Why great facilitation doesn’t happen by chance

Why great facilitation doesn’t happen by chance

What’s a great facilitation anyway?

Have you ever been in a facilitated discussion where you come out transformed?

You may be crying from how deeply the facilitation touched you. You may have had new insights. You may have been intent on taking great action to improve the situation. You may have felt more connected to your fellow participants.

Or if you were a facilitator, what is success for you? What does a great facilitation mean for you? Does it mean that the client was happy by the results? Or that the organisation got what they wanted (the ideas, the strategy, the insights?) Or that the participants were transformed?

I’m interested in this because, I don’t know what great facilitation looks like.

I know what it does not look like.

Like the work-plan discussion where our ideas were thrown out, but somehow, the ideas that were chosen landed in three distinct categories that the directors wanted to focus on.

Or the focus group discussion where you felt like you were forced to speak, even though you had nothing distinct to contribute.

Or the strategy meeting where one person dominated the discussion. You sat on the sidelines, weren’t encouraged to participate, and ended up checking your email for the rest of the conference call.

After 5 years of being in facilitated meetings and facilitating meetings, I’ve come to realise this:

Great facilitation doesn’t happen by chance.

And the difference in outcomes between great facilitation and ‘okay’ facilitation is big. Very big.

So what’s a great facilitation?

I will use the definition from Douglas O’Loughlin, a great process facilitator and author of Facilitating Transformation.

We are not just talking ‘5’s on the evaluation sheets… although they are a good start.

Beyond that, we are talking about participants having a ‘5’ experience, one that has enduring value and is worthy of sharing with others.

Why does this matter?

For those who facilitate, you may know how much of the transformation you facilitate lies in the hands of the participants, and not only yourself. Why does this still matter, if the feeling of transformation is not 100% within your control?

Because today, we live in a ‘conceptual emergency’.

In ‘Ten Things to Do In A Conceptual Emergency’, Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara [1] share an insightful observation about the oft-told story of the blind men pooling their knowledge to eventually recognise the elephant.

Why does this matter?

They observe that today, you and I may know little more than a small piece of the elephant.

Even then, there are so many different pieces that are changing so rapidly, that even if we could put them together, we would not be able to make sense of the whole.

This is not to say that there is no point in bringing together different parts together to form a greater whole. But I think it calls for us to be more deliberate and intentional in putting together these different parts of the whole together.

I admit that I have a bias. I believe in the power of facilitation to bring together greater coherence from the sum of parts. As Prabu Naidu once said during the SPOT on FacilitationTM Training, facilitation is the belief that

1+1 = 3.

As facilitators, we believe that if we could bring out one thing from someone during a shared session, the combined output of the group is far greater than if each sent their thoughts separately over email.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

But the second reason why you can aim for transformation each time you facilitate, is because you owe it to the participants who appear. Each time we see someone appearing at a facilitated group discussion or a meeting, it is an expression of hope.

Remember this. They don’t have to appear. They could have taken leave. Or even if they appeared, they didn’t have to be fully present. They could be multitasking.

But each time they appear and contribute to the group process, it shows hope in the process. That better is possible.

Knowing these two reasons then, how do we facilitate greater transformation?

It’s not about the bums in seats (but the right bums in seats)

It’s not about the bums in seats (but the right bums in seats)

During a recent focus group discussion I facilitated, there was a celebrity involved. During the main group sharing, 3 of the 6 participants talked about how they were fans of this celebrity. It made me think:

Were they here for the celebrity, or for the change they could create?

As a facilitator, you may know how difficult it is to get participants. After all, you are asking someone to come in his own free time, to talk about something unexciting, and to meet people they don’t know. You feel like you’ve to throw in a voucher, a freebie, and even a lucky draw for them to be willing to come.

There is definitely a balance needed between getting diversity in the room and ensuring that the right (those that are emotionally vested) people are in the room. It can be difficult to get people across varying backgrounds if no incentive was offered.

One principle that has been helpful for me is to assume the best of people. People want to contribute. People want their views heard. People want to feel that they are doing their small part to make the world a little better. Rather than offering them another fancy lucky draw, it’s also about making the issue relevant to them.

Focus on collective, not chronological experience

Talk about how the comments used will build future plans. Studying in the U.K., our libraries were very invested in our feedback. They would put up these ‘You said…, we did’ portions on their posters to gather focus group participants. That convinced students (who probably weren’t all that interested in more books!) to take part in library discussions.

Whilst that can mean improving the outreach so that you reach more people, it’s helpful to also focusing on the relationship that bring people into those rooms.

When I did surveys as a social worker, I didn’t offer anything to my clients. All I had with them was a good relationship. Tapping on the personal networks of others to bring participants into the rooms is another idea.

That’s when I realised that people don’t only come because of how the issue concerns them. They come because of how the issue concerns the people around them.

Focus on collective, not chronological experience

As I participate in more online discussions, I’ve realised that there seems to be a natural tilt towards younger participants. I didn’t see the problems with this until another facilitator pointed out a flaw in such a design.

During the recent discussion we facilitated, he observed how younger participants didn’t have the language to articulate their wishes. Without much working experience in MNCs, public sector or charities, they struggled to give voice to the realities and to an imagined future.

Online discussions may naturally select for younger ‘digital natives’ who are more familiar with these platforms. But it risks missing the wisdom of those who have greater experiences.

