Toolbox: What is facilitation?

Episode 2 of the Resist + Renew podcast, where we get our nerd on with an overview of facilitation, and why it’s important.

‘There is no such thing as no design, just bad design. The same is true with facilitation’ – Sami

Show notes, links

Other facilitation collectives:

Some facilitation resources:


Kat: This is Resist + Renew. A UK-based podcast about social movements.

Sami: What we’re fighting for, why, and how it all happens.

Ali: The hosts of the show are:

Kat: Me Kat,

Sami: Me, Sami,

Ali: and me, Ali,

Sami: I’m recording this now baby

Ali: Shit it’s a podcast.


Sami: So welcome everybody to the toolbox. This is a podcast where we geek out about different tools in our facilitator toolbox, where they are, when they’re useful, and their limitations. But today, for this first one, we are going to do something a little bit different. This chat may be slightly longer than the normal toolbox episodes, because we’re not just going to talk about one specific tool, but we’re going to talk about facilitation in general. Because this is a podcast about facilitation tools, so probably/ makes sense to start with what is facilitation? So who’s going to start? Facilitation? What is it?

Ali: I can start us off. So I guess the first point is facilitation, mostly just about making it easy for a group to do whatever it’s set out to do. Facilitation, if you like, etymology comes from the French word “facile”, which is like to make easy. So it’s basically just like, a group has an idea of like, what it wants to do. And we’re facilitators, like, sets out about making that possible. That’s step number one.

What else is it?

Kat: I guess it’s also about making space for participation, and thinking about what are the kinds of things we can do that ensure everybody who is in the meeting or in the workshop or in the group can participate as much as they want to. And so in order to do that, we want to think about a few different things. So taking some time at the beginning and throughout the meeting, to build trust, to make people feel safe enough that they can share what they need to share. And so this could include things like doing a go round, where we find out a little bit about each other. So we might share our name, our pronoun, maybe where we’ve travelled from, maybe how we’re feeling that day, maybe something that’s happened in our week. I’ve also been in meetings where people have been asked to share things about like the history of their name. So you get a bit more information about people than just an initial just name check. And can also be really useful to give clear instructions, and so that everybody in the session or in the meeting knows what’s being asked of them. And when you have that clarity, it’s a lot easier to contribute. And then also asking open ended questions. So a closed ended question would be something that has maybe a yes or no, or a very specific short answer, but an open ended question let’s people just share whatever it is that they want to share in response to that question. And that can be a really good way of getting people talking, especially people that might not talk very much at other times. What else is facilitation good for?

Sami: So I think, as a way of doing things, and what a facilitator will often try and do is make sure that meetings, workshops, etc, are engaging, and by mixing up different activities, and different ways of engaging with different parts of the meeting, or workshop or whatever. So that could be making sure there’s different mediums media, like text based stuff, and like visual stuff, pictures, drawings, etc. And maybe like videos and things where the audio stuff may be more sensory based things like touch, smell, etc. Harder to coordinate in this digital world, but possible. And then there’s also the kind of like the practical bare bones, stuff of like, facilitation often involves, like having some kind of plan for what the meeting is going to be, which may take the form of like an agenda, and may involve like trying to keep to time and trying to do those things to make sure that I guess, 1. to be clear on what the purpose of the agenda, what the purpose of the thing is that you’re doing and then 2. making sure that you can hold everybody accountable to achieving that purpose.

What else?

Ali: So I guess within our facilitation and a lot of the other facilitation collectives that we’re aware of, like, and friends with, it’s, it’s also about keeping an awareness of power dynamics because as we spoke to a second ago, a lot of facilitation is about participation and allowing space for different people to participate. And because we have like a radical perspective on society and structural oppression that is throughout society, whether that’s around racism, around gender around disability, or class or other forms of oppression that kind of make up the society we live in, like those dynamics inevitably show up in the groups that we organise in, even if they are groups that are against those, those structures. So I guess part of what a facilitators role is, is to keep an eye on those dynamics, and to name them when they arise and find ways to move through them that don’t just allow them to be and allow them to, like, make the space an oppressive space. This is a really big one. And it’s like something that just takes time and takes like experience to like, think about and practice and learn from, but I think it’s like one that I personally, like want to constantly reflect on and constantly try and hone my, my approach to it.

Ali: So yeah, what would be some some good tips for someone getting started if this is the first time they’re hearing about facilitation?

