Workshop facilitation techniques for exceptional results

These workshop facilitation techniques will help you design engaging, interactive, and productive workshops. They’re ideal for groups of 9 or more people.

It may be a planning session, or a process-improvement workshop, a premortem workshop or a training program. Whenever you have a group of people that need to collaborate to achieve a specific goal, these workshop facilitation techniques will help. 

(And most can all be used in face-to-face and virtual workshops!)

Resources that you’ll need for many of these facilitation techniques:

  • Face-to-face resources: space to move around, flipcharts and stands, BluTak or tape for moving flipcharts to the wall, post-it notes or sticky stars. Plenty of pens.
  • Virtual resources: break-out rooms, an annotate function (during presentations), an easy-to-use whiteboard, simple polls.

Also, some of the techniques have additional requirements (such as a pile of old magazines, you’ll see!).

Let’s jump in.

Workshop facilitation Techniques

Very roughly speaking these workshop facilitation techniques are in the order that you might use them in a workshop (though you don’t need them all, just select what you feel will work best).

Setting ground rules

It can be useful to set the ground rules, the ‘what do we expect of each other’, at the start of the session. Often, it’s easiest just to include these in your opening presentation (not as a facilitation technique).

However, it can be useful to make this into a small exercise, particularly with more senior participants (who are used to controlling their environment).

Simply ask:

What behavior should we expect of each other, while we’re in this workshop?

Give people time. The participants will need a moment to think. Then gather the responses.

You can ask additional prompting questions as well if you wish: “any other ideas?”. If there are points that you’d like to add yourself, ask: “is it OK if I add…”.

Gather all the responses on a flipchart and post on the wall (or save a PPT slide if it’s a virtual workshop) so that you can gently remind participants of what they have agreed, if needed!

Defining success

Alternatively, another way you can address this early in the workshop is by asking participants to define success.

In this case, simple ask:

Let’s imagine we’ve reached the end of the day. It has been a huge success! What was it that made it a success?

You’ll likely get a mix of responses. For example, you’ll get some responses about expected behaviors, you’ll get some responses about outcomes. You can help the participants by grouping the responses as you receive them.

This has the benefit that you now know what the participants want to achieve!

And you can also do this as a break-out activity (see ‘break-outs’ below).

Icebreakers

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on icebreakers in this article, here’s a great icebreaker resources site.

One thing that many people forget: try and select an icebreaker that has a learning point you can connect to the rest of the workshop. Ideally an icebreaker fits within the theme of the day, it’s not just an isolated activity.

The most fundamental technique of all: asking great questions

To facilitate means ‘to make easier’. To make progress easier. Or make learning easier. The best way you can do this is to ask great questions. All the remaining workshop facilitation techniques rely on your ability to do this.

More here on questioning techniques.

Here are 5 types of powerful facilitation questions:

Opening questions that are ideal for opening a topic. For example:

  • What are your thoughts about this?
  • What experience do you have, that relates to this topic?
  • What opportunities do you see?

Inclusive questions that bring other participants into the conversation. For example:

  • What do other people think?
  • Does anyone have a different perspective?
  • Geoff, what are your views on this?

Clarifying questions that resolve ambiguity and explore further. For example:

  • Please, tell me more?!
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • Can you please explain in more detail?

Reflective questions that encourage deeper exploration. For example:

  • How did that make you feel?
  • What did you learn from that experience?
  • How successful was that?

Consensus building questions that move the team forwards. For example:

  • What themes can you see, in our discussion?
  • From the discussion, what do we all agree on?
  • What are our areas of difference? (And, who can propose a way forward?)

The ORID questioning technique can also be a useful structure to use when asking questions.

As you’re designing your workshop and the details of each session, keep your workshop goals in mind. And as you’re preparing your questions, ask yourself “will the answers move us towards the goals”.

And remember to listen to the answers!

Then, if you get questions thrown at you during the workshop, you’ll have a strong foundation for confident answers.

Using ‘break-outs’ to create smaller working groups

All the workshop facilitation techniques in this article can make use of break-out activities. It’s simply the process of breaking the participants into smaller working groups to complete a task, then gathering everyone back together to share the results.

I recommend that you have a plan for how you’ll use break-out activities. Then adjust that plan through-out the day depending on the energy and engagement levels.

