logo image

TD Magazine Article

Agility Will Elevate Your Facilitation Skills

To be an effective facilitator, adopt an adaptive facilitation strategy.


Thu Feb 01 2024

Agility Will Elevate Your Facilitation Skills

To be an effective facilitator, adopt an adaptive facilitation strategy.

Leadership development has evolved to embrace agility, adaptability, and out-of-the-box thinking. At the heart of that evolution lies the skill of facilitation, which empowers individuals, trainers, leaders, and hosts to create environments where collaborative synergy, groundbreaking innovation, and problem solving thrive.


Having served the leadership development needs of organizations from a wide variety of industries, the Best Workplace—a consulting agency—developed the Agile Facilitation Mastery Framework, a model for unlocking the true potential of facilitation in leading teams forward. Hundreds of professionals in facilitation have used the framework to gain great success.

Four essential competencies

Agile facilitation is not a one-size-fits-all methodology. When you're facilitating, it's crucial to be agile in your approach, knowing when to guide, when to step back, and when to pivot. To excel in the role, you must develop an adaptive facilitation strategy that responds to the unique needs of each situation and audience. Such a strategy requires a deep understanding of facilitation techniques and the specific context in which you should apply them to ensure that facilitation remains a dynamic, responsive process. Once you have identified the situation, audience, and strategy, use your "compass" to ensure the most significant impact.

Designed by the Best Workplace to serve as a foundational guide, the Dynamic Leadership Compass offers direction in the multifaceted realm of agile facilitation. Each of the four cardinal directions represents a critical competency—embracing self-awareness, cultivating relationships, exploring experiences, and leveraging influence—that is essential for enhancing your skills while creating a unique and effective experience for your future participants.

Embrace self-awareness

Self-awareness is the foundation upon which you build all other competencies. To be an effective facilitator, you must embrace transparency, vulnerability, and flexibility.

Be transparent and vulnerable. It's imperative to bring your true self to the facilitation process, allowing participants to connect with you on a deeper level. When you embrace vulnerability and transparency, you create an environment where trust can flourish, enabling more open and meaningful discussions. Be genuine in your interactions and leverage your personal and professional background to engage participants.


Here's an example of what that may look like in practice:

"Before we start today's class, I want to share a personal experience with you. At the launch of my management career, I was an assistant manager at a retail engraving shop. Supervising people appeared to come easy until I encountered my first ‘no call/no show' and its domino effect. An employee opted not to come to work; the subsequent impact lit a fire underneath me. I had to work a double shift for the first time in my life. It entailed a 15-hour day in the mall during the holiday season, stuck behind the counter engraving glass and responding to customers with only a 10-minute break to run out for some fries and a soda. That was the first time that I could recall having experienced broken trust in my career. Can you remember the first time you experienced someone breaking your trust?"

By sharing such a story with an audience of first-time managers and supervisors, the facilitator establishes credibility and connects with participants as they reflect on the situation. However, that experience is merely surface-level authenticity. Leaning heavily into your experience may mean sharing a time when someone outside of work violated your trust. That could involve a broken marriage, a failed relationship with a parent, or a 30-year friendship you lost.

Ultimately, an agile facilitator who has the courage to share beyond their professional experience tends to gain greater trust and credibility with the audience. The key to embracing that type of behavior is to tie it back to the feeling and actions that started your leadership development journey, and why you believe people can change.

Best practices for being transparent and vulnerable include:

  • Selecting an experience that is tied to the emotion or behavior your participants are there to change

  • Identifying the experience that you have overcome and explaining the emotion behind it

  • Becoming more self-aware by expanding your own learning experiences

  • Capturing your emotions in a journal when you are experiencing conflict

  • Encouraging others through actionable feedback and being direct while they share their experiences

  • Challenging the traditional thought process with unconventional discussions

Be flexible. Recognize that not everything will go as planned. Be willing to adjust your approach on the fly. Flexibility enables you to respond to unexpected challenges and opportunities, ensuring that your facilitation remains effective even in the face of uncertainty.

When you must quickly pivot, acknowledge the issues or conflict, and then move into an interactive activity. Facilitating isn't about being perfect but about providing an experience from which participants can learn. If you encounter conflict from others, place the ideas or discussion in the "parking lot." The parking lot is a metaphor to describe a list or place where facilitators "park" ideas, questions, or topics during a meeting or discussion for participants to address at a later time. The technique helps keep the meeting focused on the agenda by setting aside off-topic or time-consuming subjects for future consideration.

To combat becoming flustered when you must make a rapid adjustment, practice deep breathing before responding. Remember that you can alternatively take a five- or 10-minute break to regroup and get back on track.

Cultivate relationships

Facilitation is fundamentally about people. Building strong, collaborative relationships is essential for successful facilitation. This competency involves the following behaviors.

Read the room. Collaborative relationships are built on trust, respect, and effective communication. Establish a rapport with your participants, making them feel valued and heard. Doing so enhances the facilitation process and encourages active participation and engagement.

An agile facilitator actively listens to learners and stays socially aware of them, including their body language, word choice, eye contact, tone of voice, and proximity to others. Learn to cautiously monitor participants' behaviors when they enter the room so you can quickly glean who wants to be there versus those who do not.