Sami: Yeah, so I guess, maybe, I think it’s worth being super clear. Because we’ve kind of talked around like what is involved in facilitation, so maybe to be concrete, like facilitation is a practice of like, kind of, like, maybe, maybe a better way of explaining it, ignore that, is around like kind of clarifying facilitation by what it isn’t to, like facilitation is a way of like, kind of running meetings and workshops, etc. And some things which aren’t like facilitation, is like ways of like chairing a meeting is a different way of running a meeting, which is around more like having a person who is kind of the centre of the meeting, maybe conversations will go through that person, if there are questions, maybe that role will answer them, etc. Versus facilitation where it tries to be a lot more decentralised. As an example. But it’s all around those kind of, it’s a role that is tasked with trying to achieve some kind of meeting or workshop purpose.

Sami: And some things you can do try and do that often involves planning ahead in some way, and so that you can make sure, if you’re going into something, you need to know what the purpose is, and you want to make sure you’ve got a plan for how you’re going to stick to it. Try. Generally, these things are best not to just try and wing it. On the day, though, in practice, actually, I think, which is also useful as making sure you can stay reactive to the needs in the group and wherever they are. And if you want to get started doing like being a facilitator and facilitating some stuff away, that can be quite good, as facilitation works quite well as a thing you do with other people. And so and buddying up with somebody who’s more experienced, and then like they can support you through doing that role. And you can divide up those kind of different tasks of being a facilitator, for example, and taking notes and keeping time and a thing which within facilitation, people often collect “vibe watching”, just like keeping an eye on the kind of tone over the room, and how it seems that people are feeling or people engaged people, not people, angry, people, sad, are people stressed what’s going on?

Sami: And I guess, things like listening to these podcasts, and getting training from other facilitation collectives of which Resist Renew is one. And those are some other ways about how you could get started in the world of facilitation.

Sami: Well, should we maybe talk about what is it that drew us to facilitation, then? Who wants to start?

Kat: I can have a go. And so when I was a student, I was part of an activist group. And we would have weekly meetings sometimes more than once a week, and didn’t really facilitate those meetings. And it was a bit of a mess. And, and we got some training from Seeds for Change who still around doing amazing facilitation trainings. And they were teaching us about how to hold a space and, and how to run a process basically, within the meetings that we were having. And something I really took from that was getting really clear about what it was we’re wanting to do in those meetings. And I remember us coming up with two different kinds of purposes. So we had one that was much more about feelings and how we were doing and often needing to just rant and get a lot of stuff off our chest, and building relationships with each other. And the other was much more of a kind of organising type task sort of meeting where we had action points that we needed to check in on and support each other with and through learning these skills around facilitation, we were able to develop into a really effective and really effective group, able to do a lot of different things together. And I guess through having that experience and seeing the value of facilitation and how transformative it was in that group experience I really wanted to learn and practice it more. And I think also as a person who often needs to port to be able to join in conversations when I’m not facilitating a meeting, I really notice when meetings are facilitated well, because I often feel that sense of being able to participate, and wanted to learn those skills so that I could do that for other people as well. Has it been something that I need myself.

Sami: Yeah, I think that really links back to that point that was made before and how, like, what the role of a facilitator involves is, like making sure you can create a space for everybody to participate in the way that works for them.

Sami: I have a kind of similar but different experience to that. So maybe I’ll share next. Similar in the sense of being part of groups who had meetings, but they weren’t facilitated meetings. But rather than what it sounds like, your interaction with that is Katherine, which is maybe like, maybe not speaking because you don’t feel held, etc, by the group. I just feel like physically, genuinely, really uncomfortable in meetings, which aren’t being particularly facilitated, and partly because of some of those reasons, like seeing people who clearly want to participate in some way, but aren’t able to, seeing people who want to share something, but no one’s asking them etc. But also things run there being no explicit and clear purpose for meeting and then just therefore really not knowing what kind of things I’m going to be bringing into a space like I just find it really, I find it physically very difficult, I feel physically quite agitated in those kind of spaces. And, and often, if these things aren’t, like facilitated as a meeting and aren’t, there is no one who’s kind of like inhabiting that role of a facilitator often there’s no like intention given to the structure. So it’s basically just everybody talking in one big group for hours at a time, which is, I find insufferable and I just switch off. And but similarly, we dealt with that by getting a training from seeds for change. So this would have been like maybe to mid 2000s. A while ago. And organised like a kind of two day facilitation training, the luxury of being a student and having the ability to have two days for facilitation training, which I would struggle to maybe participate in now. And, and also, and then kind of like inhabited that role of a facilitator within that group of people. And, and then attended other ones starting to attend to other spaces and other events. The one that always sticks in my mind is, went down to like the day minus one, or day zero of Occupy in London. So that’s that’s impulse, and participating in a meeting with a few people, and all of us just like losing our shit because of how badly for some and, and a lot of those people then getting involved in shaping the kind of like facilitation group at Occupy, which is how I met a lot of other facilitators are based in London. And so yeah, a lack of ability to deal with badly facilitated meetings. Different vibe.

