May 28, 2018 Rosemary

The Facilitator’s Second Biggest Mistake

The Facilitators Biggest Mistake

I was in a conference session the other day when I noticed my heart pounding and my palms sweating.

The presenter had dived into his agenda without checking anything about the people he was addressing. He clearly had no idea at what level to pitch his presentation, and he didn’t seem to notice that he’d lost us in the first few minutes. What was going on? This presenter had just made the facilitator’s biggest mistake.


Any meeting, however big or small, formal or casual, will benefit from the facilitator asking two simple questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Why are you here?

I’m passionate about the art of facilitation. I believe that the person at the front of the room is in a privileged position to ensure that the time spent is worthwhile to every person present.

Starting a session without checking in is a recipe for disaster. I remember when people didn’t do this in South Africa (where people are forthright) someone was bound to stand up in the first 15 minutes and demand, “Who gave you the mandate to be here?” or some such challenging question. Not easy for the presenter, but a valid question.

Over the last three decades I have facilitated hundreds of meetings, workshops and conferences with diverse topics and crazily differing audiences; youngsters in prison, Judges in Germany, CEOs and social entrepreneurs, people with disabilities and their families, Small Business owners, holistic coaches in training, and ‘wannabe’ facilitators. The audiences vary, and the content changes, but the process has just a few rules of thumb.

I believe the most important rule is to find out who is in the room and what their needs are. Just that; simple but essential.


  1. Less distraction.

Every person has noise in their head. I like to call it the ‘Monster Within’. It might be triggered by something that has happened before they arrived (Did I park in the right place? Did anyone notice I was late? Is my crying kid ok at childcare?) or what’s going on in the room (Is that my ex-boss across the room? Why is everyone dressed differently from me?) or what is going to happen in the session (Will they realise I don’t know as much as them? Was I meant to prepare before arriving?). At the very least they will be wondering if their time is going to be well spent. If you give your audience a chance to speak, their distractions will melt away, and they will focus.

  1. More trust.

If people feel like they are seen, valued, heard and respected because they have been given a chance to speak and connect, they will naturally trust the facilitator more easily.

  1. Better outcomes.

When people feel they are part of agreeing on desired outcomes, they take more ownership of those outcomes.

By connecting strongly with people right at the beginning, you will save time, work less hard, and be able to share the responsibility of reaching a great outcome.


If there are so many wins in the simple check-in, why does it happen so seldom? I’ve asked managers, workshop facilitators and conference presenters this question, and there are some themes in their answers:

  1. Fear of wasting time.

If the agenda has been set before the session, facilitators believe the audience will think that checking in is wasting time. It is more of a waste of time if a presenter or facilitator focuses on material the audience doesn’t want or need. It saves time to do a quick check-in.

  1. Fear of not being able to handle the responses.

Those I have trained, tell me they are scared they won’t know how to handle the responses they might get by inviting participation. It is true that it takes skill to handle audience responses, so consider adding some facilitation skills to your toolkit.

  1. A belief that the person at the front must be the key expert.

Everyone in the room has knowledge, skills and experience. By creating a chance for participation early in the session, you can adapt your planned session to really meet the needs of the people in the room.


Take the risk. Try ways of gathering audience expectations and getting audiences to engage from the get-go. I’ve analysed what works in hundreds of sessions of presenters and facilitators, and I’ve seen many ways of it working.

So, the next time you run a meeting, workshop or conference, check in with your audience. They’ll thank you, and you’ll thank yourself for the increased audience engagement and the positive impact of the session.

Would you also like to know what a facilitator’s second biggest mistake is? You can find out what that is and how to avoid doing it in my previous article, The Facilitator’s Second Biggest Mistake.

I’d love to hear how you go.

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