Hesperian Health Guides

The role of a facilitator

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HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > The role of a facilitator

a woman speaking to a group.
I would like to give my opinion. Can someone take over running the meeting for a minute?
Separate personal opinions from the role of facilitating.

The role of a facilitator is to:

  • help the group come to the best decisions possible.
  • keep the conversation on topic.
  • deal with conflicts or interruptions to the group’s agenda.
  • help participants hear and better understand each other.

The facilitator needs to understand how differences in power play out in the group. She should point out when people do not follow the agreements about group behavior that members have made.

Here is some advice from popular educators about leading group discussions:

a man speaking.
I want everyone to understand what is going on, so I use plain language and explain why I am doing what I am doing.
a woman speaking.
I encourage the group to think about solutions by reminding them of ideas they thought up throughout the meeting.
a woman speaking.
Instead of correcting people or sharing my opinion, I repeat what they say and ask "Why do you believe that?" or "Can you explain more about that?" to show that I value what they have to say.
a man speaking.
Watching people’s body language tells me what the group needs. If people are looking away, frowning, or asleep, I ask the group to tell me how they are feeling or what is going on for them. Then we can all talk about what to do.
a woman speaking.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, that is OK! Tell people you will try to find out during a break or afterwards — or you can invite someone with that information to join you at the next meeting.

Encourage participation

Group discussions work best when everyone participates as fully and equally as possible, even if they have a hard time doing this. Good facilitators remind people that everyone’s ideas are valuable and worth sharing, whether or not they have had the opportunity to go to school, or feel like they have less power than others. Encouraging participation is one of your most important roles, especially with people who do not know how to read, feel uncomfortable speaking in groups, or are new to the group.

There are many ways to encourage participation in groups:

Arrange seating differently, as demonstrated in the fishbowl activity. For group discussions, make sure the participants are facing each other, not just you, by arranging them in a circle or rows facing each other.

Give people a moment to prepare their thoughts by allowing time to think quietly before starting a discussion on a major issue or decision. When people speak, they will be better prepared and more confident in their opinions.

a man speaking to 3 other people during an art activity.
We are all teachers and learners together. Everyone’s life experience is a source of knowledge.

Create 'break out' groups to discuss issues in small groups of two or three people that then report back to the larger group. People often feel more comfortable sharing a group opinion than stating their own.

Art, drama, movement and music during meetings are powerful ways to tap people’s creative energy and get them talking. They are also great ways to communicate messages to others. You can make community murals, posters, collages, videos, and dramas.

Each person has something to add to a meeting, and allowing people to explore different roles can help the group figure out what people are good at. Everyone can take turns facilitating, taking notes, reminding people about the next meeting, preparing food, or gathering supplies. Draw upon people’s strengths and acknowledge everyone’s hard work, no matter how well they do a task.

Solve problems that happen during meetings

Even with the best plan, things can happen unexpectedly that disrupt a meeting. People may behave in ways that are challenging for the facilitator and for other participants. Some topics may bring up unpleasant feelings or conflict in a group.

When someone becomes upset during a meeting, be compassionate, respectful, and offer to help. Someone might react or become upset because of a problem she experiences currently or something painful in her past. For example, if someone has experienced police violence, a discussion about violence in the community might bring up feelings of fear or anger. She may want to explain why she is upset and have her feelings acknowledged by the group. Allow a few minutes for this. You can offer to talk privately with her after the meeting and then, if necessary, refer her to someone who might be able to give ongoing help.

When someone in a group talks too much, it can prevent other people from sharing their ideas. If you suspect that one person’s excessive talking is discouraging other people from talking, you can ask that person to respect a time limit or point out that other people need a chance to speak.

Work through conflict

Sometimes, someone in a group may act in an angry or disrespectful way to others, or say things that are upsetting to other participants — for example saying something that undermines women’s health and rights. Helping a group deal with these types of conflicts can be challenging, but it is also necessary in order to help the group function well and accomplish its goals.

