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5 Ways to Facilitate Better Conversations

Are you a newly hired manager? How about an up-and-coming high-potential employee? Maybe you are a client-facing management consultant? If you’re any of these, more often than not, you’ve been put in the precarious position of having to come to a consensus or outcome in a meeting with multiple personalities and opinions. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not with my blog-post on how to hold more effective meetings, and my handy-dandy Facilitator’s handbook below. I’ve got you covered.

Here are five things you can do to facilitate better conversations.

Have no more than 8 people in the room. Why 8? It’s the maximum amount of people that can fit around a round conference or dining table. Decisions are made everyday by everyone based on input and some level of consideration. The problem with people is different people consider and hold different things important. And when people put differing values on different things, they almost always come to differing conclusions and decisions. Sure, it would be great to ask everyone in a company what they think, but if you’re going to make an efficient and effective decision, you need to minimize the number of empowered and accountable people for that decision. Facilitating a conversation with 20 people is not only impossible, it’s ineffective.

Don’t judge any answer. In other words, don’t reply to any statement that a participant in the room makes with any of the following  words:

  • “Great!”
  • “Nope, try again.”
  • “Sorry, I don’t know about that.”
  • “Perfect!”
  • “You are absolutely correct.”
  • “Nah, dude.”

It’s better to answer with something along the lines of “Thanks for your answer. What does the rest of the group think?” Your job isn’t to know the answer. It’s to get the group to come to agreement on an answer.

Capture what others are saying on a medium that everyone can see. It could be a flip-chart, a white-board, a screen-projected Word-document or scrabble pieces on the table. Anything to show that you are listening, and the group can use as a reference point when trying to make connections between thoughts or decisions.

Probe. Similar to the previous point, when you probe, it demonstrates that you are listening. Ask something like:

  • Tell me more.
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Clarify that point for me.
  • What makes you say that?

It will help people form clarity around their thoughts and opinions.

Finally, as a facilitator, ask questions; don’t give answers. In fact, I’m not going to tell you why you should ask questions instead of give answers. I’ll just ask you: Why do you think a good facilitator uses questions to keep the discussion moving? Take a moment to think about your answer, then write it in the comments below.


4 thoughts on “5 Ways to Facilitate Better Conversations”

  1. (Nonjudgmental or non-accusatory) Questions are good for opening up the floor; effectively, they make for safe space where people can contribute their perspective without fear of being deemed right or wrong. On the other hand, evaluative statements/responses (esp. of the moral variety: “that is good”, “that is bad”; or of the practical or functional variety: “that would work”, “that would definitely not work”) can often make individual contributors feel stupid, wrong, unvalued, and otherwise disincentivized from contributing further. The qualifier here, I think, is when contributors are secure enough (I.e., either individually or culturally/collectively) to admit and even welcome being deemed “incorrect”–in such cases, I think evaluative statements are ok (and actually, sometimes necessary). Perhaps there are different rules of engagement depending on the audience: how secure people feel about being told they are right or wrong.

    1. Hey Ezra,

      Thanks for reading and the comment.

      Great points. I think your statements are valid – the terms of engagement differ from situation to situation. However, I’m a firm believer that when you are in the role of facilitator, your job is to not provide any evaluative statements and instead ask non-judgmental or non-accusatory questions. Certainly, you can encourage other participants to be evaluative.


      1. That approach makes sense to me, generally. In your experience, is the goal of most facilitation to get people to be honest, to solve a problem, to brainstorm, or is it something else?

        1. Like most things in life, there’s a billion permutations, but generally, the role of the facilitator is to make sure the group collectively gets to some goal. That goal could be for any of the above things you’ve mentioned!

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