Discovery Techniques

8 Instincts of Great Facilitators

Somehow I got you to click on another article about facilitation. It was my clever title, wasn’t it.

The last one was about formal facilitation, setting up a workshop to get structured responses from participants. In this one, I’ll talk about behaviors to get meaningful input outside a planned workshop.

I’ve cultivated these habits because I’m often in a situation where people around a table are ready, willing, and able to contribute, but don’t know how. You’re talking about a certain feature, or what users need. Or you’re just trying to make sense of the design challenge.

  • Example 1: Last week I facilitated a conversation with a product team that’s struggling with enumerating their priorities.
  • Example 2: I’m gearing up for a conversation between factions within an organization who have different perspectives on an issue.

I can’t be the person in the room setting direction–just one more voice trying to assert a decision without engaging others in that process. Instead, I’m the person in the room who’s making sure everyone is heard. And guiding our conversation to useful conclusions.

1. Ask, Don’t Answer

To that end, people have to put their ideas on the table, so they can be examined and discussed. That means the more you’re talking, the less you’re hearing others.

Sometimes you talk to provide context or explain. “Answering” isn’t just responding to questions: it’s also the instinct to help people out when they appear to be floundering or experiencing doubt. Remember: you can also help them by prompting them to elaborate, or just keeping quiet to let them fill the silence.

Elaboration is good because it gets more data on the table. Elaboration gives us more options to explore, more insight into a perspective.

I keep these phrases top-of-mind, so that I default to asking a question or at least provoking elaboration:

  • Tell me more about…
    Pick any word or phrase from the last thing someone said and get them to elaborate on it.
  • How does this connect to…
    Get people to spell out relationships, which are often not easily seen by everyone in the room and the most important aspect of our ideas.
  • Why do *you* think…
    Turn questions around onto the asker, and don’t get sucked into being the authoritative voice.

2. Solicit Disparate Voices

Part of facilitation is making sure everyone contributes, whether they think they deserve to or not. Design thrives on multiple perspectives, and the more perspectives we can integrate into our products, the better they’ll be.

I keep tabs on who talks the most and the least, and I use these phrases to make sure everyone gets a chance to say something:

  • Let’s go around the table.
    At any point in your conversation, switch from free-for-all to a round-table style of conversation.
  • I didn’t hear from you.
    Pick on someone who hasn’t said much. Sometimes, someone just needs a nudge. But, don’t bully. If they don’t want to contribute, leave them alone.
  • Write down your thoughts on Post-its.
    Convert the informal conversation to a make-shift workshop by getting people to chunk their answers. Sometimes people don’t speak up because they need time to gather their thoughts.

3. Slow Things Down

Perhaps the jury’s still out on whether 2017 was a banner year for journalism. One things is true: I started reading the news a lot more. One technique I heard a few times from journalists was “let’s slow this down.” By moderating the speed in a meeting, you can see how an assertion breaks down, and how it relates to pieces before and after it.

When participants take you through a stream of ideas, you can ask them to slow it down in a few different ways.

  • Wait, say that again.
    Ask someone to repeat themselves, and you’d be surprised that it rarely yields the exact same statement. Instead, people see this as an opportunity to talk longer, so they attempt to restate their position. Using different words often gives us a new way of understanding what they’re trying to say.
  • Let’s start at the beginning.
    Tell someone to start again to cue them to reveal foundational concepts and assumptions. The human brain’s capacity for making leaps is great for creativity, but presents a challenge when we’re trying to follow someone’s thought process.
  • Take me through it step by step.
    Like starting at the beginning, ask them to go through an idea step by step, cuing that you need them to build the argument for you.

4. Drive Toward Consensus, Through Conflict

In design disagreement is inevitable. Great value comes from disagreement, so long as the conflict is healthy. As participants seek mutual understanding, they flesh out their own positions.

While designers frown upon deciding by consensus–we should be making decisions based on user needs and success criteria, not mutual agreement–there is value in mutual understanding. Participants should be given the opportunity to understand a position before they agree or disagree. And among multiple reasonable positions, teams need facilitators to help them reach a decision.

To feed healthy conflict and arrive at a decision I use these patterns:

  • Help us understand…
    When a position isn’t shared, get someone to elaborate their position by asking them to teach us about it.
  • What considerations are important…
    Ask the group to declare the criteria by which they’re making a decision. At the very least, lay out the considerations guiding the decision. When the positions themselves can’t rest on their merits alone, you can have a meta conversation to clarify how the decision will be made.
  • What themes do you see…
    Seek out common ground by identifying themes, unifying threads, or shared assumptions. Whatever the outcome, getting to a set of basics that people agree upon can help drive prioritizing a range of decisions.

