Changing the Game

As a facilitator I pride myself on being able to tap into and respond to the needs, interests, and wants of the group. To figure out where they are and where they want to go so that I can create moments that move the group forward in a way they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure what the group needed before I arrived. Phone calls with my point of contact. Group calls (oh, the group calls) with multiple people huddled around a speaker phone all weighing in on what the issues really are. Emails back with clarifying questions. I’d collect all this information, create my agenda, and go full steam ahead with my plan.

During the training we’d go through the activities, enjoying ourselves, learning together, working through the issues I put on the table, it all felt pretty good.

And at some point in the training someone would say, “Are we going to talk about such-and-such at some point?” The energy in the room would shift and it was almost like I could hear the group thinking, “Yeah! That’s really important!”

And I’d respond, “If we have time, I’d love to get to that,” and add it to the parking lot. We’d almost never get to it. I had our two days planned out already and we largely stuck to that plan. The group would politely learn what I’d pre-determined to share with them. My plan became a steam-roller.

But it nagged at me that there was energy in the room that I hadn’t tapped into. That there were needs and wants from the group we never even touched. That for all the pre-planning phone calls (both painful and unhelpful) I hadn’t really tapped into — or responded to — the needs of the group.

The more this happened — questions in the middle of the training, or one-on-one conversations I’d have wrapping up with participants — the more I began to realize I needed to rework my process. That in order to truly meet the needs of the group, I had to let them tell me what they needed. In the moment. When it comes up. Whatever comes up. That felt simple enough. But it was also intimidating (af).

How the hell was I going to invite the group to tell me what they needed and then respond to those needs in live time? And how could I possibly prepare for all the [infinite] eventualities?

Well, I started small, shifted some parts of my facilitations around, got support, and eventually found the tool for the job.

Start small: Picking a fixed time to be responsive

When I started working more directly with groups to identify their problems, then respond to them in real-time, I took baby steps. I looked for ways to build in time to be responsive to the needs of the group without throwing the whole agenda out the window.

I started with a single activity. The first was what I called Anonymous Q&A. I handed out index cards to participants, asked them to write questions they had that we hadn’t covered in the training yet and that they were curious about. I’d collect the cards, answer a few (or all depending on the size of the training) to the best of my ability, and then we’d move back into the agenda. This activity allowed me to create space for some of those questions that used to get relegated to the “parking lot,” and surface some of those great chats I’d previously had with participants one-on-one after the training, but with the whole group.

As I got more comfy with Anonymous Q&A I started not just answering questions, but pocketing questions for the group to get into later, or using them as fodder for larger discussions. For example, a question could become a scenario we’d work through later as a group. Or something I thought would be better answered by crowd-sourcing rather than giving a sage-on-the-stage reply.

Creating an opportunity for participants to bring up what they wanted to talk about felt good. And I kept leaning into ways I could continue to create more flexibility to continue to address things as they emerged.

Create a modular schedule

Rather than come in with a set agenda I started coming in with set pieces and flexible pieces. Activities that I could easily swap out for each other as needed.

The group of facilitators I’m training wants to talk about co-facilitation and doesn’t seem to have any baggage on the pressure to stay neutral as a facilitator? No problem, just put in that activity and take out this one. They aren’t planning on co-facilitating at all? Okay, then we’ll do this instead.

I began creating lists of activities, and ideas for where they might fit into the flow, rather than fully-articulated agendas. Then I could let what was surfacing determine what I gave time to and what I didn’t.


It is a big challenge to do this type of facilitation by yourself. To correctly read the needs of the group, figure out what needs to happen next, and then execute on that plan is much harder to do with only one set of eyes and one brain on the job.

Working with a co-facilitator (or even your point person in a pinch) to talk through what you’re noticing, and ways you’re thinking of addressing those needs, can make everything clearer than when you keep it all inside your own head.

Facilitator Cards: The quantum leap

All of these strategies were important and necessary steps for me towards meeting my group where they were. The more I leaned into the responsive process, the deeper I wanted to go. But none of these strategies solved my biggest quandary: What if I ask what the group wants to learn and I’m not feeling particularly spontaneous or creative in that moment?

That is, what if I am not able to think of ways to address their needs? Then what? Do I just go back to my original plan and ignore their wants?

Enter Facilitator Cards.

Facilitator Cards were created from the need to be able to respond to the group in a moment.

Rather than having to rely on my creativity or ingenuity, I suddenly had dozens of ways to process with the group and endless combinations I could use to create new activities. I didn’t have to try to anticipate all their questions and come up with ways to address them beforehand.

I could just let them ask their questions. State their needs. Then, using Facilitator Cards, I could put together a series of processes to respond to them over a 15 minute break (or, when I was lucky, a luxurious lunch hour).

They didn’t and won’t solve all my problems. If the group shares that what they really want is to know how to photograph a black hole, I’d still end up putting that one straight into the parking lot (unless Katie Bouman happens to be in your group). But Facilitator Cards provide structures that I can apply to anything the group brings up as long as they can be the ones who bring the knowledge to the table.

I didn’t even have to invent ways to ask the group to share their concerns, I could just look to the cards again for the way to surface what’s going on under the surface. Facilitator cards changed the game for me.

Now, when I facilitate, I still start with a plan. There are still set pieces that I do with a group, that help us understand what the focus, goals, and frame are for the workshop. But I don’t feel like I have to stick to a script or limit what the group can bring up. I’m not nervous of being asked to tackle something I hadn’t planned, because with the cards I feel like have so many options for how to respond.

I invite my participants to meaningfully shape the training and ask, “What do you want to walk away with from this training?” And it’s not just a gesture. I feel confident to throw out my agenda. Not because I finally achieve jedi-level facilitator skills. But because I’ve finally equipped myself with the tools I need to do the job I want to do.

No more nagging feeling. No more untapped energy. And no more endless pre-planned phone calls.

And now instead of looking around the walls at the end of the training at all the things we didn’t get to, we get to look around and see all the things we did.

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