The Real Brains Behind Better Facilitation


Facilitation is one of the most critical soft skills of the business analyst, as well as one of the most difficult to master. Working with various stakeholders requires tremendous preparation, insight and finesse in addition to an understanding of key principles of the facilitation process. One must also consider how brains function and the way bodies react, which is a largely untapped method for BAs to glean valuable information that can improve the facilitation process. This article will provide a unique perspective on how to enhance facilitation skills, incorporate information based on physiological reactions, and as well describe appropriate techniques to use in response.

Defining what facilitation is—and what it isn’t— reveals why it is an important and complicated process to conduct. What facilitation is not is a one-way push of information or an opportunity to vent. It’s not meant to be a meeting in which one person dominates the conversation, people are not actively participating or personalities get in the way of productivity.

Facilitation is a way of providing guided leadership to ensure consensus and maximum participation, and helping individuals articulate goals, thoughts, visions and objectives. It’s meant to challenge the status quo and enable participants to think beyond their own vision. For the business analyst, it’s about encouragement and being a cheerleader. Pressed for a textbook definition, it could be described as a bi-directional exchange of relevant, actionable information that requires the business analyst to manage interactions in order to provide synergies among dynamic, often disparate personalities.

Core Principles of Facilitation
Facilitation is about the process rather than the content. The content comes through the facilitation techniques, but the process entails moving the group in the same direction and ensuring the group is dealing proactively with the topic at hand, solving problems and making decisions. Within facilitation, there are rules, relationships, a unique climate and group dynamics to consider that create tremendous complexity. For BAs who are conducting the process, it’s essential to understand and embody the following core principles to manage facilitation effectively:

  1. Remain absolutely neutral.Neutrality prevents any members of the group from feeling excluded or marginalized. In the BA’s role as facilitator, it is critical to demonstrate and lead with the principles and behaviors she or he wants the group to assume, and neutrality is at the top of the list.

  2. Listen actively.Turn off the blackberries and laptops to ensure attention to the matter at hand. Encourage acknowledgement and head nods to what’s being said.

  3. Use appropriate language. Pose questions or comments in a non-judgmental, respectful manner. For example, when a participant makes a comment that doesn’t follow the train of thought or line of discussion, asking for additional thoughts to tie his or her thinking into the topic will prevent the participant from shutting down involvement while further building on the discussion in progress.

  4. Ask more than you answer.A great facilitator will ask more questions rather than making statements. Facilitation is one of few times when it’s appropriate and encouraged to respond to a question with more questions. Among the most thought-provoking questions to ask are why, why not and what if.

  5. Allow for the synthesis of ideas.No matter how ridiculous a question or comment might seem, it’s always worth exploring because you never know what such input will uncover. Being open to the development and exploration of ideas is a key objective for the BA during the facilitation process. Asking the open-ended why, why not and what if are the building blocks for enabling the synthesis of ideas to happen.

  6. Manage discussion backsliding or rambling.There’s a fine line between facilitating a synthesis of ideas and having the discussion digress off topic. A good facilitator must recognize how much line to let out before he or she reels the conversation back in to keep the intent focused and clear.

  7. Offer clear and objective summaries of what is being accomplished.Interpret what is being said throughout the session back to the group in order to provide necessary feedback for participants so they better understand points of the discussion. This is accomplished through paraphrasing or re-articulating participants’ contributions.

  8. Be conscientious about paraphrasing summaries.The importance of being as natural as possible and non-condescending when re-articulating cannot be overstated. The summary is not meant to make the participant feel challenged, but to facilitate greater clarification. Rather than saying, “I heard you say we should build a rocket ship instead of a laser beam,” try to actively engage the participant with a variation of paraphrasing. Try asking “Did you mean to infer that building a rocket ship will better address our problem than building a laser beam?” or “I’m not sure I understood your idea—can you present it from a different angle?”

  9. Give and receive feedback. This is probably one of the most difficult principles for a facilitator. Feedback should be provided frequently, perhaps hourly before it’s too late to remedy a situation. The challenge is in providing feedback in a constructive way with the facilitator also taking responsibility for his or her role in the outcome. For example, the facilitator may tell the group that the discussion veered too far off track or that it didn’t delve deeply enough. However, it’s the facilitator’s job to direct the discussion to avoid such missteps, and he or she must acknowledge that.

Keys to Interaction
There are key components of interaction within which the core principles of facilitation take place. The first component is to recognize that in any audience or group interaction, everyone comes to the event with memories that create expectations for the current situation. Was their last workshop interesting and productive, or was it mind numbing? Their previous experiences create both positive and negative biases coming into the process.

The next component or consideration is to be acutely aware of the different traits and communication styles of the participants. This will enable the facilitator to know when to draw someone out, and when it might be necessary to cut away from someone else who dominates the conversation. Pre-facilitation interviews, and using the core principles, such as active listening and asking more questions than answering, will help the facilitator determine participants’ characteristics.

