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Things to Consider When Co-Facilitating a Meeting

February 15, 2018 1:31 pm

Adapted from Roger M. Schwarz ‘Working with Another Co-Facilitator’

As a professional trainer in the area of meeting or process facilitation, I am frequently questioned as to how to work effectively with a co-facilitator. Quite often I work with other co-facilitators who bring expertise to the table that I don’t possess. Other times I work with and lead sub-group facilitators who are responsible for leading breakout groups. Regardless of the ‘type’ of facilitator that you work with the same considerations apply. Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator, said:

“The underlying principle in choosing to co-facilitate is that together the co-facilitators can intervene in a greater range of situations and with greater skill than either facilitator can manage alone. Either their approaches need to be similar or they must be able to use their differences to benefit the group rather than hinder it.”

When to Use a Co-Facilitator

It is not always clear as to when a meeting would benefit from additional facilitators. Let’s face it, bringing in other facilitators does mean introducing an element of risk, so under what circumstances should you choose to co-facilitate?

When there is:

  • The meeting context is complex (i.e. many people, potential for lots of dysfunction, lots of info to capture on flipcharts, etc.), and by dividing the work, more focus per facilitator can be directed to specific areas
  • More than 20 people in the room and there is a need for breakouts that require facilitation support
  • A high degree of energy and non-verbal language going on – in this circumstance co-facilitators can determine what each is looking for and raise flags when it happens
  • An understanding as to what each other’s responses would be in different situations – this demands both facilitators to articulate ‘what if …’ scenarios and define and agree to what each should do
  • Time to properly review the meeting process and assign roles and responsibilities

What can possibly go wrong?
When it goes well, working with co-facilitators can really enhance a group’s ability to work through demanding agendas. But when it is apparent that co-facilitators are not on the same page, groups can get frustrated with different styles, different answers to the same question or the sense that the process is being slowed down.

In my experience, whenever it has gone wrong, it is because my co-facilitators and I have not clearly answered the following questions:

  • Who ultimately defines process changes – the primary facilitator and/or the co-facilitator, or the customer?
  • Who is the customer? Who in the room has decision-making authority to change or approve ‘in the moment’ changes to the process?
  • How will we deal with conflict when it arises (i.e. avoid or approach)?
  • When do you let go of structure or an agenda topic versus imposing it no matter what?
  • Who does what during the facilitation?
  • Whether the non-primary facilitator will be scribing at any time while the primary facilitates? And if so, how will the scribe deal with points that aren’t clear or have been missed?
  • What are the basic values and beliefs of how to foster group collaboration especially with low participation?
  • What styles of intervention will be used (i.e. one is more collaborative with the offender to determine a solution in partnership, whereas the other directly intervenes and tells the offender what to do)?
  • What is considered culturally appropriate humour and/or acceptable participatory exercises or warm-ups?

Contracting with your Co-Facilitator
In addition to the above questions, here is my go-to list of questions I have developed over the years to review with co-facilitators to ensure we are all aligned for success:

  1. Who is the primary facilitator for facilitating each discussion or breakout process?
  2. Who will be writing out facilitator notes so that we know who is doing what during all aspects of the facilitation?
  3. When the primary facilitator is facilitating, what is the other facilitator(s) responsible for? (i.e. scribing, noting non-verbal behaviours, identifying people raising their hand that the primary facilitator missed, handing our supportive materials, etc.)
  4. When in the ‘observer’ role during a facilitation how will I communicate to the primary facilitator when something needs to be addressed? (i.e. people shutting down, side bar conversations, sensing someone’s voice needs to be heard but was skipped, etc.)
  5. What are the possible ‘what if…’ scenarios that might arise to challenge our effectiveness as co-facilitators such as:
    • The primary ‘facilitator’ may not be aware that the group is going in circles?
    • The group has not made a decision and there’s only 15 minutes left in the meeting?
    • The group members are demanding a change in the current process which might 
negate or minimize one of the facilitator’s roles?
    • There is a change requested in the process – who makes the decision to go ahead?

Having a clear understanding of who does what under multiple circumstances helps to ensure a cohesive and supportive relationship with those you facilitate with. Quite often I actually record our agreements and send it to my co-facilitator to review and ratify. Doing a quick review just before commencing a facilitation helps to consolidate the agreements and acts as reminder for ensuring each other’s roles and responsibilities.

Michael Goldman, Founder and President of Facilitation First Inc.


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