LearnFwd: What Makes an “Exemplary” Process Facilitator?

It’s that time of year when things are winding down – graduations are happening (in my household this year, with my 2nd child graduating from high school – whew!), arts seasons are shifting into summer mode, and often we are taking a moment to clean out from the very busy past months and years. I found myself cleaning out the piles that were taking over and surrounding my desk earlier this week – and, as often happens, I found a few buried treasures.

One treasure I found was a listing of skills that, as the document stated, an “exemplary” Process Facilitator possesses and utilizes in the context of guiding groups to incubate innovations and make adaptive change. When I saw it, I remembered developing this list back in 2012, during a series of EmcArts team meetings. I know that I have been riffing off this list for the past six years as I’ve continued to develop my practice as a “striving-to-be-exemplary” Process Facilitator, but it was refreshing to find my own printed copy, with notes from our team discussions. Here it is (without my meeting scribbles!):


In the context of incubating innovations, the exemplary Process Facilitator…

Develops the Team

  1. Assists with team composition and roles
  2. Guides agreement around team norms, ground rules, etc.
  3. Builds trust in the Facilitator, in the process, and in the task
  4. Builds the capacity of the team to function effectively without facilitation

Manages the Group Process

  1. Ensures all voices are heard and prevents dominance
  2. Identifies, clarifies and helps negotiate conflicts (including differentiating idea conflict from relationship or role conflict)
  3. Creates a safe space for honest conversation
  4. Enables the team to observe and understand its dynamics
  5. Demonstrates active listening and maintains positive energy in meetings

Enables a Deep Investigation of Topic(s) and Productive Arc of Work

  1. Ensures in meeting preparation that all topics are addressed and the agreed process is followed
  2. Ensures in the midst of meetings that all topics are addressed and agreed process is followed or explicitly altered
  3. Asks generative questions
  4. Fosters idea generation, yet remains neutral
  5. Maintains an appropriate pace of work, including slowing down and living with ambiguity
  6. Is able to make effective use of stories and examples

Raises the Performance of the Team (Including Getting Highly Effective Results)

  1. Reframes issues and challenges to open up possible ways forward
  2. Clarifies, summarizes and synthesizes disparate and complex perspectives
  3. Balances focus on specific actions with focus on underlying concepts and patterns
  4. Harnesses individual energy into shared team purpose and energy
  5. Assists the team in moving toward closure


As you, hopefully, shift and slow down the pace of your work life for a bit of the summer, I encourage you to consider what your process facilitation learning and practice goals might be.  You might consider choosing one or two goals, and carry out a small experiment with radical intent for each goal.

Maybe you could give yourself and colleagues more space to consider who to invite to participate in the working groups or teams that will get going in the fall (skill #1). This is a place where a little effort can have a big payoff when grappling with how to make progress on a complex challenge – looking beyond the “usual suspects” who often serve on these committees and bringing in the “adjacent possible” people who have new connections and wonderings.

Another effective place to “intervene” as a helpful facilitator is in making effective use of stories and examples (skill #15). You know those colleagues and friends who always have a story to tell, who at the speed of good 4G can retrieve an example and bring alive the concept being discussed? Well, that’s just not me. In my role as a Process Facilitator for EmcArts, I’m often in the position of being asked for an example of how an organization has shifted its culture, structure, or programs to become more inclusive and engaging with its community, or some other complex, multi-layered issue. And I often feel stumped – until a few hours later, when the moment of need has passed.

Photo from Jopwell.com

So, I’ve committed myself to work on developing this skill this summer. My small experiment to hone my grasp of this skill is to develop a “study guide” for myself of stories/examples. My plan is to write down the headlines of examples that pertain to themes and questions that I know arise again and again, and then see if having this study guide (really a “cheat sheet”) available physically—or better yet, more clearly in my head—can help me more quickly and effectively respond to such questions. With good examples in hand, I hope to better help the teams I work with, by showing how others before them have crossed similar thresholds of risk, ambiguity, and the unknown to make bold and adaptive change.

Whatever skills within the above list you choose, I encourage you to take time this summer to intentionally refresh, reframe and tune up your practice. This is something you can do regardless of your role, whether you’re an Executive Director who frames strategic discussions, a mid-level manager who guides programmatic meetings, or a full-time facilitator. When we practice “exemplary” process facilitation, more people benefit, deeper connections are made, and the confidence that we can make meaningful change grows. And who knows, maybe you’ll develop your own guidelines that you internalize, bury in a drawer, then rediscover a few years down the line and say, “Huh, I think we were really on to something…”

Happy Summer!


Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.