For example, in terms of body language, are participants smiling, making eye contact, or maintaining an open posture? Or are they avoiding eye contact, crossing their arms, slouching, or showing signs of restlessness? Engagement indicators include immediately connecting with others, initiating conversations, or showing interest in the meeting's materials versus frequently checking their phone, daydreaming, or seeming disinterested in ongoing discussions. Also pay attention to participants' level of preparedness. Are they arriving with necessary materials, having done any required pre-reading or preparation or are they keeping a distance from other participants, not initiating or joining conversations?

Note that many factors can influence those behaviors, and not everyone expresses their feelings in the same way. External stressors, personal issues, or having a bad day can also affect someone's behavior. Therefore, while those indicators can be helpful, consider them as part of a broader understanding of an individual's circumstances and personality, requiring you to further observe as well as ask more questions to create harmony.

Share stories. Storytelling is a powerful tool in facilitation. It helps convey complex ideas, make information relatable, and create memorable experiences. When you master the skill of storytelling, you can captivate your audience, making your sessions more engaging and effective. An agile facilitator who masters storytelling:

  • Knows the audience

  • Describes the environment

  • Understands the conflict, emotions, or behavior they want to evoke

  • Drives the story home by identifying the end results the learner should practice

To establish rapport and start cultivating relationships via storytelling, create shared experiences in the moment.

  • Share your opening story.

  • End the story with an open-ended question, usually a what or how. (For example, "What would you have done in their situation to ensure success?" or "How do you think embracing change can affect your personal and professional growth?")

  • Build in time for participants to share their perspectives.

  • Foster small-group discussions that involve writing ideas on a flipchart that learners report back to the larger group.

Keep in mind that achieving engagement requires action on the participants'—not your—part. Therefore, focus on creating an environment that encourages participants to engage actively. Step back to allow them to drive the conversation and activities. That approach ensures that engagement is organic and meaningful, coming from the participants themselves.

To spark engagement, create a safe and open environment, ask open-ended questions, use interactive techniques, encourage self-discovery, and facilitate—rather than dominate—the conversations. At the same time, avoid overstructuring content and delivery, providing all the answers, favoring certain participants, ignoring nonverbal cues, and being judgmental.

Explore experiences

Facilitation is more than simply conveying information; it's also about creating an experience that resonates with participants. To stand out as a facilitator, you must be willing to explore new and different ways of approaching topics. Encourage creativity and innovation within your sessions.

For example, to create the "new and different" in a course, take the content you are presenting and focus on the interactive engagement components. Identify the actionable items that reinforce positive behavior and have the participants put them into practice. That can be as simple as leaning more into the discussions and flipchart exercises or increasing gamification within the session.

To further introduce yourself to the new and different, explore improvisation classes, obtain Lean Six Sigma certification, or design creative thinking approaches. To go above and beyond, seek out learning in nontraditional learning environments. For instance, a member of the Best Workplace team has launched an herb and spice business and, during the process, identified the cultural, inclusive, and diversity components for personal development in relation to food, flavor, taste, and life experiences. He now incorporates his exploration of different foods and cuisines through his spice business into the class, such as by organizing an international potluck event and offering cooking classes. Because everyone can relate to food, that activity establishes an initial way to cultivate and build on shared experiences.

Using a variety of mediums, tools, and resources within a training program challenges participants to think beyond their comfort zones and embrace fresh perspectives. Doing so also keeps learners engaged and fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Leverage influence

Effective facilitation entails guiding discussions as well as influencing outcomes. The following elements of influence are key for facilitators.

Attention. Capturing and maintaining your participants' attention is vital. Use compelling visuals, interactive exercises, and engaging questions to keep the audience focused and invested.

Connection. Create a sense of connection among learners. Encourage collaboration, active listening, and empathy. When participants feel connected to one another, they are more likely to effectively work together and generate innovative solutions.

Action. Facilitation should lead to action. Encourage participants to translate their insights and ideas into tangible actions. Set clear objectives and follow up to ensure that learners successfully implement the outcomes of your facilitation sessions.

Although you may believe this is the point when participants create an action plan and write their next steps, action plans rarely become actionable after learners leave the classroom unless they incorporate the action into their day-to-day activities. Therefore, instead of asking participants, "What two behavior changes do you plan to practice on Monday?," say: "We are going to be SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound—with up to two behaviors we want to build or enhance." Then, have them pull out their mobile devices and dedicate time on their calendars to build or enhance their selected behaviors, set reminders, and schedule follow-ups with an accountability partner. Those steps will make the plan actionable.

Facilitation excellence

A fifth competency of skilled facilitators is taking initiative to ensure achievement of desired results. That involves setting clear goals, monitoring progress, and making necessary adjustments along the way. Be proactive and take ownership of the facilitation process to drive meaningful outcomes.

Effective facilitation goes beyond merely conveying information. It's also about creating an experience that inspires and empowers participants; building relationships; influencing outcomes; and taking the initiative to drive results. As you embark on your journey to master agile facilitation, keep those components in mind.

Agile facilitation stands out as a crucial skill set in the ever-evolving landscape of leadership development. Embracing the competencies outlined in the Agile Facilitation Mastery Framework can elevate your facilitation skills to unprecedented heights. Ultimately, by pursuing facilitation excellence, you'll unlock not only your own potential but also the potential of participants.

Agile facilitation is not just a skill; it's a mindset—a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. It's about being adaptable, empathetic, and open to new ideas. It's about creating spaces where individuals and teams can thrive.

You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In



February 2024 - TD Magazine

View Articles

Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy