The Top Three Facilitation Challenges Every Facilitator Encounters

The Top Three Facilitation Challenges Every Facilitator Encounters

Dec 28, 2023

Updated in 2023.

Tips for Nurturing More Inclusive and Equitable Discussions with Diverse Groups

Facilitation is a newish word for an age-old art. Good facilitation begins with listening; like any art, doing it well requires skill. Anyone who has facilitated a meeting or learning event knows it takes dedication, perseverance, and deep reflection on what the group really needs to progress — and the more we listen with care, the easier it is to figure out. To be effective, facilitators must nurture the creativity and perspective of people looking at challenges from different angles to create change-making discussions.

In this article, Integrated Work facilitators share their best strategies as socially conscious leaders for overcoming three common in-person and virtual facilitation stumbling blocks. They outline how facilitators can better align diverse perspectives, handle silence, and manage participation levels by incorporating principles of justice, inclusion, diversity, and equity. Read on for their suggestions to inspire curiosity with prompts that encourage additional voices and spark inclusive, meaningful discussions.

The challenge: Aligning participants in a diverse group

Working with people from different backgrounds or cultures can present unique opportunities for collaboration and creativity — but it also brings challenges. It can be tough to facilitate a conversation among people who work in the same field but have different roles and responsibilities or come from different backgrounds or cultures. Participants may also live in different locations (urban, rural, or frontier) and serve disparate populations (racial/ethnic, cultural, etc.). With all these variations, participants can have trouble seeing one another’s perspective. 

The strategy: Use a few big questions to frame the conversation:

  • Who is most impacted by this issue?
  • What is underlying the issue? What is the source of it?
  • What are the barriers to change?

It can be helpful to present a few responses from well-known sources or provide examples of how the group might respond to the question. These responses are typically ideas most participants already understand or know about. They help get the conversation started and provide an opportunity to clarify terminology.

Preface the conversation by saying we’re here to align or level-set; participants can confirm what they’ve just heard and add to or challenge it. As participants work, sit down at the table with them and ask clarifying questions. Encourage them to explore opportunities for collaboration and creativity while working with people from different backgrounds.

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The challenge: Handling silence when people don’t engage

This is something we often call “crickets” — as in, the sound of crickets chirping in a dead-quiet room. As peer learning facilitators, our job is to create a space where colleagues learn from and inspire one another, and to encourage more people to share their stories and experiences. However, to do that, they need to talk with one another. While members of our peer learning teams show up and are eager to support one another, there are often moments — sometimes long moments — of silence that ensue after a facilitative question.

The strategy: Consider a few approaches from our facilitator’s “toolbox” to get past these silences:

  • Get comfortable with silence. Even the best facilitators experience crickets. Silence respects the thought process and allows participants to consider their responses. But sometimes the conversation needs some help to get going. One way to encourage responses is to start with a scenario and related questions. Take, for example, this starting question: “Think about the last training you led. Consider the types of questions that were asked by participants. What were some of the prevailing issues?” Providing participants with a scenario they recognize can help them identify something from their past to share with peers.
  • Create a sense of belonging for people with different identities and roles by acknowledging that we’re all in this together. If we aren’t finding solutions that are good for everyone, we’re unlikely to make progress toward solutions. Build a sense of belonging by reminding everyone that the future needs us to be connected enough to overcome our divisions. 
  • Tap into technology. Sometimes individuals don’t want to be the first to speak or worry they are talking too much. At Integrated Work, we use the pointer or arrow feature in our webinar platform, which allows participants to select from a list of predetermined responses to a question. When they click on the screen, their names appear on the pointer. Then, we can ask them to elaborate on their selection — in other words, we’re inviting them to be the first to talk. It also provides some context to ask more specific and relevant questions. For example, if the goal is to encourage participants to share their experience around a large-scale initiative, we might ask participants to use their pointers to let us know if they are in the planning stage, in progress, or at completion. Rather than asking participants to share their experience with an initiative in general, we can ask specific questions tailored to each stage.

The challenge: Managing participation levels 

Every group has people who are always eager to share their ideas. These “over-participators” can help carry a conversation when the group has limited expertise. However, over-participators can limit opportunities for participation from people who may feel overlooked, are introverted, or take longer to process information.

The strategy: Adopt a few approaches to create equitable opportunities to participate:

  • Create a safe space for conversation by establishing community agreements upfront and asking folks to self-regulate during the meeting. For instance, encourage people to step back if they’ve been participating a lot or step forward if they’ve been quiet. Be clear about whether people should raise their hands or jump into the conversation. Provide reminders about these agreements throughout the meeting as needed.
  • Emphasize the group’s interdependence and its importance for broader success. Being willing to give and receive openly helps us realize that we don’t do anything in isolation. If people are willing to speak but not open to being influenced in return, they continue to place primacy on what they know or have. Encourage people to be willing to be influenced as they listen to new ideas and voices.  
  • Offer encouragement. Say “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet” or call on small groupings of people who haven’t yet spoken. For example, “John, Judy, or Keisha, what’s your perspective?”
  • Try using different facilitation formats to encourage quieter people to speak up, such as small breakout groups or exercises where answers are written down and then shared.

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Lead image by Christina Morillo