Facila-what? Lifehack Community Retreat


The word facilitation comes from the French word facile, which means to make easy. It’s all about making it easy for a group of people to talk or learn together.

But the act of facilitating is anything but easy. We all know how weird things can get when people get together to learn or talk about difficult issues. Previously confident people can barely breathe, let alone voice their thoughts. And overbearing people can bulldoze through a room – crushing any logic, reason or emotion that stands in their path.

Some people are born facilitators

One of the highlights of the first Lifehack Community Retreat on 4-6 March 2016 was a session run by Silvia Zuur on facilitation.

Silvia is one of New Zealand’s best facilitators. – presumably born that way, as she’s never had any formal training. She’s the co-founder of Chalkle, an online platform for face to face adult educational classes, and a board member of Enspiral Foundation. She also recently launched a new event management company – EXP.

We were lucky enough to have Silvia share and demonstrate what she’s learned from many hours of facilitating in many different contexts. Just watching Silvia in action was a lesson in itself – let alone having the chance to pick her brain for a few hours.

I’ve collated some of Silvia’s tips and tricks, because I like to learn by writing. I hope you find some use for these tricks too.

Planning an awesome facilitated session

Use the 1:3 ratio

For every minute of time with the group, consider spending 3 minutes planning. That means spending three hours preparing for a one hour session. Only as you improve should you spend less time planning.

Check you’re catering to different learning styles

One simple way to check is with the Head, Heart, Hands metaphor.

  • People who learn with their Head need facts and detailed information.
  • A Heart learner thrives off stories. They need an emotional connection to the work.
  • Learning with the Hands is all about doing stuff and getting active.

Cater for all three learning styles and you’ll be well on your way to an interactive and interesting session.

Plan regular changes to group dynamics

It’s important to use a mixture of individual, paired, small group and whole activities. If you continually go to the whole group, the quieter people just won’t feel comfortable participating. Think carefully about the purpose of each part of a session and the most appropriate group size.

Use building blocks to keep things on time

Have you ever noticed how the best facilitators always finish two minutes before their allotted time? It feels like magic. But their secret is in being flexible.

Create building blocks that you can add, change or remove depending on the group’s wants and needs. Have more building blocks than you need and remove blocks as you go depending on the group’s needs.

Be flexible. Always refer back to your purpose-finding questions to check that you’re covering off what the participants want to learn or achieve.

Keep your building blocks simple. If you plan a session with multiple, interlinked parts – each one building on the other, and all leading to a life-changing, mind-exploding conclusion… and you can pull it off… then that’s amazing. But more often than not, a complicated session will go over-time and may not hit the participant’s wants and needs. It’s harder to adapt a complicated session on the fly.

Delivering a kick-ass session

Have the power handed over to you

When you’re invited into a new group or organisation, everybody will be thinking: Who’s this joker? Why should we listen to them?

Get somebody who the participants know and trust to introduce you. This builds you up in the participants’ minds and helps to hand over the power over to you.

Rearrange the furniture

Rearranging the room says to the participants: “We’re here to learn.”

This technique can be particularly powerful in a corporate setting. Think about these different room setups and what you would expect to happen in each room.None of these setups is better or worse than the other; they all serve different purposes. Just think about the purpose of the session you’re hosting, and tailor the room to suit.

Wear and un-wear the facilitation-hat

A challenge many people face is trying to facilitate meetings and workshops with their own team. As a facilitator, they need to be neutral. But as a team member, they have valuable insights to share.

I hosted a follow-up session later in the Retreat where one of the attendees spoke about the difficulty in facilitating her own team of three people. She was a natural facilitator, so it made sense. But she felt like she was often unintentionally forcing her opinion on the rest of her team because she was both facilitator and participant.

One way around this problem is to make it really clear when you’re a facilitator and when you’re being a participant. You don’t need to be dramatic about it and actually wear a hat – but the image can be helpful.

Embrace silence

Silence is only awkward if you let it be awkward. Silence is also a chance for people to think.

Ask people who haven’t spoken yet to contribute

Singling people out for a contribution will just make them feel like the stupid kid in class who doesn’t know the answer. Instead, a general invite to people who haven’t spoken yet to contribute tells the regular contributors to stay quiet, and gives quieter people the opportunity to step forward.

Experiment with your position in the room

Be deliberate about where you place yourself in the room. When you’re sharing expertise, it might make sense to stand up at the front of the room. You’re’ a lecturer sharing knowledge, after all.

But when you’re bringing knowledge out of the group, you’re no longer an expert. Instead of standing at the front of the room, try sitting down at the same level as the participants.

Or what about moving into the center of the room. How does that feel? What message does that convey?

If all else fails, count to 10

Facilitating is an art, a game, a performance. Sometimes your experiment fails.Sometimes you get lost. And sometimes you forget your lines. When this happens, just breathe deeply and count to ten.

Now what?

Practise, practise, practise

There is no substitute for practice. Give yourself permission to experiment, and you’ll feel more relaxed and able to learn. One of the best messages from Silvia was this:

You’re not going to get it right, but you’re also not going to get it wrong.

There is no perfection in the world of facilitation, so just get out there and practise.

But I’m not a facilitator

You don’t need an agenda to be a facilitator. Facilitating is just about making a group situation easy. Next time you’re at a family gathering, party or morning tea: approach it like a facilitator and make sure everybody in the group feels included and able to participate.

Inspired? Want to read more?

To delve deeper into these tools and techniques, check out the Barefoot Guide 2 Companion Booklet: Designing and facilitating creative learning activities.

How can I hire Silvia?

Silvia has recently launched an event management company, EXP, along with Anthony Cabraal and Billy Matheson. EXP is all about creating spaces where people connect and learn. If you need a facilitator or want to organise a groundbreaking event, just get in touch with the EXP team.


  1. Suzy Adderley on February 3, 2017 at 3:43 am

    Hi Lifehack. I’m making a website for a small UK group practicing the Scott Peck model of building community. I need an image of a circle of chairs for our website and I really like the one on your website. Is it copywrited and if not, may we use it on our website please? Best wishes. Suzy Adderley

    • Paul McGregor on February 10, 2017 at 8:18 am

      Kia ora (hi) Suzy. Thanks for your message.

      We’ve actually realised that we did not own copyright for any of those three images. We have now taken them down and replaced them with images that we own, or that are free to use for commercial purposes. I’m sorry but I don’t know where that image came from. I recommend searching Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels for free images to use; otherwise you could purchase one off Shutterstock or another similar service.

      Hope that helps,


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