Having been a facilitator for more than twenty years, I’ve worked with many professionals – leaders, managers, non-managers, project managers, consultants – you name it. More and more, however, I am seeing them using facilitation skills in their day-to-day interactions.  They tell me that, as a result, they are achieving higher levels of employee engagement, making better decisions and gaining greater buy-in and commitment to action.

Well, we know what facilitation means. Facilitation (in a facilitated session) is the practice of guiding the participants through a series of pre-defined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood and accepted by all participants. But, what does it mean to take a “facilitative approach” to solving a problem or making a decision?  How does one – anyone – actually do it?

At Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, we believe there are five key principles for taking a facilitative approach.  These principles stem from the fundamental secret of facilitation which is described in the introduction of my book, The Secrets of Facilitation.


I began understanding the fundamental secret of facilitation during my career with the management consulting division of what was then one of the Big 8 accounting and consulting firms. In the eight years I spent in that consulting practice, we had a standard way of addressing a client’s problem. We might be called in to review a particular department or activity. We would arrive with our army of bright people, interview those who we believed were the key stakeholders, develop a set of recommendations based on our interviews and experience, and create what might be called the “100 percent solution.” We would go away and come back a year later, and, if we were lucky, perhaps 15 percent of our recommendations would be implemented.

In my final years with that organization, the practice in which I worked began taking a different, more facilitative approach. We would come in with a smaller group of consultants and work shoulder-to-shoulder with client personnel. Together we would convene group interviews (facilitated sessions), which typically included eight to twenty people. In the facilitated sessions, the participants—not the consultants—would create the recommendations. In most cases, they would come up with what we might consider only the 60 or 70 percent solution. So we would float ideas based on our experience. Some they would accept; others they would reject as “not beneficial” or “not implementable” in their environment. When all was done, they might have created what we would consider the 85 percent solution. Yet when we came back a year later, amazingly 80 to 90 percent of the solution would be implemented!

The Secrets of Facilitation 2nd Edition, page xxiii

The Fundamental Secret of Facilitation

Why wasn’t more of the 100 percent solution implemented? Why did the 85 percent solution gained through facilitation achieve far greater success? Therein lies the secret and the power behind it.

Secret The Fundamental Secret of Facilitation

You can achieve more effective results when solutions are created, understood, and accepted by the people impacted.

In essence, when you get the people impacted by a decision involved in the decision-making, you can achieve much higher levels of buy-in and commitment to implementation.

So, how do you do this? How do you take a facilitative approach in your everyday work? The following principles provide guidelines for doing this:

1. Seek participation, not just input

How often does a decision come down from headquarters which the people in the field know makes absolutely no sense? The idea couldn’t possibly work, and everyone knows it, except the leaders.  What happens? Time and energy is wasted implementing something that months later gets abandoned when the leaders finally figure out it was a bad idea. If they had only asked, the wasted time and resources could have been put to a much more productive use – if they had only asked.

Or, how often, when trying to make a needed change, does the change get met with blatant rejection or subtle subterfuge simply because those expected to implement the change had no involvement up front in the creation?

People who take a facilitative approach recognize that they can get better decisions and achieve higher levels of buy-in when those impacted by the decision are involved in creating it.

  • In the first case of a decision coming from headquarters, the involvement of those who would have to implement the decision would have likely yielded an even better solution that took into account issues and situations that the workers understood but of which the leaders were unaware.
  • In the case of the needed change that was met with significant opposition, involvement up front could have yielded greater buy-in and commitment to the implementation.

When you seek participation and not just input, you often come to better solutions with much stronger levels of commitment.

2. Ask and empower; don’t command and control

Often, people don’t involve those impacted because they believe they need to control all aspects of what is done in order to achieve their desired result.

However, individuals who take a facilitative approach understand how to empower others. They know that their role is to define the what and the why by describing the purpose and  the key products.  They also know they must give the guidelines and constraints to help ensure that solutions meet the need. They then get out of the way and allow teams to create recommendations that are thoughtful and innovative – but also practical and implementable.

3. Connect first; correct second

Some people are expert at pointing out mistakes others make.  They seem to enjoy demonstrating or feeling a sense of superiority by identifying errors and then showing what others have done wrong.

Individuals who take a facilitative approach understand the importance of connecting with people first and helping them discover their own errors. They actively look for strengths to praise and then use questions to create an environment of self-correction rather than a culture of blame. They recognize the power of being the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” They strive to leave every interaction with the person feeling lifted up rather than put down.

4. Engage conflict; address dysfunction

When you don’t have the tools to effectively manage conflict and dysfunction, you tend to respond with either a “fight or flight” strategy when faced with a challenging situation.  Those who take the flight approach will avoid addressing the issue and will hope it goes away on its own.  Those employing the fight strategy tend to try to overpower the situation by forcing their will without listening to or considering other alternatives.

Individuals skilled in taking a facilitative approach view conflict as a symptom that perhaps better solutions are available; they view dysfunction as a sign that something important is not being addressed.  They understand the three reasons people disagree and have strategies for addressing each one. They fully buy in to the dysfunction principle–conscious prevention, early detection, clean resolution–and use appropriate techniques to prevent, detect and resolve dysfunction.

5. Use process to guide, not to stifle

All organizations use processes. For example, organizations use processes for setting direction, product development, hiring, and budgeting. However, in many organizations, the processes are unconscious, unclear, or unreasonable.  In some cases, the organization is over-processed, and the processes get in the way of creativity, flexibility and responsiveness.  In other cases the organization’s lack of documented processes increases conflict, uncertainty and redundancy, as people end up stepping on one another in the name of getting things done.

Individuals who take a facilitative approach recognize the clarity and efficiency that effective processes can provide but also recognize the importance of using processes to guide and not to stifle creativity or initiative. Managing this delicate balance is key to taking a facilitative approach.

These principles outline what it means to take a facilitative approach inside an organization. As more and more people adopt facilitation as a way of operating, we expect to see greater business results through higher levels of buy-in and commitment throughout the organization.

Michael Wilkinson

About Michael Wilkinson

Michael Wilkinson is the Founder and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company and a much sought after facilitator, trainer, speaker, and national leader in the facilitation industry.  A Certified Master Facilitator, he is also a past president of the Southeast Association of Facilitators and a board member of the International Institute for Facilitation. You can get more tips from Michael’s books, The Secrets of Facilitation 2nd Edition, The Secrets to Masterful Meetings, or The Executive Guide to Facilitating Strategy.