When someone says something disrespectful or starts arguing with someone else, as a facilitator you must try to stay calm and keep your face and body language neutral. Look at other people in the group to see how they are responding. If they do not look upset or have no reaction, you may want let the issue go, especially if it is unrelated to the topic being discussed.

If people look upset, you will want to explore the topic before moving on to the next agenda item. You can ask the person who has made the statement for clarification: "What in your experience makes you say that?" Try to understand what is at the root of the person’s opinion. Restate what the person said to show that you are listening. Often, when people are angry, showing them they are heard can calm them down. If they do not calm down after you do this, you may have to ask them to give others a turn to speak.

Once the person calms down, solicit other people’s ideas by asking, "Would anyone like to share what they think about this?" Although it may be difficult, do not share your own opinions during this part of the conversation.

a facilitator commenting after a man and then a woman speak in a group.
I think women who wear skimpy clothes are asking to be raped.
It sounds like you are saying that women must dress modestly to be respected. Do I have that right?
That is unfair! Men can walk around shirtless and nobody harasses them.
What do others think?

After discussing the problem for a few minutes, ask people if they feel comfortable moving on to the next topic, reminding them of the agreed-upon agenda and schedule. Allow the group more time to talk about the issue if need be, and let the group know they can also talk after the meeting or add the issue to the agenda of a future meeting.

Sometimes there are people in meetings who seem to enjoy causing trouble or making others upset. If your group has rules about participation in meetings, you can point out that the person is not following the group agreements. You may have to be forceful. You can say that other participants seem to be upset, and that as the facilitator, you feel that it is best to continue the conversation after the meeting.

When there is significant conflict or disagreement in a group, it may be challenging to address or resolve the issue during a single meeting. If further discussion is needed, or if any planned agenda items don’t get talked about because other discussions went on longer, post a list of those topics on the wall so everyone knows there will be a chance to discuss them in the future. Doing this can help you meet the goals of your current meeting, but not lose track of important concerns that come up.

At your next meeting, you may want to refer to the conflict that happened and ask if anyone has any new reflections, thoughts, or reactions to what was said. This can help people release any unpleasant feelings or emotions they may still have from the conflict, and help the group "close the door" on bad feelings.

a woman speaking.
There is a man who would come to our meetings and tell us how to be good wives. Listening to him made me very angry, but instead of sharing my feelings, I asked the women to share what they thought makes a good marriage. He has become a much better listener and supporter.

Work to help all participants feel powerful

Working for social change often means bringing people together, some of whom have greater privilege or status than others. A group may confront many of the problems they are trying to change in the world in their interactions with each other. When working with mixed groups, for example, with men and women, or with younger people and adults, those men or adults who traditionally have more decision-making power may talk more without even realizing it. People can feel intimidated or shy to talk when they feel they are younger, less educated, and less powerful.

One way to address this problem is to break into smaller groups, for example, adolescents in one and older adults in another, to discuss separately, and then bring the whole group together to share the ideas from these separate discussions. One person can summarize the discussion and relay the decisions for each group.

a woman speaking.
When I lead a training session with youth, I think it is important to talk about the power that I have as an adult, and as someone who has finished high school. We reflect on how people’s power and privilege as individuals and as groups influence our group process and work.

To build a stronger group that can work well together, it can also help for the participants to gain a better understanding of how there are different levels of power and privilege within the group. The activities Power shuffle and Image theater are ways to help a group think about and discuss power dynamics. Discussion questions can help people reflect on differences in power in the group, and how this might influence each person’s experiences and their comfort with participation. For example, you might ask:

  • What are the differences within our group in terms of age, gender, skin color, and access to resources such as education, money, and power?
  • How might these differences affect our discussions and work together?
  • What can we do to ensure that everyone has a voice, and to affirm that each person’s ideas matter?

a woman speaking to a group doing the "power shuffle."
Take a step back if this week you had someone ignore you because of your age.
Activities such as the Power shuffle may help people visualize power differences.

By using facilitation methods that encourage everyone’s meaningful participation, the meeting leader can help a group overcome differences among participants and make good decisions.