By Holly M. Larson, Business Development Manager, Leadership Strategies


Earlier this year I had the privilege of speaking to the local IIBA chapter on the 10 Principles of Facilitation. We were discussing Principle 9, Closing the Session, and a question was asked that made me think about what facilitation truly is. At the end of the day, a great facilitator will review, evaluate, close and debrief.

I was asked “Why review a decision or a portion of the day that was contentious at the end of your meeting? Wouldn’t it be better to let sleeping dogs lie and end on a high note?” It might be easier; it definitely wouldn’t be better. Finding out if you have dissent – before everyone leaves – is better. The time to flush out discontent is now. You must have the participants’ commitment to the decisions that they made and the actions they will take.

The difference between facilitation and presentation is engagement. The engagement is where you gain commitment. When participants are engaged in a process, when they are part of the solution, they are committed to its success.

Michael Wilkinson, our founder and CEO, often likes to share with the new hires of our company accounts of his early days with what is now one of the Big 4 consulting firms. He and his team would come in, ask questions, take notes and come back to present the perfect solution for their client. Six months later when they came back to check on the client’s progress, Michael and his team found the project was only 15% implemented. Sound familiar?

Over the years Michael discovered that by taking a different approach, a more facilitative approach, he would get dramatically different results. Working with clients in small groups, he and his team facilitated sessions in which the clients participated in creating the solutions with the consultants. In many cases the result was not the “perfect” solution Michael and his team initially envisioned and would have recommended. It didn’t matter because the client was committed. Why? Facilitation.

Dr. Robert Zawacki, University of Colorado, states it in the following equation:

ED = RD x CD

In other words, an Effective Decision is the Right Decision multiplied by the Commitment to that Decision. If you’re like Michael and his team (and me), you’d much rather have a solution that is 85% “right” and 85% implemented – than a 100% solution that is 20% implemented.

How do you get your group, whatever size it is, to commit to that right decision? First, you need them to make decisions. In order to accomplish that, you need to be able to gain consensus. Here’s how: determine the definition of consensus early in your meeting when you establish the ground rules. Does it mean we all have to agree on everything? Does it mean I can support this? Does it mean I can live with this? The definition will set the tone for your session and determine its outcome. Once determined, check frequently for consensus, as often as once or twice an hour, to keep participants engaged and empowered.

For example, a quick check for consensus might be as simple as a “thumbs up or thumbs down.”

“It looks as if we’re ready to move on to the next topic for discussion. Could I please get a thumbs up for yes, or thumbs down for 5 more minutes to review the material? We have 12 thumbs up, and 2 thumbs down. The group is ready to proceed.”

Often, decisions are more complex and require the group to discuss alternatives. A technique that allows groups to make major decisions quickly is 5-Finger Consensus. As a facilitator who has worked with senior executives and sales leaders, I am particularly fond of this method.

  • The facilitator explains that on the count of three, each person should hold up between one and five fingers to indicate the level of support for the decision being proposed. The levels are as follows:

5 – Strongly agree (I love it!)

4 – Agree  (I like it.)

3 – Can see the pluses and minuses/will go with the group’s decision (I can live it it.)

2 – Disagree (I’m leery of it.)

1 – Strongly disagree and cannot support (I loathe it.)

  • On the first vote, if all hands show 5s, 4s and 3s, move on. You have consensus. If any 2s and 1s, discuss fully and vote again.
  • On the second vote, if all hands show 5s, 4s, 3s, and 2s move on. If any 1s, discuss full again, and vote again.
  • On the final vote, majority rules.

Other techniques for gaining consensus include ranking, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, among others taught in our flagship training, The Effective Facilitator. Again, establishing the definition up front and checking in with participants often throughout the session are the keys to engagement, commitment and consensus. What you don’t want is someone who loathes the solution, can’t support it and sabotages the results of your session after it concludes. That is why great facilitators review the decisions made during the session when they close for the day.

Learn and practice more consensus-building strategies in The Effective Facilitator.


By Holly M. Larson, Business Development Manager