Group Facilitation — A Step-by-Step Guide

By Giovanni Ciarlo

Gaia Education
12 min readAug 18, 2017

Series: Consciously reinventing cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together. Read about this series below.


When groups gather to discuss strategies, make decisions, plan activities, create a vision, or talk about daily business matters, they have options on how to conduct their meeting. One way is to come together, identify what needs to be discussed, and decide how to proceed. Another way is to prepare ahead of time, planning meeting details and proceeding in an orderly and prescribed way. In either case the group has much to gain by using a facilitator.

A facilitator’s role is to guide the group through the meeting processes of deliberate dialogue, topic discussions, and decision-making. A facilitator is a skilled questioner who can help equalize participation, elicit wisdom, and clarify the situation at hand.

Facilitation is an art. A good facilitator is patient and levelheaded, has a strong memory, stamina, humor, skills, and the ability to track complex signals and care for the group. A facilitator makes the meeting process easier, more focused and fair; but he/she is not someone who will lead or direct the group. The facilitator’s job is to serve the group in a professional and impartial way, and to clearly define his/her role for all clients.

In a sense, the facilitator is in the group, but not of the group. He/she is impartial. The facilitator does not voice an opinion with regard to the content of a group’s discussions, does not sponsor agenda items, has no stake in the outcome of discussions, and is unbiased about the subject matter. A facilitator does, however, guide the group through dialogues, activities, and discussions by being aware of and prepared for differences, divisions, multiple interpretations, and other forms of conflict. A good facilitator considers the needs of the group as a whole, and finds ways of focusing on those issues that encourage discussion and lead to resolution. Those new to facilitatation are encouraged to apprentice with experienced facilitators and should practice whenever possible. Being a group facilitator is an opportunity for personal growth, and a facilitator should always strive for greater personal awareness.

A facilitator oversees every step of the meeting process. A good facilitator can save a group considerable time and make the meeting a pleasant experience that ensures agreement and resolution. Before working with a group, a facilitator must prepare. Outline an agreement with the clients, clarify the purpose of the meeting, create an agenda, research background information, assess the dynamics of the group, sign contracts, design process formats, select activities, and prepare guidelines. After a meeting, a facilitator is responsible for helping the group reach a conclusion, as well as evaluating the meeting and planning follow-ups.

The following steps should be considered when facilitating.

Plan ahead. A facilitator should participate as much as possible in meeting preparations and agenda planning. Develop close relationships with key participants, including other facilitators, if any. Become informed about the projects and proposals that will be discussed. This will help move the group toward creative solutions and encourage even participation among members. Some meetings require more preparation than others — from several hours or days, to weeks or months. Generally speaking, the facilitator should clarify the terms of his/her involvement two or more weeks before the scheduled meeting. This includes getting any applicable training, identifying the meeting time and location, and clarifying compensation. It is also important for the facilitator get a sense of the group’s decision-making style and obtain background information to better understand group dynamics and keep items moving forward.

Meet with group members. The facilitator should meet with group members to plan an agenda and consider which processes he/she will employ for discussions and breakthrough items. The facilitator is responsible for planning an appropriate opening and closing activity, and for ensuring that all agenda items have a sponsor and a time limit. He/she should also anticipate potential difficulties and plan resolution strategies.

Plan a site visit. A site visit to meet with those in charge of the space will help the facilitator prepare for the meeting. He/she can plan the setup, which includes devising a seating arrangement, maintaining temperature control, locating the restrooms, identifying breakout areas, etc. The facilitator should be aware of ways to enhance the meeting space, such as using tablecloths, centerpieces, flowers, candles, or other decorative items. He/she should also check with organizers about refreshments, childcare, translation services, etc. It is appropriate to request the provider be as ecological as possible and not use Styrofoam, plastics and other non-reusable items.

The facilitator should also take stock of needed supplies and equipment, like easel paper, markers, tape, name tags, projectors, computers, printers, etc. It is a good idea for the facilitator to have a personal toolkit with some of these essential items, and to check with agenda sponsors to see what equipment they will need.