The context in which the participant is attending the event is a third consideration of interaction. Circumstances such as a personality conflict with someone in the group can be a detriment or distraction in a facilitation group.

Another consideration is how the content or topic being discussed impacts peoples’ interaction. They may not be confident, certain or knowledgeable in the subject matter, or conversely, they may have a high level of expertise that could create the impression within the group that they know it all.

Real-time filters and obstacles also impact interactions. They can be anything from an unexpected fire drill to lunch delivery that distracts from the discussion at hand to the high priority email that a participant can’t wait to address.

Finally, empathy and acknowledgement are the glue that binds the participants in interaction. They build trust that creates positive communication and a successful facilitation experience.

The Biology Behind Stakeholder Interactions
While the core principles and components of interaction above are designed to build BAs’ skills in the artful execution of facilitation, the science behind it will help them identify tangible cues that will also enhance the process. Interaction within group facilitation has a lot to do with traits and behaviors, which are largely determined by how people are programmed biologically. While there are intricate nuances to personality types, in their simplest form, people demonstrate four general categories:

  • Direct – Speaks forcefully, presents strongly, bottom-line focused; also impatient, sometimes argumentative and poor at listening.

  • Spirited – Persuasive, big-picture-focused, motivational, also tends to exaggerate, lose detail or be overdramatic.

  • Systematic – Precise, concise, speaks efficiently, also overly-focuses on details, terse and vocally monotone.

  • Considerate – Supportive, trusting and harmonious, listens well, tends to overemphasize feelings, avoid conflicts, not forthcoming with opinions.

In the BA’s lifetime he or she may go through two or three dozen personality profile assessments. What’s important to remember is that regardless of one’s personality type, the BA must have the ability to adapt to the audience. Can you adjust your facilitation techniques to accommodate the various group personalities in order to get the most benefit from the participants’ professional experience?

For example, when dealing with a direct personality, the facilitator may find it necessary to be more abrupt and shut someone down with a “Let’s move along now.” While the systematic personality may require more articulate explanations, care must be taken to balance those needs with the impatience of the direct personality. The spirited personality’s tendency to overdramatize or exaggerate must be directed away from dismissing something as merely “stupid” and toward more descriptive and precise reasons for his or her position while still encouraging the innate enthusiasm. As the BA becomes more proficient in the interaction of facilitation, the blending of different personality types will become apparent.

The question underlying all these diverse personality traits is how did people get to be the way they are so that the BA can become more sensitive to them? Biology tells us that the brain is a recording machine that stores all the things people do on a daily basis and stores them depending on the types of things they do. It’s an amazing processor that takes the information in and sorts, categorizes and stores it in the most appropriate place.

The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain considered to orchestrate thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. This is where everybody’s motivation resides to do something and to do something positive. This is also where conflicting thoughts reside that can counter positive thoughts. For example, a participant may think, “I have to attend a facilitation workshop and it’s a wonderful professional opportunity.” However, at a previous requirements workshop he was called upon and verbally fumbled, which led to eye rolling from a direct personality. So his prefrontal cortex is wondering if this workshop is going to be so great.

Simultaneously, the amygdala, the area of the brain that forms and stores memories associated with emotional events, kicks in. The amygdala provides the physical reaction to the perceived embarrassment at the previous workshop, which can include immobility, rapid heartbeat, and rapid breathing. So when called upon in the current facilitation workshop, some of those reactions occur. Recognizing them, the facilitator can take the opportunity to supplant the negative, previous experience with a new, positive one. For instance, the facilitator can provide reassurance that the participant’s contributions are of value, and offer to have the participant write suggestions down or whiteboard them instead of presenting them orally.

Creating positive experiences for the participant on a recurring basis will change the learned behavior that resides in the basal ganglia, or habit center, in the brain. The basal ganglia stores the positive experience that simultaneously acts on the amygdala so it no longer reacts to thoughts of a workshop with sweating and heart palpitations. In turn, the pre-frontal cortex has a positive goal on which to focus with no conflicting thoughts to achieving the goal.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a neuropsychologist to create these reactions. It’s interesting to understand the science of the body and useful to recognize physical cues, but practicing the core principles will actively stimulate brain activity creating positive experiences, regardless of whether you’re aware of it. This will result in the group’s willingness to participate, which is the overall goal of facilitation. Just let the brains do the work!

Glen Brule - CBAPAuthor: Glenn R. Brûlé
Glenn R. Brûlé, CBAP, CSM, Executive Director of Global Client Solutions, ESI International, brings more than two decades of focused business analysis experience to every ESI client engagement. As one of ESI’s subject matter experts, Glenn works directly with clients to build and mature their business analysis capabilities by drawing from the broad range of learning resources ESI offers. A recognized expert in the creation and maturity of BA Centers of Excellence, Glenn has helped clients in the energy, financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, insurance and automotive industries, as well as government agencies across the world. For more information visit

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Jenny Nunemacher posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 2:13 PM
One of the things I really like about my profession is the opportunity to faciliate discussions. Although I tend to not be as neutral as I should, and I need more practice dealing with ramblers and "Direct" personality types, both.

