Facilitation Patterns

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice. -- Christopher Alexander

What is Facilitation?

Facilitation comes from the latin _facile_, which mean _easy_. In fact, the role of a facilitator in a group setting is to "make things easy". It involves planning, organizing, and setting or supporting rules and goals within such groups. It is my goal here to collect and share many of the tricks, techniques and practices that facilitators use in their work.

Facilitation Patterns

Facilitation Patterns are then general reusable solutions to common facilitation problems. Take a look and let us know what you think!


Hand out numbered index cards to people that raise their hand. Then people can contribute when it comes to their turn.


Don't accept handshakes! If a question is put forth to the group, stop the group from moving on until the question is answered or explicitly dropped.
Ask the group to vote with their thumbs : - *Thumbs Up* - I support the proposal, in fact it's my first choice - *Thumbs Sideways* - It's not my first choice, but I *will* support this proposal if the group decides to go with it. This is different than I abstain! - *Thumbs Down* - I'm vetoing the proposal, and I'd like to be heard immediately after the vote to explain why.



Put on the role of a coach. Discard your bias and stand for the group, not your individual interests.
You get what you measure. So put the things you want your group to focus on up on the wall in big visible charts.
Borrow authority from the group. By prompting the group to make agreements like "[Ground Rules]":/cards/ground_rules.html, you are then able to hold the group accountable to itself.
Don't answer questions. Turn questions back on the group. "That's a great question, does anyone have any ideas?"
Create a fishbowl. Only people sitting in the "fishbowl" can talk. Everyone else gets to listen, but it's easy to step into the fishbowl because there's always a free chair. Fishbowls can allow huge groups (100+) to have meaningful discussions.
Break the large group into smaller groups where each group is given a task to complete by itself. These smaller groups will work much faster and be more effective. Usually you'll combine the output of each group's separate work later.
Use a gathering ritual to gently bring the focus of the group back to itself.
Monitor the energy and engagement in the room. When it runs low, ask people to [get_up] to do something like [affinity_grouping] or even just [take_a_break].
Invite others to talk.
Write down off topic ideas so that the person that brought them up feels heard and so that the group can finish the current conversation.
Use a physical model, a whiteboard drawing, something on paper, anything so that we are once again side-by-side, discussing a model that is outside of ourselves.
Introduce a talking stick. Only the person holding the talking stick is allowed to say anything.talk.
Capture the important ideas on index cards or stickies. One idea per card. These ideas can then be talked to, prioritized, sorted, tabled, etc.


As facilitator, you should write. This will slow things down (limited by how fast you can write) and give you more control of where the conversation goes as well as the quality of information being produced.
Ask the group to stop talking and brainstorm ideas quietly for a [time_box]ed amount of time. They can [use_cards] to write them down, and may use [affinity_grouping] to sort them afterward.
Allow your participants to write, prefereably all at the same time. Then, use a pattern like [mind_map] or [stack] to make sense of what they've written.

ground rules

Decide how to decide! There are no right answers. Decide by consensus, voting, fiat, or experimentation. Make sure you write down your decision strategy so that the group remembers it.
Add "No Stories" to your [ground_rules].
Suggest "One Conversation" as one of the [ground_rules] to keep this from happening.
Use agreed upon gestures to express agreement and readiness to talk. Gestures provide a non-verbal, non-disruptive outlet to be heard that also allows the group to become better at self facilitation..


Only ask questions that you actually want answers for. Instead of leading questions, ask open ended questions. Instead of "Did X happen?", ask "What happened?"
Use declarative language to promote an environment of trust and empowerment.
Don't use the word "you". As an added benefit, the word "I" forces me to put things in my own context.
Use this template : "I see X, I feel Y, I imagine Z" to put things in the context of your own experience. As in [i_language] when expressed in terms of _me_, my statements are more powerful, more true, and less likely to provoke you.
Make a request. Ask for what you want and be okay with the reply.
Ask for the amount of this thing on a discrete scale. This allows you to quantify, measure and even graph over time things that we often think of as intangible and hard to pin down.
Use "and".
Build team cohesion by using "We" instead of "I". This is especially effective when talking about positive things like accomplishments.


Define your role up front, and set people's expectations correctly.
Ask the group to agree on [ground_rules] to guide their discussion.
Start every meeting with the phrase "The purpose of the meeting is X". This forces you to "begin with the end in mind":http://philosophersnotes.com/ideas/show/stephen-covey-stephen-covey-begin-with-the-end-in-mind
Put the agenda on the wall to allow everyone to take ownership of it and of keeping the meeting on track. By having one agenda on the wall as opposed to many agenda's in people's hands, you make it easy to change and negotiate as well.


Structure everything in 3's.


Find an ally in the group. Or two, or three. You might start with the person that brought you in. After that, inquire about who the thought leaders, the connectors, mavens, and salespeople of the group are. Those will be your most effective allies.


Model the "low status" behaviors (asking questions, asking for help...) you want to encourage. Also by taking other "low status" actions, like sitting down or lowering your voice, you signal that it's okay to be low status in the current environment.
If you suspect safety may be low, take the group's temperature. You can use [on_a_scale_of] to quantify their temperature.

state of mind

Model that choice for your team. Choose to trust them and you'll be amazed at what happens.
Keep no foolish consistencies, if it doesn't work, throw it out!
You can can trust that they heard exactly what they needed to hear. Furthermore, you can use their reaction as a clue to learn more about who they are and how they work.

time keeping

When meetings are running late, ask the group what it wants to do. If you choose to continue, be sure to [time_box] the rest of the meeting. People will feel respected and empowered.


Before making a suggestion or providing feedback, find the one thing that will be most helpful, and then say that, and no more.
Gather data to from the group to bring about this shared understanding.
Restate someone's point back to them to allow them to both feel heard and validate your understanding.

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