Learning to facilitate

Bringing people together in creative, generative ways energises and excites me. Over the last five years, facilitation has gone from something that I had a hunch that I wanted to do more of, to a core part of my identity as a person, leader and freelancer.

While I’ve done a bit of formal training on facilitation (mostly Liberating Structures and the Art of Hosting), I’ve mostly learnt through reading, trying things out, asking for feedback and learning from other skilled facilitators.

Every now and again I get asked about how to learn to facilitate. Previously, I’ve cobbled together some advice and resources to send, but now I’m glad to have something more substantial (and hopefully more helpful) to share.

In early 2020, my colleague Anna Crooks and I ran a pair of training sessions on facilitation for the Active Gloucestershire team, through my work for the Curiosity Society. For Active Gloucestershire, facilitation is particularly important in catalysing the social movement, we can move. Well-facilitated gatherings can enable schools, employers, religious organisations, neighbourhood groups, social clubs and charities to come together as more than the sum of their parts to increase levels of physical activity across Gloucestershire.

As part of this project, I created a Facilitator’s Handbook (see download link on the left hand side). This resource includes a lot of what we discussed in the training sessions and answers questions that we didn’t have time to fully explore. It includes sections on the role and mindset of the facilitator, planning for how to facilitate, structuring meetings and gatherings, examples of activities and tips for virtual facilitation.

The handbook concludes with a section on Becoming a better facilitator, which I’m pleased to feature below as the new, improved answer to “how can I learn to facilitate?”.

I really love that I learn something new about facilitation every time I do it. In many ways I feel like I’ve barely touched the surface of what’s out there. I’ve learnt a huge amount about virtual facilitation in the last 20 months, and expect that I’m about to receive a similar education in hybrid facilitation in this brave new world.

[If you’re interested in systemic change, I recommend pairing this blog post with Anna Birney’s recent blog, “Facilitation: an essential systemic practice”. It goes deeper into the inner condition of the facilitator, capabilities / skills and different roles that facilitators take on.]


Without further ado, here’s the excerpt. I hope this, and the rest of the handbook, are helpful to you on your facilitation learning journey.

The cover of A Facilitator’s Handbook

Becoming a Better Facilitator

(An excerpt from “A Facilitator’s Handbook”)

What to practise

The best ways to learn to facilitate are to experience, experiment, get feedback, reflect, learn and repeat.

Being a good facilitator isn’t about having an arsenal of activities or flurry of frameworks. Facilitation is a skill that can be learned and practised. Like getting better at playing an instrument or a sport, it helps to break things down into elements that can be practised more deliberately.

Here are some ideas for what to practise:

  • Giving clear instructions. Write them out and practise saying them. Maybe test them with someone else.
  • Asking effective and creative questions. Try this in conversation and in meetings. Notice how people respond and what happens as a result.
  • Thinking through scenarios. Come up with a few different ways a meeting could unfold. It might help to consider how you could close the session well so there are some next steps even if you haven’t got to the place you intended.
  • Judging how much time is needed and adjusting to changing circumstances. Reflect back on meetings where you are facilitating and also those where you are a participant. Where did the agenda slip? Did the agenda go as planned? Should there have been more of an adjustment? What could have been shortened or dropped? Trying improvisational acting or comedy (known as ‘improv’) can also help you to respond creatively in the moment.
  • Listening and observation skills. Listen right to the end of what people are saying rather than auto-completing while you think about how you will respond. Ask yourself during a meeting, what’s the emotional field? How’s the energy of the room?
  • Working with emotion and conflict. Use mindfulness to recognise when you are getting caught up in a wave of emotion. It can help to have a trusted co-facilitator for these moments. It can help to take a breath, maybe give the group a break to cool down, go for a walk and/or have a stretch.

How and where to practise

“You won’t discover and invent anything unless you get used to taking risks and trying new things on a regular basis. Make it a practice to try at least one new thing every time you gamestorm.”

Gamestorming — Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo

Find opportunities to try stuff out in a safe space. This could be in a small internal meeting with trusted colleagues. Testing out ideas in this low-stakes context gives you the space to make mistakes and also to give you the confidence to try things out elsewhere.

Ask for feedback at the end of each session you facilitate about what people appreciated and what they would like to be different. You could ask a colleague ahead of the meeting that you would like them to give you feedback afterwards.

Finally, find opportunities to be well-facilitated. For example, you can find virtual workshops that promise to be participatory. Notice how it feels to be a participant in this sort of space.


If you are stuck with a facilitation problem, Google is your friend! There are many facilitation resources online such as this website dedicated to check-ins.

The Liberating Structures community organises a bunch of workshops that are free to join. This includes opportunities to learn how to apply different structures online. You can join the Slack group to meet people offering their expertise for free, and look at this guide to using Liberating Structures virtually.

The Rees McCann website offers a lot of advice on virtual [and now, hybrid] facilitation, including free guides, a helpful newsletter and some free workshops.

If you prefer listening to reading, the Conversation Factory podcast hosted by Daniel Stillman can provide a lot of inspiration.

Books on facilitation

  • The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters by Priya Parker
  • A Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger
  • Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart by Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Myosai Loh
  • The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown
  • Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo
  • Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter by Daniel Stillman
  • The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation: 11 Key Concepts You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know by Sam Killermann and Meg Bolger

[Update: I’m excited to soon read a couple of recently released books: Holding Change by adriene maree brown and Facilitating Breakthrough by Adam Kahane. I fully expect that I’ll be recommending them to everyone afterwards.]

Guides to virtual facilitation


Thank you to Active Gloucestershire for making this handbook public.

If you found this blog post useful, please do share with your colleagues and friends and give it some claps to help other people to find it. If you think I could help your organisation or initiative through facilitation, please get in touch.



Facilitation, complexity, learning and network weaving. Board Co-chair @ RESULTS UK. Founder @ LondonLIDN. Associate @ Curiosity Society. he/his/him

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Jamie Pett

Facilitation, complexity, learning and network weaving. Board Co-chair @ RESULTS UK. Founder @ LondonLIDN. Associate @ Curiosity Society. he/his/him