I read this article in the hopes of learning HOW to actually improve my facilitation skills. Although I know I can work to improve my facilitation skills with on-the-job practice, unfortunately, my current position doesn't have a lot of opportunities to do so. Where might I find other (friendly) forums to practice, or even formal training? Thanks!
zarfman posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 10:27 PM

You wrote: Just let the brains do the work!

Zarfman writes: Sounds easy, but in actual practice I suspect it's rather complicated. For example what does the BA know about the problem at hand. For example how does one communicate the complexities of fair value accounting, pension plans or hedging when the BA doesn't have any meaningful knowledge of accounting?

Given the above example I suspect the BA would have a rather difficult time applying the core principles of facilitation. In fact, it has alway puzzled me how a BA could be expected to analyze a problem relative to a specific art or science if said BA was not skilled in that art or science.


Susan posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 5:29 PM
I tend to agree with Zarfman's comment.

From my own experience: I worked at a financial services company and only once I'd been there for about a year was I a lot more effective at facilitation discussions during projects.

I now work in a vendor environment and my biggest fear is leading discussions for new clients in industries of which I know NOTHING about. I feel quite out of my depth in these situations as I hate feeling stupid in front of a room full of SME's. Would love some advice on how to deal with these kinds of situations?

zarfman posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:57 PM


If the company is publicly held, they are required to file various documents with the SEC and perhaps state officials. You can Google the company and find tons of public information including their competition.

You can talk to a stock broker or if you can get the code for the company you can check them out on stock exchange where they are listed. The broker should be able to tell you who their competitors are.

If you know what industry they compete in, you can find lots of information about that industry and its problems on the Internet.

If the company is not publicly held you can pose (over the phone) as a college student writing a term paper on their industry or taking a survey about the product you sell. I found people like to help poor starving college students. You would be amazed at what I've been able to find out. If they want to talk to you face to face hire some student to impersonate you.

Talk to HR (over the phone) and see if they have any job openings (don't use your real name)

Talk to HR,Pose as placement agency looking to place some individuals with their company.

A note about phone conversations, you need to know if your real name and number is displayed when talking to someone.

There are several other methods, however, I assuming your code of ethics would preclude your using them.

Why would any vendor send someone to a potential client without some back information?

Last of all I may have tried to answer a question you didn't ask

Glenn Brule posted on Sunday, September 25, 2011 12:10 PM
All thank you for your comments and feedback nunemaj - there are a great deal of resources that would provide you great insight on how to deal with challenging stakeholders, I would suggest that perhaps the most important advice would be that of planning, including understanding stakeholders, wants, needs and expectations through some thoughtful planning and pre-calls with stakeholders - calls really should last no longer than 3-5 mins..

@Zarfman - if that is in fact your real name ;) - I completely disagree with your comments as you have failed to truly understand facilitation; as facilitators, our role is to guide conversation and discussions and to ensure those individuals who are knowledgeable about the "content" are indeed addressing the goals and objectives to be addressed through the course of their interactions. As this is not the first time I have seen you comment on a variety of topics addressed in Modern Analyst and based on the consistent references to the financial world, I would hazard the guess that you are a very credible subject matter expert with a very myopic view, of business analysis and the broad scope of competencies that are required to address a very broad scope of challenges, all of which are supported by what I would refer to as the right stakeholders.

I am concerned that your approach suggesting that a "BA know the problem" and be versed in financials would actually prove to be "prohibitive" in that a BA in this case is most likely come to the table with a high degree of influence of what the solution is versus allowing stakeholders to clearly articulate their needs versus their wants. Using a variety of techniques - and with practice and discipline - decomposing stated needs, into complex logic is definately challenging - but not impossible if practiced, with great care, discipline and above anything else planning.
zarfman posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 11:56 PM

You wrote: I completely disagree with your comments as you have failed to truly understand facilitation; as facilitators, our role is to guide conversation and discussions and to ensure those individuals who are knowledgeable about the "content" are indeed addressing the goals and objectives to be addressed through the course of their interactions...all of which are supported by what I would refer to as the right stakeholders.

Zarfman writes: How does the BA know if he/she has the right stake holders? I would assert that the competency (or the lack there of) of these stake holders/experts is the Achilles Heel of business Analysis as well as analysis in general. Moreover, who and how does one assess the competency of the stake holders? Just because the internal stake holders exist is no guarantee that they are equal to the task at hand. Unfortunately, some VP can say our internal stake holders are the best and we are not going to expose our trade secrets to outsiders, game over.

