Facilitation Skills: They’re Not Just for the Boardroom

By: Molly Sonsteng

I spend a lot of time in groups of all different sizes—from as small as three or as big as 1,000. When you’re running the show for any sized group, you need to have the right tools to keep the show going. I know a few, but was on the hunt for more.

Enter The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp.

After taking a few workshops with The Design Gym in the past, I knew I’d walk away armed with the kind of skills I’d been looking for. I was especially curious to learn how to employ facilitation techniques outside of a traditional work environment.

I’m an event producer who designs highly unique experiences. I host and produce events that encourage grown-ups to seek their own individual way of play and creativity. An average week consists of producing a variety show, hosting inconspicuous games played in high traffic landmarks like the Met or Grand Central, producing early morning sober dance parties, or designing one-on-one immersive dates for couples. In each of these organized events, I work with clients or party-goers in ways that require me to maintain group alignment and happiness so that we’re able to reach the project’s objective. I signed up for The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp not only to gain a better understanding of the basics, but to also fish out the key pieces that would be most beneficial to my own work. As expected, much of what I learned can be applied to many areas of life…not just the boardroom.

The Facilitation Journey

facilitationbootcamp001As with any TDG workshop, the day was wonderfully executed. Two talented trainers (Hannah & Kiely) led us on a journey filled with conversation, practice activities and self-reflection. We covered many basics and best practices for great facilitation, including facilitator roles, different modes of thinking, planning and preparation, and how to intervene when a group is off track.

What set this workshop apart, though, was how the trainers presented the information in various ways to accommodate diverse learning styles. While I benefit from visual presentations, another might prefer to learn through metaphor. Each new topic was taught in unique and engaging ways allowing every member of the group to fully digest the information.

The most productive moments of the day had us putting the work into action. For example, after we learned about the ORID Discussion Method—a tool that helps facilitators lead focused and structured conversations—we then practiced using it. Towards the end of the bootcamp, we were able to leverage all the tools we had learned—including ORID—to successfully lead simulation conversations in a variety of group settings.

Those Moments that Make You Go Ah-ha

While the majority of the material was valuable to me in my role as a producer, there were, of course, a few significant ah-ha moments.

Beware of your tendencies

According to TDG, facilitators tend to fall into one of three main tendencies, each of which leaves out one of the 3 necessary elements of successful group facilitation:

  • The Mercenary focuses on outcome & facilitator, leaving out the group
  • The Fun Guy focuses on group & facilitator, leaving out the outcome
  • The Pleaser focuses on group & outcome, leaving out the facilitator

I immediately resonated with The Fun Guy. As a trained entertainer, I tend to operate with lighthearted humor and charm when working with new groups: get them laughing, set the group at ease, make friends with the participants. I often forget to consider, however, the outcome. I’ve long been aware of my tendency to entertain, but I hadn’t fully put it into context that I was missing a crucial component of facilitation. Without planning for the outcome, what really then is the point of playing the role of facilitator?

“Think, Pair, Share.”

One of most meaningful moments from the bootcamp was the simple concept called Think, Pair, Share. As a facilitator, it’s crucial to observe the contribution styles of the group: introverts, extroverts, solo thinkers, over-sharers, etc.

Think, Pair, Share allows all participants in the group to contribute in a purposeful way. It’s a simple concept, really. When presenting the group with a challenge or discussion topic, first offer the participants the opportunity to think on the topic alone. Next, ask participants to discuss their notes in pairs. After a few points have been established among the pair, the larger group reunites and each pair can then share their discoveries. This activity caters to a variety of people by offering three ways to contribute. It gives a voice to those who might be more internally driven and allows for those who like the spotlight to share on behalf of their smaller group. It’s a tool that any facilitator can quickly and easily have in their back pocket and pull out when needed.


This is a huge one for me. I’ve long suffered from the notion that I need to do it all. Many of my projects have lost momentum due to my needing to “figure it all out.” I’m finally able to accept the fact that I absolutely should not be an expert at all things. I am not a designer. Delegate. I am not a developer. Delegate. I am not a chef. Delegate.

Since taking on this attitude, my projects are finally thriving and I can focus on doing what I do best. The same is true in facilitation. A facilitator doesn’t have to do it all! Do you struggle writing legibly for large groups to see? Empower a participant to write for you. Find yourself running out of time at the end of the meeting? Ask someone to be the official time keeper. There are countless ways in which to delegate while facilitating. Not only does it make your job easier, it also engages a deeper sense of participation from the group.

Respect time boundaries…within reason

I’m a stickler for time boundaries, occasionally to a fault. Start on time, end on time. I learned, though, that time boundaries can be flexible, if you consult the group. While start and end times are pretty crucial, the timing of individual sessions can be more fluid. If the group is still wonderfully engaged in a particular activity right before a break, for example, consult the group. Give the option of breaking in 10 minutes rather than ending the session abruptly. By simply offering 10 more minutes, you could be allowing for a meaningful breakthrough to occur. So yes, while time boundaries are incredibly important, it’s equally important to consider the flow of the session and practice flexibility.

Applying the Tools

facilitationbootcamp002The most significant takeaway was realizing how truly valuable facilitation skills are for everyday life. As a producer and artist, I rarely find myself in the conference room needing to facilitate formal meetings. That said, I now have a clear vision of how I can apply these skills to the unique work I do, whether that be in one-on-one client meetings, designing productions with new collaborators or engaging an audience.

One fairly straightforward action item combines two of my ah-ha moments: delegation and time boundaries. I host a variety show that must run on time in order to comply with the venue. Performers, however, often abuse the allotted time meaning the show runs over. This is no one’s fault but my own! A simple trick I learned from the bootcamp was to simply hold up a card displaying when one or two minutes remain. Yes, this is obvious, but I hadn’t been doing it. For all upcoming shows, I plan to enlist a trusted audience member to be the official time keeper so I can focus on supporting the acts and stop nervously watching the time tick away.

I snapped this image as the bootcamp wrapped up. I didn’t write the note, “willing to evolve,” but it stuck with me. I loved its simplicity. It’s a wonderful intention when entering into any kind of training or learning environment. I also could not get enough of the trinkets on every table! ????


About Molly:

TDG community member, Molly Sonsteng recently took our Facilitation Bootcamp and, lucky for us, she agreed to share her experiences from the full-day workshop on our blog! Molly has a passion for advancing play in everyday life. She is the founder of Madcap Factory, a production house that designs experiences and products, encouraging adults to embrace the absurd. A few of her projects include a variety show for first time performers, inconspicuous field games played in popular landmarks, and alter ego coaching for couples. Additionally, she is an NYC Producer of Daybreaker, the early morning dance movement. You can find her winking or doing cartwheels down the street.



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