To prepare break-out activities:

  • Set-up the activity on a slide (for clarity)​
  • Make sure you have provided the resources required for the task​
  • Aim for 3-5 people per group​ (large than that and there will be ‘bystanders’ in each group)
  • Consider allocating different topics to different groups​
  • Encourage participants to take notes, or develop a slide to share​ during the debrief
  • Specify the time they have to complete the task

If you’re using virtual break-out rooms, make sure everyone is familiar with the technology and how to return to the main room.

You’ll need to give some thought to your debrief questions, to use when everyone is back in the main room. You can use the 5 types of facilitation question outlined above to guide you.

And depending on how many groups you have, it’s not always necessary to have every group present back for every activity (it can become very time consuming). For example if you have 5 groups, you might let 2-3 groups present back, and then give everyone else an opportunity with the following question:

We won’t get every group to present for every activity, it will be too time consuming. However, I would be interested to hear, do any of the remaining groups have anything new that they’d particularly like to share?

This keeps everyone involved, and in later activities you can start with the groups who didn’t get a chance to present previously.

‘Picture sorts’ and other projective facilitation techniques

Projective techniques are borrowed from market research. The American Marketing Association defines them as:

Projective techniques are indirect methods used in qualitative research. These techniques allow researchers to tap into consumers’ deep motivations, beliefs, attitudes and values.

A picture sort is a very simple example. Imagine that you’re doing some work on your customer service experience. You want to define how the customer will feel about your customer service.

Bring a pile of old magazines (as wide a variety of magazines as possible!). Place them on the table with the instruction:

I want you to cut out the pictures that you feel represent the type of customer service that we want to provide. Be as imaginative and creative as you like in selecting the pictures!

Allow the participants some time for the exercise, then have the discussion about what these pictures represent. You’ll find you get a much richer response from the participants.

Other examples include:

  • Using animals as reference. For example: “If this team was an animal, which animal would it be?”
  • Using famous people as a source of inspiration. For example: “What would Bill Gates tell us to do? Or, what would Donald Trump tell us to do?”

These types of activity need a little set-up. Explain that they’re a creative technique that help us be creative and thin in different ways.

These projective facilitation techniques can be particularly useful when energy is low and you need to inject a fresh perspective to re-energize the participants.

‘Walk the wall’ workshop facilitation techniques

This technique is more specific to a face-to-face environment. It makes use of the meeting room to encourage people to be up and active.  It also uses the break-outs we mentioned earlier.

Put flipcharts up around the walls. Create your breakout groups and assign them to the flipcharts (get them up on their feet and at the flipcharts!). Have each group work on a different task (you can pre-prepare the flipcharts with the task at the top, if you wish).

Then, once the groups have had time to work on their topic, ask them all to ‘walk the wall’ and explore the other topics too. (You can assign one team member from each group to stay behind at their flipchart to explain and facilitate the discussions, if you wish.)

As a variation of this facilitation technique you can simply write the topics at the top of each flipchart, then allow the participants to choose the topics that are of most interest to them and move around the room as they wish.

This activity can be adapted endlessly (use your imagination!).

Specialist workshop facilitation techniques

There are also many specialist facilitation tools and techniques.

Brainstorming? Try these specialist brainstorming techniques.

Looking for quality improvement? Try these six sigma techniques.

Training and development? Take a look at these group facilitation techniques and methods.

You can also use your imagination to create new techniques, the possibilities are limitless!

Finally, techniques for reaching consensus

There are one or two workshop facilitation techniques that are useful to reach a consensus. They are ideal towards the end of a topic, when there are lots of ideas which have been captured (on flipcharts or a PPT) that need to be distilled down.

Face-to-face: use pens or ‘sticky stars’. Tell the participants that they each have 3 ‘votes’ and they should mark the 3 points that they wish to prioritize. You can provide specific criteria, for example: most valuable, most cost-effective, best aligned to our strategy, etc.

Virtually: achieve a similar outcome with the annotate function in your virtual rooms, or quickly create a poll based on the content the teams have created.

These are great techniques for focusing the thinking before moving to next steps or an action plan.

Workshop facilitation techniques in summary

Facilitation is all about making progress easier. If you’re leading a workshop with 9 or more people you can use these techniques to help the group make progress:

  • Setting ground rules
  • Defining success
  • Asking great questions
  • Using ‘break outs’ to create smaller working groups
  • ‘Picture sorts’ and other projective facilitation techniques
  • ‘Walk the wall’ facilitation techniques
  • Specialist facilitation techniques
  • Techniques for reaching consensus

My final tip: as you’re using these techniques, consider the social styles of the group you’re working with and adapt your facilitation to match their preferences.

Copy link