When it comes to facilitating great workshops, there is always room to improve and introduce new techniques to your sessions. It’s an ongoing learning process and you’ll discover more exercises to try, gain more confidence, and get better at reading the energy in the room.

But how do you find opportunities to practice your facilitation skills?  It may not be possible for you to run workshops as frequently as you’d like to experiment and try new methods.

Through my experience, I’ve identified four areas that can make a huge difference to the success of your workshops. The advantage is that they are mostly skills that you can practice on a regular basis (and also improve) in your work, with your colleagues and in collaborative projects.

In this post, I’ll explain what they are, why they’re so important in workshops, and give you some resources and links to explore further.

  1. Curiosity and asking good questions

As a workshop facilitator, your aim is to encourage participants to share their thoughts and ideas in a productive way. This task becomes much easier if you have a genuine curiosity in what people have to say. You’ll be asking a lot of open-ended questions one of the most important communication tools in facilitation. 

Shaping and asking good questions that encourage people to think deeply helps you to truly identify a problem before prematurely solving it. The right questions promote creative thinking, help people generate lots of possibilities, and prevent them from fixating on one limited solution. Sometimes you need to ask the ‘stupid’ questions that others are afraid to ask, so that you can reveal and challenge assumptions. At other times, you’ll need to respond to a participant’s question with another question to turn the thinking back on them.

Curiosity and asking good questions are just as important when planning a workshop, as they are during one. The overall purpose of your workshop will be a big question or set of questions that your participants will need to work through together. Each activity that you design starts with a list of questions that you will use to prompt and challenge your participants’ thinking.

Two leaders who are working to improve our questioning skills are Warren Berger and Hal Gregerson:

  • Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question aims to help us re-develop the ability we had to question as children, but lose as we get older. He explains how learning to transition through a series of “why” to “what if” to how” questions can help us to innovate better and bring about powerful changes.
  • Gregerson’s 4-24 project was launched to encourage people to practice spending 4 minutes each day asking themselves questions about their most pressing challenges, so that they can bring this skill into their work.
  1. Listening and empathy 

If you ask good questions, then you’ll receive better responses. The next step is to listen effectively to gain richer insights and learn more.

Great listeners are good at not talking and being okay with silence. When you ask a question in a workshop, people may need some time to process it and think through their answer. This can mean quietly waiting just beyond what is naturally comfortable before someone responds.

IDEO have developed a short audio course on “Creative Listening” a technique they see as central to helping them solve big design challenges. Active listening – a technique where you repeat or paraphrase what has been said to demonstrate understanding – is being recognised as an important skills for leaders. For example, Google encourage their managers to practice it with their teams.

Listening and empathy go hand in hand. Listening intently to someone, and seeing the situation from their point of view is a powerful combination. It helps you to handle conflict and respond effectively in difficult conversations, both of which can happen during a workshop.  

Like listening, empathy is increasingly being recognised as a key leadership skill. Good starting points to understand more are Brené Brown’s talk on Vulnerability and Roman Krznaric’s RSA Animates talk on Outrospection. In his talk, Krznaric says that empathetic people get beyond prejudice by nurturing their curiosity, are sensitive listeners, good at understanding others’ needs and promote two-way dialogue – all valuable qualities in facilitating workshops.

You can evaluate your empathy with a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes”, a set of questions that requires you to guess a person’s emotion from their eyes.

  1. Dealing with uncertainty

When people are brought together to explore and develop something new, as they are in a workshop, it’s an uncertain situation. You don’t know the direction it will take and what ideas will emerge. There will be some ambiguity as you work together to find solutions, chaos as varying answers and viewpoints are shared, and conflict as people challenge each others’ ideas and make decisions.

These ‘messy’ situations can make the average person feel uncomfortable, but engaging with them can make us better creative thinkers, problem-solvers and decision-makers. IDEO calls this “sailing through the fog” – those points in a project where a team feels lost or stuck. In this short video, they explain that “the best way through the fog, is through the fog”, by using tools like brainstorming to make progress.

Workshop facilitators need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, as well as guiding their participants through this complexity.

Some other ways to deal with uncertainty in workshops are to:

  • Be patient: at those moments of uncertainty, remember that these are part of the process of making real breakthroughs and developing new ideas
  • Be flexible: as new ideas and possibilities emerge, understand that you may need to change your workshop structure to suit. When alternative options emerge, it’s also okay to ask your participants what they would like to do
  • Avoid getting stuck in analysis paralysis: sometimes a productive way to move a discussion forward is to try an idea out in a small way, to either validate it or rule it out.
  1. Synthesising ideas

As well as managing creative uncertainty, there are also times when you need to ‘ground’ ideas and make them tangible to move a project or discussion forward. As a facilitator and objective observer, so you’re in a perfect position to spot connections between ideas, in a way that participants are not able to because they’re too close to the content.

You may not be involved in generating ideas directly, but don’t be mistaken that you don’t have a creative part to play. As Steve Jobs famously said, “creativity is just connecting things”, and this is an important role that you’ll have in a workshop. Maria Popova, curator of the brilliant resource Brainpickings, champions combinatorial creativity, explaining that new ideas take shape from building blocks of content, insight and knowledge and the key skill is being able to combine them and see patterns where others are unable to.

This means that you’ll start to hone your ability to synthesise content, both on-the-spot in workshops, and afterwards when you’re reviewing the content that was created. You’ll identify key themes and pick up on interesting points of conflict that could serve the basis for further problem-solving.

A way to practice this is to develop your “integrative thinking”, a skill that Roger Martin wrote about in The Opposable Mind. The idea of integrative thinking is to get used to holding opposite viewpoints at the same time, without feeling the need to quickly decide between them. Instead, you use this creative tension to develop something even better.

Good synthesis can only be as good as the content, so asking excellent questions, listening well and being able to handle ambiguity are important in the lead up.

What other skills can you practice regularly to help you improve your workshops?

Find more tips for running workshops in my book “Effective Workshops”