How do you assess your client’s needs for facilitation service?

How do you assess your client’s needs for facilitation service?

This is the second of a six-part series on INIFAC competencies. In this series, John interviews experienced facilitators on their insights about the different competencies.

It is hot and humid.

The team is doing an offsite, and by all accounts, it is not going well. The team is confused about the instructions, and the input they have given me has not led to much insight into the problem that this process was supposed to solve – namely, what they should focus on next year.

I am the facilitator.

At this point, I wonder if I should scrap the process, and just pluck something out of thin air.

Then I remember what Shoba Chandran, a Certified Competent Facilitator, taught me a few weeks ago.

What is the start point (organisational challenge), and what is the end point (desired outcome)?

What did the client say when we first met?

I scratch my head. And you might be scratching yours.

If you are a facilitator today, assessing what the client needs, and eventually reaching a place where the client is satisfied, is needed if you do not wish to lose your client.

Understanding the INIFAC competency of assessment is key helping you do better in assessing your client’s needs.

The challenges in assessing a client’s needs

Here, Shoba shares a few challenges she often faces in the initial conversation where she’s assessing the client’s needs.

The challenges in assessing a client’s needs

The first is managing the client’s expectations. Client may not be clear what a process facilitator, is. For clients, sometimes, they may mistakenly assume that you are there to tell them how to solve their problem.

A lot of times, it is clarifying your role and sharing with them what you can do and what you cannot do.

What you cannot do. That seems strange in a client conversation. After all, shouldn’t you be telling clients all that you can do for them, rather than what you cannot?

Shoba remembers a client who wanted a framework and solution. They had it quite fixed in their mind what they wanted and Shoba was quite clear that she was not the subject matter expert and could not design it for them.

She could help them design a process where they would build it themselves but she could not design it for them.

Being clear with clients about what you cannot do ensures that you do not set yourself up for failure.

The second difficulty is that beginning facilitators often do not have the direct experience to tease out the nuances in assessing the client’s need.

For example, if a C-Level team wanted a strategic retreat, you might not have had that direct experience of what developing strategies to a 1000-person MNC is about, and may not necessarily know how to assess their requirements well.

Often, Shoba advises less experienced facilitators to work with a co-lead. That helps them to gain the confidence, and to also have a rear-view mirror in case there are things they miss.

A checklist of questions may be useful. Following on from her previous advice on knowing the start point and end point, she shares that most clients usually come because they have a need.


She recommends questions such as:

  1. Understanding the start point
    1. What is the context/background of this situation?
    2. What led to this?
    3. Who is the main person driving this?
  2. Understanding the end point
    1. What are your outcomes?
    2. What do you want to get out of this?
    3. What does success look like for you?
    4. If you had a magic wand and could make everything perfect, what would it look like?

Soft and hard outcomes

Shoba also distinguishes between soft and hard outcomes.

Hard outcomes are what I would describe as organisation goals.

For example, by the end of the session, we want a clear statement, or we want an action plan.

The softer ones, are like: what kind of experience would you like people to have? You know, is there a relationship element that you want to go after?

Both are equally important.

From Shoba’s experience, she has noticed that typically, people are asked about the ‘hard’ outcomes. However, once they become more comfortable, they start talking about the softer elements.

Like culture. Or relationships. Or what is going wrong for them. But how do you come to a point, where you can build a process that teases out these nuances?

How then do you plan?

When I first started, I remember flipping the FNS textbook over and over again, trying to figure out which was the best tool to use.

It is a trap that Shoba has seen many less experienced facilitators fall into.

A tool-first approach, rather than an outcome-first approach.

“You must get clarity around what you want to achieve. The tools only come after.”

For beginning facilitators, having less tools may actually be a benefit. It helps you to be more familiar with one, and to explore the limits of the tool, before moving onto something else. As the saying goes,

A Jack of all trades is a master of none.

But it also helps that you are planning the session with someone else, so that you can bounce ideas off the other person, “like “Oh, for this section, we know we need to achieve this.”

What tool can we use? We can use A or B.

How far do we want to push it like that?

But it is not just the participants in your process facilitation you need to serve.

It is also the client or client-sponsor.

That is where collaborating with the client comes in.

Having worked with clients of all stripes, Shoba’s advice is to recommend to clients that you get clients involved from the start. Once clients are involved from the start, they tend to have greater buy-in for the project, and the eventual outputs from the facilitated intervention.

It is all well and good if the session goes as planned. But there are those days when it does not. How does one adjust, but more importantly, even know when to adjust?

How then do you plan?

Knowing when to quit

Shoba shares three principles she uses.

The first is reading the room.

For beginning facilitators, this may be difficult due to the limited mental bandwidth one has. After all, you may be completely engrossed in following the process, and ensuring that you are doing everything well.

For Shoba, reading the room is about “being alive and being present to what is going on in the room.”

This certainly takes experience.

Secondly, Shoba believes in active listening. It is not just about what is being said, but what is being left unsaid.

The key element is recognising that there is a text, and a subtext to what is being said. It is reading between the lines to notice the slight frown, the tensed shoulders, the sudden turning away.

Lastly, it is about listening to one’s gut. Often, this can sound iffy and vague. But your gut may sometimes pick up shifts happening in the room.

For example, that is why when we notice that a team looks tired and we might say, “Shall we just take a five minutes break before returning to the discussion?”

Even after having done all this work – assessing the client’s needs, preparing a plan, and then reading the room, the job is not done.

It is also about self-questioning, and reflection so that one can go on to build better facilitations in future.

Often, facilitators are aware of the first two parts of reflection, such as the pre-facilitation, and post-facilitation debrief.

But we often miss the reflection in-between.

reflection in-between

This concept, also known as reflection in-action, is about taking a micro pause when things do not seem to be working the way we expected it to, and asking simple questions such as:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. Why is this happening?
  3. What can I do to improve this?

Becoming a competent facilitator is journey

Shoba’s final piece of advice?

Be patient.

When she first started out as a facilitator, she saw more experienced facilitators doing things she could not even imagine.

Like challenging sponsors, for their own good.

It took her years, and many tries before she was able to find the courage to do it well.

Often in the process of assessing client’s needs (i.e. pre-session assessment), in-session assessment, and post-session assessment, we need to ask many questions of our participants and clients.

But we may also tend to miss out that some of the biggest, and searching questions we are asking is of ourselves. Yes, of yourself.

Am I good enough?

Am I doing this right?

What if I mess up?

Shoba’s advice may not sound easy, but it is what I have been hearing experienced facilitators say too.

You just have to do, do, do. Build up your competence and eventually your confidence.

You will get there.

It is a journey.


John is excited about helping young people to brave challenges of the 21st century and writes about how young people can flourish in work at

If you desire to be hone your skills as a process facilitator, check out our SPOT on FacilitationTM and Virtual Facilitation WorkshopTM by contacting us at for more information.

This is our last newsletter for 2022 and

 we would like to take this opportunity to

wish you a blessed Christmas and

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See you in 2023!

Thank you for your readership and support! See you in 2023!