The Role of Session Leader

You can complete a project without facilitation, but you could also cut your own hair.

Session Leader

You have a multitude of tasks to perform during the workshop.  Success of the facilitator’s effort is dependent upon your skill, knowledge, and abilities as a session leader.  The session leader’s role includes both the traditional role of “Facilitator” discussed below and the role of “Methodologist” discussed on the next page.


Context is the key responsibility of the session leader, frequently called a facilitator—responsibilities include:

  • Actively listening to the discussion and challenging assumptions.
  • Creating synergy by focusing the group and using your facilitation skills to enhance communications.
  • Ensuring that all participants have an opportunity to participate.
  • Explaining and enforcing the roles.
  • Keeping the group on track.
  • Managing the documenters and the documentation process.
  • Observing the group interactions and adjusting when necessary.
  • Questioning to achieve clarity—aiding communication between participants and yourself.
  • Recognizing disruptive behavior and creating positive corrections.
  • Working to resolve conflicts that arise.

Key Element

Your role is to create an environment where every participant has the opportunity to collaborate, innovate, and excel.  Observing the team’s progress helps you understand the dynamics of the group and how your approach enhances or detracts from the final output.

The Group Dynamics

  • Ask yourself the following questions while observing the group:
  • How do they communicate?  Eye to eye contact?  Soft spoken?  Yelling?  Gestures?  etc.
  • In what order do they speak?  Primary, secondary, who backs who up?  Who always gets interrupted?
  • Who appears to influence group direction the most?
  • Who are these people talking to?  Are they looking for supporters?  Do they attack certain people or groups?

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).


Five Compelling Business or Organizational Reasons to Hold a Facilitated Session


The most important action most people take every day is to make choices, to decide.  Productivity is amplified if decisions are properly made about when to work alone, speak with one other person, or to pull together a group of people, typically called a meeting.

The advantages to a facilitated meeting or workshop include:

  1. Higher quality results: groups of people generally make higher quality decisions than the smartest person in the group.  Facilitated sessions encourage the exchange of different points of view enabling the group to identify new options, and it is a proven fact that any person or group with more options at its disposal makes higher quality decisions.
  2. Faster results: facilitated sessions can accelerate the capture of information, especially if the meeting participants (aka subject matter experts) arrive prepared with an understanding of the questions and issues that need to be discussed.
  3. Richer results: by pooling skills and resources, diverse and heterogeneous groups develop more specific details and anticipate future demands, subsequently saving time and money in the project or program life cycle.
  4. People stimulate people: properly facilitated sessions can lead to innovation and the catalyst for innovative opportunities because multiple perspectives generate a richer (360 degree) understanding of a problem or challenge, rather than a narrow, myopic view.
  5. Transfer of ownership: facilitated sessions are oriented toward further action by creating deliverables that support follow-up efforts.  Professional facilitators use a method that builds commitment and support from the participants, rather than directing responsibility at the participants.


Conducting facilitated sessions includes preparatory time, actual contact time during the session, and follow-up time as well.  Therefore, successful sessions depend upon clearly defined roles, especially distinguishing between the role of facilitator and the role of methodologist (that are also discrete from the role of scribe or documenter, coordinator, etc.).  Carefully managed sessions also embrace ground rules to ensure getting more done, faster.

Much effort may be provided before the session to ensure high productivity, including:

  • Researching both methodological options and content to be explored
  • Review and documentation of minutes, records, findings, and group decisions that affect the project being supported with this particular meeting or workshop session
  • Completion of individual and small group assignments prior to sessions

When conducted properly, meetings with groups of people are strenuous for everyone involved, which is why they may be called workshops or workouts.  Therefore, avoid an overly ambitious agenda and plan for at least two, ten-minute breaks every four hours. Use our FAST ten-minute timers to ensure that breaks do not extend to eleven or twelve minutes. Strive to provide dedicated resources, such as a facilitator professionally trained in structured methods.

Discourage unplanned interruptions, especially through electronic leashes. “Topless” meetings are increasingly popular, meaning no laptops or desktop devices (eg, smart phones) except for accessing content needed to support the session. “No praying underneath the table” is another expression used to discourage people from using their gadgets on their laps, presumably beyond the line of sight of others, when in fact, everyone can see what they are doing anyway. For serious consensual challenges or multiple day sessions, sessions should be held away from the participants’ everyday work site to minimize interruptions and everyday job distractions.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify the skills of a facilitative leader.

How to Plan Appropriate Group Processes

The role of session leader (aka facilitator) is frequently filled by the same person who also provides the role of methodologist.  Since there is usually more than one right answer (or methodology, that leads to the deliverable), how do you determine the optimal approach? As you may know from your FAST training, a robust decision-making method suggests creating your options and then to separately evaluate them against a set of prioritized criteria; including SMART criteria, fuzzy criteria, and other important considerations.

Additionally the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) encourages you to “select clear methods and processes that

  • Foster open participation with respect for client culture, norms and participant diversity
  • Engage the participation of those with varied learning / thinking styles
  • Achieve a high quality product / outcome that meets the client needs”

You can support the plurality concept of the IAF’s first point by carefully selecting and blending your meeting participants.  Keep in mind the type of change effort you are leading.  If your deliverable contributes evolutionary advances to the project cause, you may want to get done quickly, with people who know each other and work together effectively.  If your deliverable contributes toward revolutionary advances, then invigorate your blend of meeting or workshop participants.  Remember, if you want the same old answer, then clone yourself.  If you need something truly innovative, then invite people who may be viewed as outsiders or confederates, and depend on them to help stir things up.  We know empirically that more options typically yields higher quality decisions.

Support their engagement and participation (second bullet above) with the frequent and extended use of break out teams and sessions.  Groups get more done as their sizes are reduced.  Break out teams give quiet people permission to speak freely.  Provide creative team names (eg, stellar constellations or mountain names) and appoint a CEO for each team (ie, chief easel operator).  Be well prepared with your supplies and handouts.

Manage teams closely by wandering around and listening.  Keep the teams focused on the question(s) as you would with a larger group, preventing scope creep that yields unproductive time.  When you pull the teams back together, use FAST’s Book-end tool to aggregate and collapse the perspectives into one, unified response.

Next the International Association of Facilitators encourages you to “prepare time and space to support group process

  • Arrange physical space to support the purpose of the meeting
  • Plan effective use of time
  • Provide effective atmosphere and drama for sessions”

When confined to one room, typically arrange easels in different corners.  With virtual meetings, convert local call-in centers (eg, a group conferencing in from another city) into discrete sub teams.  If possible, plan on separate rooms for break-out sessions, pre supplied with easels, markers, handouts, etc.

Minimize the allotted time.  It’s shocking what teams can complete in three minutes with clear instructions. Even with a three-minute assignment, by the time you have appointed CEOs, instructions, and participants have assembled and then returned; a three-minute assignment quickly turns into five minutes, five minutes turns into ten, etc.  Again, minimize the allotted time, but be flexible and afford more time if the teams remain productive and need more time that adds value.

The more you do in advance to prepare your instructions and the physical space, the more you can expect back in return.  If you are blasé and assign teams numbers, and randomly assign participants 1,2, 3, etc.—then expect blasé results.  If you are creative and involved, you can expect the same type of behavior from your participants.

For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST Professional Facilitative Leadership training  session offered around the world (see for a current schedule).


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