Ali: Good catalyst. I guess I can share my story now. Um, so I guess I got into it. Also, during student times. I did a course that I thought I would like, and within a week, I realised I didn’t like it, but was too stubborn to leave. So instead, set up a self study group. And each week, we just ran workshops for each other. And I think some people in the group had training on that, but I didn’t necessarily have any we just, I just, like, picked it up and learned as we went. And we even taught each other like stuff around facilitation, I guess, from mostly informally. So yeah, it was like in this self led education space that I started getting really into it. And that was, that was quite like a transformative period of time. It was like a year and a half of like, just having this space with the same group of people. And that was really great. And then following that, I lived in a space called Grow Heathrow for like, two and a half years. And we had a lot of meetings there. Like it was a community that was is was who knows, in front of potential plans for a third runway at Heathrow, and it was like a space of community and resistance. So we had like weekly meetings to just do daily stuff, but we also had Working Groups for outreach and events, and some, like actions happened out of space as well. So there’s lots of meetings happening and a lot of like, need for facilitation. And, yeah, I also did some learning by doing there and through doing that, got more training and got more into it. So that was, that was my, my path in also saw a lot of spaces where it wasn’t done so well. So definitely noticing, noticing where it’s missing is also a common thread from my experience as well.

Sami: There’s, there’s a phrase which people say around design, which is that there’s no such thing as no design, there’s just bad design or unintentional design. And I feel like it’s maybe there’s a similar thing with facilitation, like what feels like an undercurrent of all of our stories, is we were operating in spaces where the space needed a facilitator. And, and for various reasons, we all created, either stepped into that role or created structures to enable us to feel able to step into that role. But like what was happening before, that wasn’t that things weren’t being facilitated in some way. They just probably they weren’t facilitated intentionally, or particularly well. And that’s the thing, which having that kind of facilitator role means that there’s at least more intention, and thought and planning that goes into what happens rather than just leaving it up to societal norms for how spaces operate because very few people especially like, in the West, whatever, I particularly well trained in terms of how to do things collaboratively and well with others. It’s not like it’s a skill we’re really trained on. So

Ali: I guess the thought that comes up, come to mind around that is like design or like systems like, you notice it when it’s not working. And when it’s working, it just flows really well. And so, yeah, I think it’s like, when you’re when you’re like, tuned into facilitation, and you’re looking for it, like, obviously, you’re gonna notice what is working, but like, if you’re just participating in a meeting, and it feels really good, like, you’re not gonna be like, Oh, yeah, that’s a great facilitator. But when when there’s not, and people just talk in circles for a few hours, and then go home annoyed you are going to notice that something was missing.

Kat: Yeah, I often find that when I finished facilitating a meeting, and I don’t have any feedback, I feel like I’ve done the job the best I can because no one’s noticed, I was really doing my job. I’ve done something wrong, everyone will tell me, it’s really obvious. So yeah, it’s always good.

Sami: If the only feedback is, I really wish we’d had more time on this session. That’s the only critical feedback is like, sure. I agree. It would have been good if all of the things took longer.
But I definitely I definitely agree with that. And, but it’s not all sunshine and roses, right? So what are the ways in which facilitation as a as a role has limits? And how can it go wrong as a role?

