive discussions early in the day when people are most alert, using exercises to reengage and bring up the energy after lunch.

Good facilitation is an art. You won’t get it perfect the first time. But if everyone stays awake for the entire session you’ll know you’re on the right track!


Kirsten Avison is a Senior Business Analyst at Wazuku Advisory Group and a key member of the strategic advisory team where she facilitates engaging sessions, manages projects, conducts thorough strategic analyses and develops strong and lasting relationships with clients.