Inclusive Facilitation Guide

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What is facilitation:

You might answer this questions with some of the following:

  • You’ve got an idea of what will happen
  • You’re leading a group – you’re the authority… there’s a reason you’re leading
  • You’re a context expert. You’re an expert of something…

That is the starting point for inclusive facilitation. Instead, facilitation starts from the following assumptions:

  • The participants are the EXPERTS
  • Facilitators should not be hearing much of their own voice at all.
  • “It’s not about me at all” – facilitator
  • “I’m going to help everyone else share their experiences and their voices.” – facilitator

Behaviours of a facilitator (the flip)

“Lead from behind,” but how the heck do you do that? You focus on not leaving anyone behind. You should be the one in the group speaking the least, and at the same time you should gently draw others into the conversation who are not engaging. A few ways to accomplish this are:

  • Listen and guide, don’t lead
  • Sit and notice a lot
  • Who is talking?
  • Who isn’t talking?
  • Notice how one voice is dampening others…
  • Who is taking up all the space; the way someone is talking – absolutist or negative tones or messages?
  • How can you make the participants be generative, not just reflective – WHAT, SO WHAT, NOW WHAT
  • Be the “sweeper” (like on group bicycle rides)
  • Dragoman– bring people together by helping to bridge their cultures and perspectives–
  • Co-design and be aware of the many, many questions that will remain when you do practice co-design:

statue of girl standing proudly
Figure 1: Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

Be aware of group dynamics. Introverts/extroverts; confident/reserved; etc. Who speaks first? Who speaks most? Who speaks with authority or certainty? And beware of those ice breaker questions–without structure to these questions, this is a quick way to reify power dynamics that you might otherwise want to overcome in the group.

Who are you? Is a loaded question – some will answer with credentials and/or status markers… what are we really asking here? You, facilitator, will set the tone in how you announce yourself, carry yourself, express yourself. Similarly ‘where are you from’ is often a loaded and revealing question. Again, the way the facilitator situates these questions can determine the tone of an engagement. “Introduce yourself” is another loaded question.

In setting the tone, the facilitator should aim to land between morose on one end and being a clown. There is a space where people can be serious together, talk about difficulty topics, and still have a sense of humour. The facilitator should aim to also keep away from introducing enough uncertainty of context that participants can brag or be insensitive to each other.

Know your own situatedness – e.g. are you, the facilitator, the youngest in the group, are you able-bodied, are you aware of how you show up?

Listen for people to go outside of the task and gently bring back; aim for being as unobtrusive as possible when doing this — though it can feel quite prescriptive, the facilitator can redirect the conversation if it wanders.

Create a brave space – you can’t guarantee a safe space. As much as possible create a space where people can show up, be seen, and be heard. And in doing this, do not make yourself unsafe – don’t break through personal boundaries that are good ones. Be brave and vulnerable only as much as you feel comfortable with:

Figure 2: Brave Spaces Video
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Help build curiosity, don’t have answers, take feedback with grace and let it sit for a bit if it causes a feeling or reaction inside of you. Don’t force completion; and be aware you might have to help people be comfortable with that. These aren’t always easy conversations, so be cognizant that the ‘exiting‘ is often just as, if not more, important than the entering.

  • One way is to have time after the event to wind down
  • Another is to reserve 10 minutes at the end for something else… something human
  • Be clear about feedforward – what will participants see in the future for their efforts??

Help draw people in but read their comfort level with that.

Use language that is both self-effacing and gentle and wondering. Imagine and show great interests – that will show authentically if it is.

Facilitators should be learning during this session!!!!!

Don’t systematize or formalize!

Don’t standardize!

Fundamentally it’s human and we strip the humanized elements out when we make it a process.

Different ways to share:

Share in a different format altogether.

Communication can take many forms, including facial expressions, posture, and gestures. The lack of engagement can be a significant cue as well. Being aware of these cues can help a facilitator understand who may be waiting for an opportunity to express themselves, or maybe they have something to share but are intentionally (or unintentionally) being held back. Finding gentlest way to bring out these ideas is a challenge, and it may require providing different opportunities or methods for people to share ideas.

For example, if the primary mode of communication is through speaking / audio, then a person may be reluctant to share because they prefer not to speak. The facilitator should try to be aware of those not speaking, and provide alternative ways for engagement. Perhaps messages in a chat, private messages to the facilitator, through some other medium or platform, or at a later time in a more quiet / private space.


  • Consider having someone there to help take notes, monitor chat, make sure captions work, etc.

Multiple facilitators can split up responsibilities to ease the burden. For example, one facilitator who may be a natural conversationalist, can be responsible for guiding, encouraging, and asking questions. Another facilitator can seek out those in the group who are getting lost or left behind, and find suitable ways to make sure their ideas aren’t left behind.