Be well rested. The facilitator must be alert to maintain good mental agility and keep track of the agenda, ideas, participation, subtle messages, time, and all other aspects of running the meeting. Have a centering technique, such as deep breathing, prayer or meditation to stay relaxed and focused. Dress appropriately for the meeting — clothes should not attract too much attention or be too different from the group, but project a professional image.

Arrive early. The facilitator should arrive to the meeting with plenty of time to set up. Go over a checklist and make sure that the space is clean, the equipment works, all supplies and refreshments are ready, restrooms are open, etc. Before the meeting begins, the facilitator should write the agenda, ground rules, responsibilities and other relevant information on easel sheets that all can see. If changes or corrections need to be made, write them clearly on the same sheets.

Prepare opening activities. The facilitator must prepare opening activities by giving the group relevant information about the facilitation, the group, the expectations, the purpose and the scope of the meeting. When appropriate, the facilitator leads, or asks someone in the group to lead, an opening ceremony. This is usually followed by a round of introductions, which gives group members a chance to “break the ice,” hear their voices, build familiarity, identify participants, and in general “warm up” for the meeting. At this point the facilitator clarifies the decision making process, posing questions such as: Who decides? Are visitors and observers allowed to participate? If so, how? Does everyone understand the adopted decision making mechanism? Will it be by consensus? By majority rule? Or by percentage of votes? This is also a good time to identify who will be taking the meeting minutes, and in what format.

Identify ground rules. Before addressing the proposed agenda it is a good idea for the facilitator to review the ground rules for the meeting. These should be clearly posted for easy reference in case the meeting starts to deviate. Groups that have been working with the same agreements over time may skip this step, but new groups or those experimenting with a new meeting process should go over the ground rules. Ground rules might include: Beginning and ending on time, one person speaks at a time, speak only for yourself, no interrupting, everyone gets a chance to speak, seek solutions, turn off cell phones, maintain confidentiality, etc.

Address the agenda. When the group is ready to review the proposed meeting agenda, the facilitator identifies who prepared the agenda and gives ownership to the group. During this time he/she negotiates changes, makes sure that sufficient time is allotted for all agenda items, clarifies the nature of each item (introduction, informational, discussion or decision), creates a contract with the participants, and gives an overview of what the meeting is about and when it will end. Once the agenda revision is finalized, the facilitator should strike the word “proposed” from the title. Acknowledging that the agenda in front of the group is the working agenda is a powerful tool for avoiding crisis and/or sidetracking during the meeting.

Facilitate the meeting. At this stage the facilitator turns the floor over to the persons sponsoring each of the agenda items. The facilitator introduces an item and facilitates any discussion. During discussion, it is a good idea for the facilitator to clarify what is being said, proposed or otherwise talked about. This is where a clear process is helpful. To keep the group from getting stuck in “icebergs” (items that don’t seem to move forward), help them figure out how to deal with unresolved concerns.

If after discussion an item requires a decision, the facilitator should restate the proposal to make sure it is clearly understood and ask the group if they are ready to decide. If the answer is “yes” and the group is working with consensus, the facilitator should ask if anyone wants to block the decision. If so, he/she should try to resolve the situation. If there are no blocks, the facilitator should ask if anyone wants to “stand aside,” then make sure all answers are registered in the meeting minutes. If there are no blocks and not many stand asides, the group has reached agreement on that item and can move on. The facilitator should also ask the minute-taker to read each decision so that everyone can hear and approve them.

Include light items. Throughout the meeting “light items,” such as announcements should be included to change the pace and give participants a moment to breathe before tackling the next agenda item. If there are several announcements, intersperse them in the agenda or ask participants to submit only written announcements to save time.

Breaks and games are good techniques to alter the meeting pace. It is strongly recommended that the group break every 90 minutes or less to give people a chance to refocus, take care of personal business, go to the bathroom, or make phone calls without disturbing the meeting. The facilitator should tell the group when to reconvene. Generally speaking 15 minutes is a reasonable break time, unless it is lunchtime or the group has been meeting for a long time. Sometimes the energy of the meeting requires that the facilitator introduce a game or other group activity to lighten the atmosphere. It is helpful for the facilitator to develop a repertoire of games for a variety of situations, or to ask someone to lead a game. These are excellent tools for bonding and moving the group forward through difficult topics.

