The Magic of Facilitation

The Magic of Facilitation

Standardisation of the workshop

In the dynamic world of business, product and service design, workshops are materialising as an unexpected game-changing ingredient in agile and lean workflows. Increasingly, workshops are used as a catalyst towards gleaning stakeholder consensus to inform decision-making and progressing project objectives. If run well, the output from the workshop can successfully:

  • Inform discovery,
  • Clarify direction,
  • Fill-in knowledge gaps, and
  • Align stakeholders.
Workshops are used as a catalyst towards gleaning stakeholder consensus to inform decision-making.
(image credit: RawPixel)

There was a time when workshop facilitators had to custom design every workshop activity in advance from scratch. However, over the last decade, business consultants, UX practitioners and others have codified workshop activities into handy out-of-the-box artefacts. Some benevolent thought-leaders provide useful canvases that help to elevate standards, guide the workshop’s flow and encourage consistency as participants complete tasks. Some notable examples include:

However, activities alone do not ensure successful outcomes from workshops. The quality of facilitation has a significant impact on the overall outcome of the experience being a positive or negative one for participants. The workshop experience can significantly improve through the actions and characteristics of the facilitator. It is up to the facilitator to bring everything together and to present an engaging, cohesive and rigorous end-to-end show.

When done right participants respond to the facilitator with enthusiasm, commitment and that’s when the magic starts to happen. ✨

3 roles of great workshop facilitators

Facilitators wear many hats — often simultaneously — in order to lead the workshop towards favourable outcomes. The best facilitators possess a mutability, balancing a number of different roles. So far I have identified three:

  1. Presenter
  2. Coach
  3. Mediator

Facilitator as Presenter

The goal is to captivate your audience and keep them engaged and motivated
(image credit: RawPixel)

Facilitation involves a certain amount of performance. The goal is to captivate your audience and keep them engaged and motivated for the duration of the workshop. This shows you value their input and (often very busy) time. 

  • Storytelling: It’s no coincidence this article is called “The Magic of Facilitation” – I have to admit that during my workshops I channel my inner onstage magician! (There, my secrets out). The activities are my tricks, sticky notes are props and the participants are the audience. The structure of the workshop is my repertoire, through which I weave a cohesive story where I set the scene, and together we overcome obstacles, hopefully ending on a happy note!
  • Vitality: I try to ramp up my energy levels to engage the room from the outset and keep it lively throughout the workshop. If your energy level is low, expect you participants to follow suit. On the other hand, if you lead by example and raise your positivity and fun factor — watch your participants “gung-ho-ness” surge. On workshop days, I rise early and go for a run, or to the gym — or both. It helps me to bring the zest required to present and get the participants motivated from the first slide.
  • Engagement: Once you set the scene, it’s time to get straight into evoking audience participation, which is a big part of creating cohesion and synergy within the group. The opening activity should always be an ice breaker (never ever skip it!) — my favourite is a group warm up activity called Bibbity Bibbity Bop. The point is to have fun and to loosen up the participants so they don’t mind sharing their ideas as they collaborate together.
  • Rapport Building: Then, throughout the workshop keep the tempo upbeat and the tone cheerful — don’t forget to smile. Take an interest in participants by asking questions and clarifying opinions. It’s nice to address individuals by their first name so make an effort to remember them. When activities end with a show and tell, ask for a round of applause from the other groups when the presentation is finished. You want the participants to have fun, leave feeling good — and wanting more.

Facilitator as Coach

Remain focused on the objective at hand and navigate the team through the activities to success.
(image credit: KeithJJ)

Once your participants are engaged and motivated, it’s time to apply an air of gravitas and urgency with your coach hat on. Like the best coaches from the world of sport, you should remain focused on the objective at hand and navigate the team, or teams, through the activities to success. Success looks like a bunch of energised participants looking very satisfied with their input and hard work.

  • Strategy: Workshops can go badly wrong if not prepared for and rehearsed well in advance. The Coach’s work starts with strategy and planning. It’s important to meet with the key stakeholder in advance of the workshop to iron out the goals and objectives. This typically happens over one to two meetings.
  • Design: Design is a critical step in increasing the chances of a successful workshop. The requirements from planning are meticulously mapped to appropriate workshop activities that will help unearth given circumstances, problem spaces and solutions ideation.
  • Measuring Success: It’s the coach’s responsibility to determine what success looks like based on the expectations communicated by the stakeholders. During the workshop the coach needs to keep the stakeholder requirements, research goals and desired outcomes front and centre in their mind. 
  • Live Analysis: There is nothing worse than processing the output of a workshop only to realise you did not get what you needed from the participant input, or that the data is lighter than what you required. Therefore, it’s important to clarify they understand the task at hand, to provide guidance and evaluate their output to ensure workshop objectives are completed to the level required.
  • Live Motivation: The coach continuously checks in with the participants to ensure they are on track with group activities. Providing this “in-task” leadership will improve the quality of the participant output and keep them motivated. Keeping an eye on the clock is crucial for balancing the progress across groups and getting the most out of the activities

Facilitator as Mediator

A good facilitator has the ability to compare and contrast input from stakeholders towards agreement.
(image credit: RawPixel)

Mediation skills are an important factor in navigating a workshop successfully. Even though you are leading the workshop, it really is the participants who should be having the most say, be it through canvases or verbally during the event. Bringing folks together to collaborate comes with its own challenges. Often the participants may not be used to being asked for their input, or may have conflicting points of view. This is where the mediation aspects of the facilitators role kick in:

  • Active Listening: As much as it’s important to lead with a structured agenda, energised presence and focused tempo, it’s equally important to be a good listener. The best facilitators endeavour to listen and understand participants’ points of view. When listening, pay attention to the body language of the participant to get a sense of their actual message. Restate what you think they said back to them in your own words. This helps with clarification. This article lists 4 steps to active listening.
  • Live Visualisation: Active listening should be complemented with on the fly documentation of what’s being said. Verbal output from participants must be continuously captured and visualised during the workshop. Whiteboards, flip charts or butcher paper all make perfect capturing canvases. It doesn’t have to look pretty — just readable . The point is to have a record of what has been said by stakeholders in case you need it for reference later.
  • Conflict Resolution: Sometimes workshop participants will have diametric points of view on a point, theme or topic. This can lead to disagreements relating to the objectives of the workshop. A good facilitator must mediate these conflicts and bring the group to agreement. All points of view should be considered for their strengths and weaknesses regardless of the seniority of who expresses it. Active listening and live visualisation are two strategies to help in these situations.
  • Consensus Building: The secret weapon skill of a good facilitator is the ability to compare and contrast input from stakeholders towards agreement. This consensus building trait is critical during workshops, as there is always a time limit – the end of the workshop, therefore it’s imperative to surface areas of conflict and disagreement in order to glean consensus.


Facilitating workshops is no easy task. It requires the combination of a number of roles all merged into one. The facilitator is part convivial presenter, task-mastering coach, and diplomatic mediator. By deconstructing the skills associated with each of these roles, it is possible to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in order to improve your approach to running successful workshops over time.

Applying these skills well, in a workshop setting, creates better synergy amongst the participants. The outcomes are rigorous data, happy participants, and an exponential, emergent sense that through the groups collaboration – magic has happened.✨?

Contact the Séamus Byrne at to find out more about workshop facilitation best practices or if you need a facilitator.

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