This is Part Three in a four part series in planning, facilitating, and evaluating a workshop, designed to assist you if you’re new to the world of workshop facilitation or want to find more ways to improve what you’re already doing.
In Part One, we focused on essential things to consider before planning your workshop. In Part Two, we learned how best to structure a workshop for maximum effect, using my workshop breakdown. This week, let’s focus on how to be an effective workshop facilitator. Elements from Part One and Part Two are found throughout Part Three, so make sure to read up on Parts One and Two before diving into Part Three.
While a nicely structured workshop is great, knowing how to be engaging with your workshop material and with your participants is just as important. Regardless of the format (a staff meeting, community group meeting, or an interactive workshop) or your own personality traits, you want your time with your participants to be productive and meaningful.
The role of a workshop facilitator is, in some ways, similar to the role of a symphony conductor. If you’ve ever attended a symphony concert, the conductor stands on a podium, conducting baton in hand, with her back turned to the audience. The conductor is there for a specific purpose: to make sure that that musicians stay on track, making sure that each section of the symphony is able to stand out, as well as blend in nicely with the rest of the symphony.
Like a conductor, your role as the workshop facilitator is to guide the participants as they work towards meeting the objectives of the workshop. You are there to help the participants learn about the workshop topic and to apply it to their current outlook. By putting your personal spin into the workshop, and by planning well in advanced, you can make your participants’ time in your workshop very valuable.
Before we begin, here are some common misconceptions about people who regularly facilitate workshops:
*Workshop facilitators are primarily extroverts: In my personal life, most people would say that I have an introverted personality, and it’s assumed that someone who is introverted wouldn’t want to be “in the spotlight”. While that may be true for me in certain areas of my personal life, I’m “on” when it’s time to facilitate. This doesn’t me that I’m being fake. What it means is I’m well prepared and I know what I’m talking about. Regardless of your personality, if you know your stuff, plan ahead, and are able to go with the flow when changes are needed, you can be an effective workshop facilitator.
*Workshop facilitators are the authority: You should know as much about your topic as you can, but your role as the facilitator should be more supportive rather than authoritative. Yes, you’re in front of the room and your participants will be expecting you to know more than they do on the topic; however, it’s important to show your participants that you’re there to support their thinking, encourage everyone to contribute to the discussion, and be open to the ways they process the information.
*Workshop facilitators are never anxious: Whether it’s your first time as a facilitator or your 10th workshop, anxiety always creeps in. Concerns over whether participants will actually show up, having enough copies of handouts, and making sure that you stick to your agenda will always be at the forefront of your mind. There will always be things that are beyond your control. You’ll always deal with some level of anxiety, but try to focus on understanding the needs and the dynamics of your participants in order to help them work together to get the best out of everyone.
Now that we’ve gotten these misconceptions out of the way, let’s look at the important skills that you need to develop to be successful at workshop facilitation:
Be a good listener– Your participants should be doing most of the talking. Though you’ll be guiding them through the discussions, ice breakers, activities, and reflection, most of your time should be listening to what the participants are saying. To show that you’ve been listening, speak back what you’ve heard the participants say, and ask for any clarification. Developing your listening skills will help you notice any changes within the group (i.e., if something has triggered a few participants) and also shows that you’re paying attention.
Encourage discussion– Asking for clarification opens the space for more discussion. Questions such as “How does this apply to our topic?” or even “How does this apply to your life/work?” are always good. A rule of thumb is to encourage all participants to share their views, even if their experience has not been your experience. The lived experiences of your participants most likely will reflect how they feel about the workshop topic. For example, doing a workshop on partner communication around condom use may look very different if the participants have all experienced domestic violence compared to those who have not experienced that type of trauma. This is why your listening skills should be sharp. Encouraging more discussion may derail your agenda a bit, but make sure you stay on task or table the conversation by utilizing your parking lot/bike rack.
Summarize key points– Summarize any insights, “a-has” or key points made by the participants throughout the workshop. Use your easel paper and markers. Have paper on hand for participants who are interested in writing down the key points as well. Make connections to how the participants are processing the information, ask for clarity, and provide unbiased feedback. Use words that the participants understand, and even ask participants for words or phrases to use. Make sure to check in with the participants to see if what you’re writing down is what they mean and are in agreement with.
Promote a welcoming environment– No one should feel dismissed based on their opinions. At the same time, you may have to shut down unrelated side conversations, as they can be disruptive to the participants. Depending on how much time you have, you can see the dynamics of the group. While I try to encourage as much interaction as possible, I always know that I will have some participants who may not be open to speaking in the larger group. While some facilitators like to call individuals out for this, I don’t like to. There are a variety of reasons why someone may not be contributing vocally to the discussion, but you can always encourage their participation in others ways, such as encouraging quieter participants to speak more freely in breakout groups.
Create connections– Sharing your connection to the topic can build a rapport with your participants. When I facilitate my “Good Girls Don’t Have Sex” workshop, I like to share with my participants my own experiences with how spirituality and images of women and girls of color in the media shaped my views on sexuality. I am comfortable doing this because it humanizes me and shows my participants how invested I am in the topic. You don’t have to share deeply personal stuff, however. Sharing a general story of your interest in the topic can be enough to gauge your participants’ interest. If you do decide to disclose something personal, use your discretion, and disclose only what you’re comfortable with. Developing connections can happen throughout the workshop, including during the introductions and discussion, as well as in the large group or small group activities.
Be neutral– Just like your participants will come to the workshop with their own biases, you will as well. Your focus should be on guiding the participants in a way that helps them to stay engaged in order to reach a successful outcome. Don’t set yourself up for a frustrating experience by expecting your participants to agree with you. That’s what encouraging discussion is for. Their insights may be something that you’ve never thought of, and vice versa. If you are invested in a particular outcome from the participants (or if the agency or organization that’s asked for you to facilitate is looking for a particular outcome), you may want to consider if facilitating this particular workshop is for you.
Know when to intervene– Group dynamics are always interesting, and there may be times where you have to step in to diffuse a situation. Verbal attacks based on personal views may happen, and when it does, bring the group back to the ground rules/safe space agreements that were created by the group at the beginning of the workshop. Appropriate humor is also a good way to diffuse, and if all else fails, politely confront the disruptive participant. You can also ask for a staff member at the agency or organization to intervene as well.
Facilitation a workshop is a complex blend of leadership, being neutral, and knowing when to step back. When you focus on the outcomes and processes, utilize your skills, and support your participants in order to come to a successful outcome, being a workshop facilitator will be a very rewarding experience for you and for your participants.
Get ready for Part Four…
I hope you’ve found this workshop breakdown helpful. If you want more in-depth knowledge on creating a workshop (or if you are interested in inviting me to facilitate a workshop for you), read more about my consulting services and contact me to see how we can work together. In Part Four, we will discuss how to gather feedback to improve your workshop for next time.