The Right Facilitator Will Help Create Clarity

Not all meetings are created equal. Some are routine… others are crucial to your organization’s future. Some meetings simply matter more!

An outside facilitator is generally not a wise investment for your run-of the-mill, standard meeting. But a professional meeting facilitator may be essential to the success of your Meetings that Matter Most™.

Think about a professional group facilitator as your partner, someone who joins you in structuring and running a meeting that yields real results. He or she needs to be skilled, attentive, flexible, professional, and courageous. Why courageous? So that “sleeping dogs” are identified and rousted as necessary.

The decision to use an outside facilitator for your next important meeting, workshop, retreat, or conference should be based on several factors:

  • your leadership beliefs;
  • the group’s history of effectiveness and interaction;
  • the importance/value of the meeting deliverables; and
  • your own desired level of participation in the meeting (it’s hard to participate and facilitate simultaneously).

Tips for Choosing Facilitators

Once you’ve decided to work with a professional facilitator for your meeting, workshop, retreat or conference, you want to make sure you find the right facilitator for your situation. These six tips will help you make the decision that works best for you and your organization.

Be clear about your desired outcomes.

The single most important thing you can do to ensure the best fit between you and your facilitator is to be absolutely sure about the outcomes you want to achieve. Be as specific as possible. Answer the question: “At the end of the session, what do you want to have in your hand in order to feel the session was a success?” 

Answer this question as specifically as possible before you start talking with facilitator candidates. If you find you’re not clear about the deliverables — or you want a number of different deliverables — be attentive to how well candidates help you clarify your goals and desired outcomes. Finally, listen for this question in candidate conversations – it should be one of the very first things candidates ask you.

Talk to several candidates before making a decision.

Have a 30-45 minute conversation about your situation with several facilitators before making your selection — and make sure these conversations are with the person who will actually be leading the session. Having conversations with several candidates will help you identify differences in approach and style, as well as help identify the person with whom you best connect. Fit is important in selecting a facilitator — take the time to find someone with whom you feel comfortable.

Competent facilitators will be as careful as you about ensuring the match is a good one. Eliminate anyone who is not willing to spend as much time as necessary understanding your situation, clarifying your needs, and exploring possible approaches before preparing a proposal.

Don’t engage more content expertise than you actually need.

Often, meeting conveners engage a “facilitator” based on experience with a specific industry. Be careful — this expertise may be counterproductive to your facilitation goals. 

When you hire specific content expertise you are primarily engaging a consultant — someone who has an opinion and will make specific recommendations about what you should do. If they advance this point of view within a facilitation framework, the ideas will remain theirs, not yours.

Draw a very clear boundary between specific content recommendations you need (e.g., analysis of data or input) and the goals of the session. Using a content specialist to run a facilitated session can result in a situation where the organization does not truly own the outcomes — and the outcomes may be generic, “one-size-fits-all” recommendations that are not the best fit for your situation. The result can be poor buy-in, poor or missing execution, and substandard results. If your goal is to unleash the collective expertise of participants and ensure that decisions are sound, you need process and general business expertise, not necessarily industry-specific knowledge.

Ask candidates how they might handle your group’s challenges.

What are the behaviors that have proven frustrating in past meetings? Describe them clearly and ask candidates for possible ways they might handle them in your session. Say, for example: “We have several very quiet individuals in our group who tend to get run over by more vocal members. What are some ways you might handle this?” Listen for specific, tactical responses, not just general, theoretical approaches to the issue.

Understand candidates’ pricing structures.

Some facilitators charge by the hour, others by the day, and some (Catalyst included) by the project. Be sure you have all fees fully outlined, so you can compare apples to apples.


  • Is preparation included, or charged separately? What if additional conversations are needed or preparation takes a little longer than originally predicted?
  • How are travel time and travel costs dealt with?
  • Is post-event documentation included, or is this a separate cost?

Be sure your candidate intends to put in the front-end time to ensure your meeting is successful.

No two facilitation sessions are exactly the same. The successful candidate should be eager to spend time discussing your situation with you and other important sponsors, interviewing participants in advance if appropriate, coordinating with you to ensure everything is in place, and whatever else is necessary to ensure a successful outcome. Be wary of facilitators who want to just “show up” on the basis of a single, brief conversation. Thorough preparation is the key to a successful facilitation – be sure you work with someone who will walk through the preparation process with you to ensure both your comfort and a successful outcome.

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