Facilitator dilemma and opportunity: How much effort is needed?


All my life, I have watched how the level of effort varies in my life and work practices. “How much energy, time and effort do I have to devote to this task?” I would wonder. “Oh dear, this client job is taking a lot more energy that I had not planned for“; “oops, I put all that effort into this agenda and I feel now that we have to abandon it to better get to where they need to go“; “… ah, I notice that my voice has a lot of strain in it – I am putting too much importance into delivering this thought or instruction” … and so on…

Have you noticed also that some facilitation jobs exhaust you and others give you energy? Have you noticed some groups’ energy is uplifting and others lowers your energy? How can we be more skillful about this? In this blog and video, I share how I have been thinking about it from many personal and professional angles. I have not put too much energy into getting my thoughts crystal clear because I know at this moment in time, I am exploring. If you’d like to join me to ponder this topic more, please join me on Zoom in late July. All welcome, no cost – just put your energy into showing up.

Email me for Zoom link, to have a think tank on how to improve our energy and effort in our facilitation practice on July 26th – 7:30-8:30 a.m. PT; 10:30 p.m. APAC (FREE)

If you have time, listen to this 6.5 minute video below as I introduce the concept of using your energy wisely when you facilitate. In the text below, I give some very initial thoughts on what effort or energy is needed at each of three stages of facilitation: preparation; delivery; follow-up.

Here are my initial thoughts on the three stages of facilitating where energy and effort is needed:

Preparation stage:

This is the most important place to expend effort and energy. I prefer to do this with a team. I find the sparking of creative ideas between facilitators and client participants is invaluable. This gives you energy versus depleting it especially in times when you have few ideas about how to proceed. I use both the client team and my own external facilitator team to co-design. I choose the external facilitators I work with carefully. I think about how they would be with this client, what skills they have that this client needs and how comfortable I am with this colleague. If I haven’t worked with the colleague before, I plan for more effort and energy. You need to spend time talking about values, how you interact, who does what when and what happens if somebody gets stuck or time is tight. Each person needs to know their roles very clearly. Check out my blog on this.

Preparation also requires making instructions ahead of time, and ensuring that your aims, (rational and experiential in the ToP methodology) are very clear. See this blog for that. Keep your aims in mind in the delivery stage and be explicit about them with participants both before and during the session. This will help you and the participants use less energy and effort getting there (because there is absolute clarity and agreement on why everyone is there). It goes without saying that you need to spend enough time with the client and some of the participants ahead of time to know what the tone and culture of their group is. You need to be aware of places where your own dominance might play out because you are e.g., male-identifying in a female-identifying environment or a white person in a BIPOC environment. You might also not be from their country or know their mother tongue language. Keep all this in mind and give these factors your best effort as you design each activity

Put effort into preparing small instructions in written form for each small group to have on hand during the workshop. You can also put them on a PPT slide or flipchart. This will allow you to relax and be more succinct in your delivery of what you want them to do in small groups. This will ensure that they know exactly what is required of them, how much time they have and how to share the time. There are many examples of written instructions in the templates section of our Silver membership products.

Below is an example of one set of instructions that I have used.

SAMPLE: Small Group Instructions: Refining our strategies on team-building (10-15 minutes)

Your facilitator is the person who most recently bought a large appliance or car. (This is a fun way to quickly put someone in charge of making sure the task is completed)

  1. Your group’s task is to refine the titles developed in the afternoon ToP Consensus Method workshop on how we keep our team strong. Start by asking yourselves:
  • Which titles are clear? Which are not?
  • Which ones do we agree need no change – great as are?
  • Which titles need some fine-tuning because of lack of clarity or words that might be misunderstood, etc.?
  1. Create new titles keeping the intention of the existing suggested holding titles.
  2. Write out in large legible letters on sheets provided
  3. Choose a person to share back with the whole group in a minute or less.

Rule of thumb: Generally, you need to spend at least as much time as your delivery time, sometimes 2-3 x if the group is large or situation complex.

See also this blog on the art of preparation.

Delivery stage:

In my humble opinion, one of the most important things you can put your effort and energy into is relaxing, staying very present, feeling prepared and confident enough so that you can just listen and observe what’s happening. You can notice the body language of participants, the level of chatter, the energy as people lean forward (engaged? tense?) or back (relaxed/ thoughtful? disengaged?) This will give you clues about what is really engaging them or scaring them. Follow this information. Preparing your energy so that you do not over influence them, but instead provide the image of someone who can go any direction with them and has the steadying influence of a strong well-rooted tree to back you (yes, that is me doing a handstand while all visiting our mom/grandma a few months ago – my family was visiting and we were all showing off doing handstands). You are the person that they can look to and lean into and will follow you without hesitation. this is were you put your energy – into your presence, stance, focus and clarity in delivery.

Follow-up stage

In follow-up stage, it is important to also put effort into assessing how things went for you. First, anchor everything that went well – i.e., note every way you would appreciate and thank yourself for the things you did well, obvious and subtle. Then, note and thank yourself for mistakes you made and will learn from and what you wish to do differently. These things are your “harvest”.

I also prepare a really good document for the client. Sometimes they cannot pay for it. And I help them do it and ask them to send me a report so I have a copy. Some of my colleagues have done amazing documents using PowerPoint slide presentations. Personally, I’ve always liked, including some photos of the work they have done in addition to typing up the results and tables, spreadsheets, visually appealing text. I always type the document up in the order of things that happened so they can see the sequence that they’re thinking. Provide a very short summary if they requested. Otherwise the data is just their data. No interpretation for me. I also include a follow up meeting with the client. This helps him think about next steps. I’ve this blog on follow up.

You might also enjoy this blog on assessing your competency levels.

Will you join me on Zoom on July 26 to talk about this further? Here are some questions you can ponder in advance:

  • describe what steps you take to prepare
  •  what parts of facilitation give you energy? what parts take your energy? 
  • where do I want to me more efficient with my effort and energy?
  •  how can I start practicing new ways of using my energy wisely and for creating the best results for all? 

P.S. In the video I talked about kayak surfing. The instructors kindly took some clips of me where I was somewhat successful vs all the times I went into the sea. Watch it here to see how I finally “sort of” got the concept of just the right amount of effort I needed to “surf” sideways (the waves often push you sideways) in my kayak: https://youtu.be/roItlYMPd1E


Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

Leave a Comment