Top 5 Facilitation Fails
(and how to manage them)
When we see experienced facilitators, we may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they have it all figured out, that they’re masters of the craft and that mistakes are a rare occurrence.
No matter how much experience you have, facilitation should be viewed as an art that requires constant learning and refinement. At Scaling Intimacy, we are inspired by Rick Rubin’s definition:
“Failure is the information you need to get where you’re going.”
Facilitators have to practice live in front of groups in real-time, which means you are making mistakes with your audience that you have to recover from as gracefully as you can, and that’s where the learning happens.
We recently recorded a special bonus episode of Julia’s podcast, Facilitator Forum, where weopenly share stories of our top 5 failures from decades of facilitation and how those experiences helped get us where we are today. To hear some cringe-worthy stories, and concrete learnings listen to the full episode here or wherever you get your podcasts.
In this blog post, we summarize the five common facilitation mistakes we identified and solutions you can implement immediately to learn from our fails.
Mistake #1: Unclear Openings and Closings
As humans, we tend towards both primacy and recency bias – meaning our participants will be most likely to remember the first and last things that you do or say. You have one opportunity to create a first impression. As facilitators, it’s critical we set the tone, establish expectations, and create a safe container for the participants in the beginning. An unclear opening can lead to confusion and uncertainty, hindering the group’s ability to engage fully. Similarly, without an intentional closing of your experience, participants may be left confused or unclear of what comes next, limiting the potential impact you can have.
Solution: Open and close with clarity and intention
- Make the implicit explicit: Clearly communicate guidelines, mindsets, and group agreements to set expectations from the start.
- Get group buy-in: Invite participants to hold these agreements together, creating a sense of collective responsibility.
- Pre-communication: Before the event starts, provide clear guidelines to help set expectations and prepare participants for the experience.
- Powerful Closings: Instead of letting gatherings fade out, provide closure by offering clear next steps and holding participants accountable for their commitments.
Mistake #2: Pushing People Too Far Too Fast
As facilitators, we want to create a safe and trusting environment where participants can open up and engage. Pushing people too far too fast, especially regarding vulnerability, can lead to the opposite effect, causing participants to close up and resist.
Solution: Gradually Increase Vulnerability
- Meet the group in their comfort zone initially and then expand gradually into the stretch zone, avoiding the panic zone where people shut down.
- Get a sense of your group: Use surveys or pre-communications to understand participants’ needs and comfort levels before the session.
- Contextually relevant exercises: Ensure that connection exercises relate to the theme and demographics of the group, fostering a sense of purpose and motivation.
Mistake #3: Being Too Rigid or Too Loose with Time
Time management is a crucial responsibility for facilitators. Being too rigid or too loose with time can disrupt the flow of the session and impact the group’s engagement.
Solution: Balance Structure with Spontaneity
- Have a plan but remain responsive to the group’s needs in the moment.
- Use timers and visual cues: When using breakout groups, assign a timekeeper and use signals to indicate when time is up, helping participants stay on track. Establish rules for speaking time and encourage equal voice.
- Listen to the moment: Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, watch body language. If people are fidgeting and looking around, you might move forward quicker. If people are captivated and looking at the person who’s speaking, you might stay with that person a little longer.
- Be transparent: When adjusting agreed upon guidelines or structures in order to respond to the needs of the group, be transparent with your decision and the purpose behind it.
Mistake #4: Letting One Person Dominate
Dominant individuals in a group can hinder the participation of others and disrupt the facilitation process. Sometimes that person might be an external processor, a challenger or just not be aware that they’re taking up a lot of space and at the expense of other people’s ability to contribute. If you don’t intervene, it undermines your role as facilitator, and is disrespectful of the group container and time.
Solution: Be kind and direct
- Set clear guidelines: Establish “step-up and step-back” guidelines, implement the “equal voice” principle, and actively invite new voices to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.
- Use humor and redirection: Disarm dominant personalities with humor and gently redirect their attention to the group’s needs.
- Private conversations: If necessary, address dominant behavior privately with the individual to foster self-awareness and cooperation.
Mistake #5: Taking Things Personally
As facilitators, it’s essential to focus on the needs of the group rather than seeking personal validation or approval. Being a facilitator is a role of servant leadership, we are there to serve our participants, to help them achieve their goals, and to do that in a psychologically safe and productive way. When we make it about ourselves, we risk losing our audience all together.
Solution: Be an invitation.
- Focus on being an invitation for participants to engage, rather than seeking approval or validation.
- Create the energetic ceiling: You set the tone and energy of the group. When you are operating at the energetic ceiling, you welcome the group up to you. Your energy shows them where they are going and how to get there.
- Gather feedback: Encourage open feedback from participants to gain insights and continuously improve as a facilitator.
- Embrace learning and growth: Embrace failures as opportunities to learn and grow in your facilitation practice.
Being an effective facilitator requires continuous self-awareness and a willingness to learn from mistakes. By addressing these common facilitation mistakes and implementing the suggested solutions, we can create more engaging and productive group experiences and continue to refine our facilitation skills over time.
As facilitators, we get better by practicing and we can’t practice in a vacuum. If you are interested in having a space to make some mistakes, get real-time feedback, and learn new facilitation skills with a cohort of inspiring peers who are interested in the art, science and practice of facilitation, join us for an upcoming cohort of Facilitation Finesse.