Facilitation skills

These are some of the key skills that are important in all of the six facilitator roles, but in particular for the role of the intervener.

These are all ‘soft’ communications skills and can be difficult to measure and define with accurately.  Indeed a key frustration for many facilitators is that when done well facilitation can be easy to overlook –because the interventions are subtle and non-intrusive.

These skills are rarely covered in any formal training, but they can, of course, be developed through practice.

The following skills will be covered in this post:

  1. Listening – active listening; showing that you are interested – both in what they are saying and why they are saying it. Necessary to create a trusting and supportive atmosphere.
  2. Questioning – asking the right questions, of the right people, at the right time, in the right way. Necessary to keep the discussion moving forward.
  3. Reframing – managing tension and negativity, focusing on shared goals. This skill is particularly important when there is a lot of conflict or tension in the room.

1. Listening

Listening is a crucial skill for a facilitator. However, typically we only think of listening as a passive activity. There are key distinctions between active and passive listening. The facilitator’s job is to not only hear what people have said but to actively acknowledge and assure participants that they have been understood.

Active listening means:

  • Not allowing interruptions
  • Giving plenty of eye contact (but not continuous)
  • Using encouraging sounds and words
  • Relax, lean forward, nod
  • Using questions to show that you are following and to encourage the talker to expand
  • Showing empathy and respect to the speaker
  • Withholding judgement
  • Try not to think about what you're going to say next – focus on what’s being said
  • Acknowledge feelings –not content of statements

Suggested listening interventions:

  • Encouraging/Acknowledging‘Tell us more…’ ‘That sounds like it is important to you…’
  • Checking/Clarification: ‘Am I right in thinking that…?’ ‘I’m not sure I understand, did you say…?’
  • Affirmation/Empathy‘I understand why you are concerned about this…’ ‘Thanks for that information…’

2. Questioning

Successful facilitation requires the use of questioning to bring structure and clarity to the debate. Questioning is especially important because the facilitator is often unable to make content suggestions or to directly challenge factual errors. Questioning is especially useful to clarify generalisations and unspoken assumptions. Effective questioning will achieve the following:

  • Sort facts from feelings
  • Separate personalities from concerns
  • Break down issues into manageable components
  • Identify personal interests/preferences/concerns

Two types of question

Questions can be categorised whether or not they are open or closed in nature.

1. Closed questions – these are designed to generate a response based on a fixed number of options. They are often used to close down the conversation, but can also be used to get affirmation or commitment:

  • ‘does this make sense?’
  • ‘do you prefer option one or two?’

2. Open questions – these questions are designed to stimulate reflection and discussion making yes/no responses impossible:

  • ‘what are the issues as you see them?’
  • ‘why is that important to you?’
  • ‘when did you first encounter this problem?’


  • Only ask if you really are open to the answer
  • Encourage people to expand/elaborate (why? how? what do you mean?)
  • Ask open questions to encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Use questions to seek clarification on what is being said
  • Give people time – do not rush to fill the silence. The silence is thinking time!
  • Consider how you come across – remember that people are as aware of your body language and tone of voice as of the actual words you use

Useful questions to challenge assumptions

The following are examples of questions which can be useful in exploring (and if need be challenging) established views and perceptions. It is often useful to ask these questions to the whole group as it avoids too much focus on one individual and can encourage participants to express different views.

  • What’s the difference between the situation now and how you would like it to be?
  • What obstacles do you envisage in taking this forward?
  • What exactly do you mean by ‘x’?
  • How do you do ‘x’ now?
  • Can you give a practical example of what you mean?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • What specifically do you mean when you say that something ‘Always’ happens?
  • Who are ‘they’ specifically?
  • Can anyone else relate to this?
  • So what can you do next as a result of this discussion?
  • Who else could we talk to that might have an interest in this?

3. Reframing

Reframing is a natural progression from questioning. When discussions get heated or a contentious statement is made, it is the facilitator’s job to turn the situation around. A good way of doing this is to change the focus on an issue through a reframing a statement; a counter statement or question specifically phrased to shift the focus from:

… ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ .......... to .......... ‘ours’

… past .......... to .......... future

… negative .......... to .......... positive/proactive

… closed .......... to .......... open

Reframing is done to:

  • Clarify what has been said
  • Emphasise common goals
  • Confirm common ground
  • Eliminate language that is abusive or extreme
  • Identifying underlying needs and interests

Take care when reframing so you don’t come across as patronising, biased or manipulative.

Good examples of reframes

Statement: ‘Her proposal is nonsense. ’

Reframe: ‘What do we want in a proposal?’


Statement: ‘Whose fault was it that the schools failed? ’

Reframe: ‘How can we ensure that the schools work in the future?’


Statement: ‘This meeting is pointless – nothing will come of it. ’

Reframe: ‘How can we make this meeting more productive for everyone?’


Statement: ‘Lets talk about where we are going to site this landfill. ’

Reframe: ‘Should we talk about how we should deal with the community’s waste?’