5. Distill Value

Beyond understanding, participants need to see the importance of each other’s contributions. By clarifying the value of a position, you put it into context–the meeting’s purpose or the project’s purpose.

Here are some phrases I use to prompt people to elaborate on value:

  • Here’s my take-away…
    Recap the important parts. By reflecting the value, you separate the position from the person who has it, to make it easier to critique or respond to.
  • Would you say the crucial point is…
    Give the person a chance to clarify their position. This gives the speaker an opportunity to validate the position, and to see if other participants have suggestions.
  • Explain why that’s important.
    Put them on the spot to explain the value. If they struggle, add “explain why that’s important to our users” or some other qualifier to give them more of a framework to work with.

6. Translate Across Disciplines

Within a single discipline, there is usually a shared set of concerns, such that in mono-discipline conversations much can be left unsaid. One challenge in conversations with people from different disciplines is that they bring different assumptions to the table. Translating across disciplines means clarifying the impact to different people. For people from various disciplines, the consequences of a position or idea may not be self-evident.

To help bridge the gap between disciplines, I rely on these patterns. You may need to throw yourself on your sword, feigning ignorance to get participants to elaborate their ideas for others.

  • What’s missing from…
    Ask people to point out the gaps in each other’s ideas. As the facilitator, you must ensure that participants don’t see this as an opportunity to shoot down ideas. Instead, the mindset is finding the holes so we know what needs plugging.
  • What would this entail from you?
    Give participants a chance to describe the effort required to address the idea. Asking them to share the likely activities gives others a window into the hidden challenges of a position.
  • What do you think we should do about it?
    Let participants elaborate on their ideas for dealing with the consequences. Not every meeting is about devising solutions, but taking some time to talk through these ideas gives everyone else more fodder for unpacking their position.

7. Favor Concrete Outcomes

It’s easy for conversations, even well-facilitated ones, to spin at abstract levels. I won’t doubt the value of those conversations, as I appreciate a good philosophical debate. But if someone asks you “what happened in the meeting?” what will you tell them?

Concrete outcomes means everyone knows what they’re supposed to do.

  • What are your next steps?
    Ask people whether they know what they’re going to do next. The perennial meeting question, but useful when targeted at individual participants.
  • Do you have what you need?
    Check that participants have sufficient inputs. As people start to form a sense of their next steps–corrections they need to make to designs, additional research activities, etc.–you make sure they have clarity and no obstacles.
  • So what has to change?
    Instead of focusing on process or inputs, ask about the product (or design, or report, whatever exists today). You can point at it to talk about what aspects need to be fixed or improved or varied.

8. Use Collaboration Tools

Turning to a tool can help people express their ideas. When saying something aloud is challenging, people sometimes fare better when drawing a picture or writing out a list.

Tools also give facilitators a way of checking reality. By capturing something said or done in writing or pixels, I can reflect it back at the person to validate that I heard them correctly.

Finally, tools enable some of the previous instincts like favoring concrete outcomes or turning ideas into action.

  • Let’s capture in real time.
    Prompt yourself to record what you hear. It’s a way of signaling to the group that you’re going to take notes. Do it in a way that’s visible, so people can see and respond.
  • Show me what you mean…
    Get someone to draw their position. Changing the communication channel gives other people more to respond to.
  • Let me add that to our task manager…
    Drop tasks into the team’s task manager (ticketing system, project management software, kanban board, what-have-you). This turns insights and perspectives into actions, and creates accountability.

Need some hand cards to help you keep these top-of-mind? Sure you do, and since that’s kinda my jam, download 8 instincts reference cards here.

As I reflect on these instincts, I could perhaps boil them down to three interrelated behaviors:

  1. Get more information on the table
  2. Make sure everyone understands that information
  3. Turn that information into meaningful next steps

Designers worry about being the voice of authority. Authority doesn’t come from being right all the time, or having an answer to every question.

Instead, authority comes from helping people tap into their own value.


Looking for an experienced team to help define your product, perhaps by running a great design workshop? EightShapes has been serving organizations like yours more than 10 years. We work on projects of all shapes and sizes, bringing to bear the best design tools and techniques. Have a project that could use our help? Let us know.

Practical Design Discovery (A Book Apart, 2017)

This article is part of a series on discovery techniques, an extension of my latest book Practical Design Discovery (A Book Apart, 2017).