Change over time (an early version of this work appeared at

Session 1s:

1st encounter: uncertainty & unlearning and building trust

The first encounter is one that is filled with uncertainty. This is the stage of setting expectations and this is the moment when trust has to begin to be built. From this point too, the facilitator can begin to ascertain fundamentally ‘where’ participant/experts are and ‘how far’ everyone is willing to go.

This first introduction to any group is packed with a lot of personal uncertainty. Our goal in a first session is to create a brave space for people to share their own individual experiences AND to begin connecting with each other. This cannot be mandated and can only be accomplished with a responsiveness to the situation, the group, and the interactions.

Soft measures of success:

  • Do participants talk to each other or just to the facilitator?
  • Do participants build on what each other says?
  • Do participants refer to each other by name?
  • Do participants show a generosity to each other? Are they building trust as a collective? Or are they protecting themselves and holding everything close to themselves?


This can be a range of comfort with your own voice and also feeling as though you should sit in the back and watch. Be aware of both feelings and work to stay in the “middle.”


What is appropriate to say here? How can I feel I am helping create a brave space? Content? Convincing people they don’t need to fix or solve things is tough. Leaving so much space for open sharing can feel weird especially stories that seem outside of the scope. And I hate awkward silences. Am I filling them with chatter out of my own anxiety?


Figuring out how to get your voice and your ideas heard and seen – that’s what the experts/participants are likely working out. What can facilitators do to enable that? Make clear you’re hearing and seeing them. Repeat their ideas and reference them throughout the conversation. Keep all the threads alive at this point.

Session 2s:

Participants often come into a session two with some energy! The worry of being seen and heard has been somewhat alleviated and the energy of ‘knowing’ who will be there this time and ‘how’ things will go can be reassuring, even empowering. The swing from a shyness and uncertainty in Session 1 to a confident owner of their own story, voice and presence can be heavy. It can sometimes feel out of control.

2nd wave: change

This is the session where we’re asking people who have not been asked to be at the table to come to the table and participate in improving things. The group will have more comfort with each other, will show some comfort and confidence in knowing what is meant to happen in the session. Usually this is the session when experts share most. Great depth is achievable — and it might come within a time that feels as though it has shaky boundaries (what is relevant? appropriate?).


Listen to me! This being seen and heard is awesome. I have so much to say, I have all these thoughts saved up from last time that I didn’t get to share. I need some space and time to share them. Facilitators can loosen the space so this can happen, but will need to also keep the group level and moving together.


Are we sticking close enough to the scope? Am I losing our path? Am I totally ineffective at facilitating?


This is a pivotal moment when a wellspring of ideas almost seems to force participants into doing something. The thinking turns to action and documents start getting created and shared, ideas shift to how to change existing structures or cycles or communication styles. This is the moment when folks feel inclined to build a guide or a framework or a how-to or a handbook in what is an earnest effort to share what happened and what they’re thinking and doing differently. This is a moment when participants begin integrating what they are seeing and thinking into what they are doing. Do not fall into ruts of doing things – let folks share – ask deeper questions. Tie the stories together and start to gently form what you’re hearing into recommendations. This shouldn’t be an end-point.

Techniques – structured structurelessness; grandparent grandchild game; TRIZ;

Session 3s:

3rd wave: bridge

Rebuild the connection between the facilitators and the experts – now together the cause is to parlay individual experiences into something that can be put into a shared, actionable something. The facilitators will need to work to keep the session focused on creating something, so the scoping will need to be tighter.

Ultimately, I think it’s to be expected that some ground might be lost from the ‘over-swing’ of the 2nd stage to this stage. This is the settling back into something that will stick. This is the moment when all the structures come back in (power, culture of the organization, willing to change, leadership styles, agency of staff). As was discussed in Module 4, what can we actually change? What are you going to do differently on Monday? How much are you willing to change?


At this point the risk is how much backsliding will happen? How can you mitigate or stop it? How can you make sure folks get to something actionable and don’t slip into despair? Start small and build!


This wave can be characterized by feelings of uncertainty, hopefulness, increasing confidence.


These practices (and the waves above) are not linear, they are cyclical and iterative. The feelings and descriptions are not categorically distinct. This is merely meant to clarify what is happening in this work.

The point of facilitating has never been an endpoint — the product or outcomes are:

  • self-reflection: how might this practice change you?
  • awareness-building
  • practising a way of being; noticing the impact; noticing the feelings
  • it isn’t a skill you come away with and put on your linkedin profile
  • try on some other ways of being
  • becomes part of you over time
  • being transparent
  • being authentic
  • get at something before the numbers/ before the crisis point? — what does that look like?
  • show larger pathways
  • show the impact farther down the line
  • what are the roadblocks — chip away versus burn them down
  • where is the not open coming from?
  • feeling attacked, cultural, situational, — hitting a wall with people
  • showing what collaboration can look like


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Learning to be Human Together Copyright © 2022 by Co-designed by Students, Faculty and Staff at OCAD University, Mohawk College, Brock University, Trent University, Nipissing University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto-Mississauga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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