Adopt a stance. The facilitator should stand in front of the group when presenting a topic or calling on participants, and stand to one side during others’ presentations. The facilitator should avoid polarizing language, judgements, use of the word “but,” or assigning ownership of an idea to a specific person. Try to be as neutral as possible, and identify the few main points of the conversation. This can be achieved through nonverbal awareness, presence of mind and the ability to see past the verbiage to underlying issues. It also requires that the facilitator be evenhanded, fair and impartial to the issues.

Stay on topic. The main functions of the facilitator are to maintain the speaking order and keep the agenda on track. When many people want to talk at once, create a stacking order. Do not let the group stray off topic or follow discussions that deter from the agenda. Conversely, when there are few interventions the facilitator can allow people to speak at random. When an item takes much longer than anticipated (an “iceberg”) , ask the group if they want to give it more time, and where the time will come from. In some instances the facilitator might recommend sending the item to a committee, or continue discussion at a future meeting.

Save time. There are several techniques for saving the group time, including straw polls, brainstorming, asking for consensus, asking those who haven’t spoken for their opinion, assisting someone in formulating a proposal, etc. Remember that the facilitator does not provide answers, but rather is a skilled questioner who can move things along by simply asking the right questions or referring to the ground rules stated earlier. These techniques can equalize participation, elicit wisdom, clarify points, summarize items, support the shy, silence the verbose, handle the “experts,” or make participation more dynamic.

Cope with stress. The facilitator will undoubtedly encounter stressful situations. During these times, take a moment to refocus or ask for the group’s help. Side conversations disrupt meetings and the facilitator can deal with them in a variety of ways. Call attention to side conversations by standing next to the people who are talking. If everyone is talking at once, or if there are emotional outbursts or other distractions call for a 10 to 15 minute break and return to the agenda when the meeting resumes. In all cases the facilitator must protect the group and him/herself from verbal attacks. If this occurs, refer to the ground rules, speak privately with the offender and/or those offended, and watch for “power plays” by people looking to get their way.

Include an evaluation. At the end of the meeting the facilitator helps the group find ways to deal with unresolved items, plan the next meeting, implement approved proposals, rewrite proposals that were not approved, collect agenda items for the next meeting, and carry out an evaluation of the current meeting. The evaluation is a critical step and should not be skipped. It is here that the group gets a chance to educate its members on process issues and to speak publicly about the things that were successful, as well as things that needed improvement. An evaluation helps the group get a sense of ending on a constructive and, hopefully, positive note. At this point the facilitator can thank the group, the organizers and particular individuals for their contributions, and give the group a chance to do the same.

Close the meeting. Formally concluding the meeting allows people to make closing remarks and creates a sense of intimacy among participants. The facilitator should lead a closing activity or ask someone in the group to do so. This might be a song, a round of final words, a short silent meditation, a dance, or any other collective and participatory item.

Ask the group to leave the room as it was at the start of the meeting. The facilitator or a participant should collect the easel pages and archive them until the minutes and all matters of the meeting have been finalized. Remind the minute taker to type the minutes in a clean, concise format, and send them to the appropriate person for distribution and approval. Make sure the minutes are kept safe and that the minute taker can be contacted for follow-up if necessary.

Make time to relax. After a meeting the facilitator may feel exhausted and need to recharge. Debrief with a co-facilitator (recommended when facilitating large groups) or another close colleague. Make time to reflect, relax, and write in a journal. This is a very important step for personal growth, professional improvement and self-evaluation.

The above information was condensed from “Introduction to Consensus” by Beatrice Briggs.

Giovanni Ciarlo is a cofounder of Ecoaldea Huehuecoyotl, Mexico. He has been practicing and training in facilitation process all over the world and is a Board member of GEN, the Global Ecovillage Network and GEESE, Global Ecovillage Educators for a Sustainable Earth.

Images from the IIFAC (International Institute for Facilitation and Consensus).


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