Ali: So I guess one thing is that a facilitator is not a neutral position, it’s not a neutral role, it has a certain level of power, that is like, seated to it by the group, it’s like got a mandate to hold the space and direct things to a certain extent. And like, that can obviously be abused. I think I don’t think the power is a bad thing. I think the power is a good thing and a necessary thing. But if you’re not, if you don’t have like the anti-oppression lens in your mind, or if you have an agenda, and you’re trying to pushing something through, because that’s what you want, then you you might be able to do that. And like that can be done in obvious ways where you like shut down people who disagree with you, or don’t give them the space or like, always happen to neglect the person’s hand who you know is gonna say something you find annoying, or, in less obvious ways you can be like, yeah, finding false synthesis or false agreements around points when there actually isn’t ones and then usually, like, you’ll maybe if you’re using consensus, you’ll reach consensus, officially, because everyone waves their hands. But then like, a week or two later, it all falls apart because actually, people didn’t actually want to do what was agreed it was just some people managed to push it through. So power is there, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Kat: It gets a link to that point, thinking about who is stepping up to facilitate meetings is really important. And so, yeah, often those that feel maybe more confident or who are used to having their voices heard in a meeting, or maybe used to having more power in the meeting might feel more confident to step forward. And but actually, if there isn’t that awareness to power and privilege dynamics, that can be quite damaging and both to the group but also in terms of how other people are able to feel that they can step into that role. And so yeah start noticing if you have facilitators in your groups, who is it that does it? And is there a way to share that power around? And that might take some skill sharing, it might take some buddying up. It might take sending some people on a training, but yeah, thinking about who’s doing it, and can it be shared is really important.

Sami: Yeah, and I guess potentially related to that there’s something around how facilitation is a thing isn’t it’s not necessarily like, I’d say like, fully, I think, for a lot of in a lot people’s eyes considered like a role, which involves skill and training. And which has upsides and downsides. And the upside is, I think, a lot more people may be happy to step into that role when they feel like they haven’t, they don’t have the experience doing it, necessarily, in a way that people may not be for, like, who can create a website, people may feel like, Oh, I can’t do that, that involves a technical ability I don’t have, which is also true for facilitation, but it’s not necessarily a barrier, people always feel stepping into it, with the caveats that have already been made around. Some people be more willing to do that than others for a lot of societal reasons. And, but I think that can also, unsurprisingly, like with all things that can create dynamics, and can create situations where people aren’t doing it potentially, like, even if they’re getting the same outputs, they’re potentially having to put a lot more effort in than other people who have had that kind of like basis, and grounding and training and having those like, models and frames and things to use. So even though it’s not a thing that you need training to do, well, having training can mean it’s a lot easier to do it well. And it means you’re you can be a lot more aware around how things can go wrong. And I guess, sorry, but people don’t necessarily, but people don’t necessarily seek it.
That’s what was gonna say, you go, right, yeah,

Kat: I guess just we’ve kind of all of these things, working out how you’re going to notice. And because in your groups, you might have the best training ever, but it still might not be working. And so thinking about what feedback loops Can you put in place so that whatever is happening with your facilitation of meetings, you’ll know across the group, if it’s genuinely doing what you need it to do as a role, and that you will get the feedback that you need as a group if it’s not working for any of these reasons.

Ali: Nice. So we all do lots of facilitation. So I guess we all love it. But what what are our top takeaways from this little little conversation that we just had about it? And summary points? I definitely appreciated, Sami, your point on like, facilitation is always happening. And it’s just whether it’s conscious or unconscious, that means outcomes are going to be better or worse. So that that’s gonna stick with me after this conversation. Mm hmm.

Sami: I think for me, it’s often that question around not just facilitation, this comes down to a lot of stuff like direct action, etc. The fundamental question, which Katherine mentioned, came up in that seeds for change training is like, what is the purpose of what you’re doing? And when we’re running trainings around facilitation, that’s often one of the first questions we’ll ask, we’ll get people to be asking, What is the point of the meeting, because you can’t really facilitate it effectively, unless you know what it’s trying to do. So like building everything around that purpose, and having that clarity of purpose and structuring things around that, rather than just how people do meetings, I’d say is the stand up thing for me?

Kat: Yeah. And I think for me, something you were saying Ali around the power dynamics and the role of the facilitator to notice how systems of oppression are working in a meeting. And, and that is such a key part of the role. And also the point you made about it is necessary for all facilitators, whatever level of experience to kind of keep reflecting on that, and our own practice around how we’re noticing, I feel that that’s something that I want to take away from this talk. Great, great.

Sami: So if you want to know more about facilitation, keep listening. There will be a lot of things when we’re talking about the tools you use and how you can vary it how you can keep it interesting, blah, blah, blah, blah, like that is what this whole series is going to be going into. So

Kat: Stay tuned.

Ali: This was the toolbox from the Resist Renew podcast. We are a facilitation collective and you can find out more about us at and on all the social media platforms.

Thanks as always to Klaus for letting us use his song Neff for our intro and outro music. You can find him on SoundCloud, at Klausmusic with a Zed and a K.

And if you’d like to support the production of this podcast, you can donate by our website on the support network page, and that gives you a PayPal links.

Thanks for listening and until next time

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