But it’s hard to get these ‘older’ people! We’ve tried!

There’s COVID. We can’t do in-person events.

It depends on how hard we want to include these people in these rooms. Because I’ve seen some who really go beyond to involve non-digital natives in their discussions. They might offer a space where people can come down, and are supported through the use of the platform.

But why does it matter?

As a young 21-year-old serving on a board, I never knew how much I didn’t know until I sat in the presence of other leaders with decades of experience leading organisations.

The years they spent leading were more than the years I had spent living.

The insights they introduced allowed us to build more holistic solutions, as each person brought a different piece of the elephant.

As much as youth are the future of our world, the risk of emphasising youth perspective mean that youths have lesser chance to, in the famous words of Thomas Edison, ‘stand on the shoulder of giants’, seeing further.

Design for shifts in-session

Shifts are serendipitous. You may never know when it will happen. But we can raise the possibility of it happening.

You may remember the countless times when you’ve walked out of facilitated meetings, wondering what just happened. You weren’t sure of what you took away, or what your other participants took away.

Great process facilitation has the ability to shift the way we see the world. But it means that we have to be intentional about it. We cannot just ‘wing’ it.

Design for shifts in-session

It’s easy to wing it. Can I tell you a secret? I’m embarrassed to admit this.. but I’ve gone in cold many times. After all, when the questions are there, and you only have to ask the questions, probe further, and occasionally manage disruptive presences, I used to think that it was easy peasy.

No sweat.

But it wasn’t until after the SPOT on Facilitation™ training that I realised that this couldn’t do for professional facilitation. If I wanted to bring out the best in each person, I had to make sure that I knew my stuff. I needed to know what the client was looking for. I needed to know what were the potential snags that could trip the participants. I had to make sure that each moment was intentionally crafted.

After all, as a speaker, I knew this already. The humour didn’t just happen by chance. Nor did a polished, well-delivered speech come by chance. There were hours and hours of hard work behind the scenes.

But for facilitation, I tended to underestimate the amount of work that went into showing up, and pushing the collective group to their greatest heights. Mind you. I’m not talking about greater heights. I’m talking about their greatest heights.

Therefore, for the most recent facilitation I did, even though there were only four questions, I spent four hours preparing for the moments of connections. Each joke to establish rapport was deliberately thought through. Was it going to land well? Each personal sharing was practised, so that it came out smoothly, in aid of the wider discussion question.

Designing for shifts in process facilitation thus starts with the oft-quoted maxim – practice, practice, practice.

But it also comes with the ability to catch the extraordinary.

We aren’t subject experts. We aren’t expected to be.

But we are the process experts. That means that we are familiar with the material discussed, so that we can see where the tensions lie. Tension may be seen as a bad thing. Our value add doesn’t come in identifying the tension. Nor does it come in resolving the tensions. That may take time.

But it lies in giving people the psychological ownership and capability to deal with the tension.

Polymath Don Michael [2]talks about the ‘missing elephant’ today.

Design for shifts in-session

We know that there’s a problem with our world. But we struggle to articulate what the problem is, where the problem is, and where a possible solution even lies. Our role as facilitators isn’t to find the missing elephant. But it’s to encourage a courage to engage with the elephant as it is, whether we see all of it, or none of it.

Graham Leicester rightly observes that

We have to engage with the world as it is. But few of us are up for the struggle.

It’s tempting to stay within our zone of competence and to leave the rest to others.

But I believe facilitation can bring us to the joint discovery where participants eventually say,

We don’t know anything. Let’s find out.

Secondly, that means that we design the process that bring out nuggets of insight from the group.

When these nuggets appear, we also must be wary to catch them quickly, dust them off, and share them with the rest of the group, seeing if others can build on these nuggets.


I facilitated my first ever ‘professional’ discussion recently. This was serious. People were paying me for this. Granted, they couldn’t say,

Sorry John you didn’t do a good job, therefore I’m not going to pay you!

But I still didn’t want to let them down.

It was very scary. There were so many things to take note of. The sudden change in the timings allocated. The barrage of input from participants. The need to see if participants were tuning in.

But at the end, when one participant thanked the rest for the insights he gained from the session, I was thankful. Because it reminded me about the possibilities that arose when we bring people together.

We live in complex times. But each time the world has seemed close to ending, our collective will to find a way has built a resolution. The Cold War. 9/11. SARS.


It is testament to the power of groups to find a way forward, together. And even if the way forward isn’t clear, it’s a commitment to finding a way, together.

You and I may never find the ‘missing elephant’ in our lives. But I think it’s comforting to remember that even if you never did, we tried. And even if we never did, we tried.

By line

John works with organisations to build organisations where Gen Zs can thrive with purpose and passion. He writes and speaks at liveyoungandwell.com.

Do you desire to create a ‘5’ experience for the people you facilitate?

If you do, please check out our SPOT on FacilitationTM and Virtual Facilitation WorkshopTM on how you can learn the skills that others have found useful in helping them become better at facilitating transformative experience. Please contact us at admin@fns.sg for more information.

  1. Leicester, G. And O’Hara, M. (2009) ‘Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency’. Devon: Triarchy Press
  2. Michael, D. N. And Leicester, G. (2010) ‘In Search of the Missing Elephant’. Devon: Triarchy Press