When ever I hear the words analyst or analysis a mental red flag goes up. Our wall street Quants, economists, traders,etc never saw 2008 coming. I have personal knowledge of some very large companies that had to pay multi-million dollar fines, because the stake holders misinterpreted the law or failed to even consider it, and the BA didn't have knowledge to catch the stake holders error.


Glenn Brule posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 7:28 AM

Considerable effort and and thought must go into understanding who stakeholders are, planning, elicitation and analysis are critical elements that help to serve this cause, all of this supported by facilitation. A brainstorming session, context diagrams, interviews and some well crafted survey's and questionairres are likely to serve you well in understanding which stakeholders play a critical role, which stakeholders bring the most value to defining BUSINESS REQUIREMENTS, STAKEHOLDER REQUIREMENTS, SOLUTION REQUIREMENTS AND TRANSITION REQUIREMENTS. This coupled with a well crafted communication plan about the development of a proposed solution will serve any BA well. Clearly there are other elements to mitigate risks where stakeholders are concerned, but at least the foundation is set with the above noted activities.

As for your financial quandary, I have a sneaking suspicion that a) business analysts weren't even part of the equation, b) business analysts had no role in even being part of the equation and c) even if they had a remote role, greed would have trumped all efforts on account of the law being disregarded for personal gains. This is clearly something a business analyst would not have had any impact or influence - Maybe a FINANCIAL ANALYST - but NOT a BUSINESS ANALYST. The role delineation here is clear.
zarfman posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:31 PM

You wrote: Considerable effort and and thought must go into understanding who stake holders are...

Zarfman writes: Let's try set theory as a means of explaining my point of view.

A intersect B: A intersection B is the set of all elements that are in both sets A and B.

let us assume that set A is the is the solution set.

Let us assume that set B is the stake holder knowledge set.

Accordingly, if the stake holder knowledge set does not contain all the required elements in the solution set, the out come is uncertain. Or, one can say the stake holders do not have sufficient knowledge/information to solve the problem, this result is not unknown.

You wrote: As for your financial quandary...

Zarman writes: Sorry, a,b and c are incorrect. Financial analysts help people decide how to invest their money. They work for banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, and securities firms. Those in investment banking study the companies that want to sell stock to the public for the first time. Wrong skill set for the financial quandary I mentioned.



Jenny Nunemacher posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 6:09 PM
I'm going to have to agree with Glenn here. @Zarfman doesn't seem to understand the role that a business analyst-as-facilitator plays here. While it absolutely true that a solution will be incomplete without the right knowledge set being made available and engaged, that knowledge set doesn't reside in the BA nor is it expected to, especially given the defined role of Facilitator, which is the topic of this article. Many professional facilitators (acting as business analyst or not) do excellent and valuable work without needing to also be subject matter experts. Their skill is in understanding and analyzing those stakeholders and enough of the domain to know when a stakeholder is either wrong for or missing from the effort/project.

Given @Zarfman's responses here, I can't imagine hiring him as a business analyst or as a facilitator, regardless of his professed subject matter expertise.
zarfman posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 9:11 PM


Nunemaj wrote: I'm going to have to agree with Glenn here. @Zarfman doesn't seem to understand the role that a business analyst-as-facilitator plays here.

Zarfman writes: That assertion is not unfamiliar to me.

Nunemaj wrote: While it absolutely true that a solution will be incomplete without the right knowledge set being made available and engaged,

Zarfman writes: We agree on this point.

Nunemaj wrote: That knowledge set doesn't reside in the BA nor is it expected to, especially given the defined role of Facilitator, which is the topic of this article.

Zarfman writes: If a knowledge set isn't expected to reside with the BA, then with whom does it lie? The facilitator, assuming there is one available, if not then what.

Nunemaj wrote: Their (professional facilitators) skill is in understanding and analyzing those stakeholders and enough of the domain to know when a stakeholder is either wrong for or missing from the effort/project.

Zarfman writes: That's my point/Question, how do we prove/know with a probability greater than .5 that the facilitator has enough domain knowledge to know when someone goes astray? This question can be asked of most domains

Nunemaj wrote: Given @Zarfman's responses here, I can't imagine hiring him as a business analyst or as a facilitator, regardless of his professed subject matter expertise.

Zarfman writes: Works for me.


Engle posted on Friday, September 30, 2011 3:31 PM
Excellent article with so much valuable information to be gleaned.

On the point of knowledge, one person cannot be expected to know everything. The BA cannot be expected to be a SME of the meeting s/he leads anymore than a CEO is the SME of all aspects of the business s/he leads.

The facilitator is there to tap the brain trust, draw out knowledge, get people working together etc ....i.e. provide the facilities to bring out the best from the bunch. It's amazing how much information is stored in people's brains and if they work together, that info expands exponentially.

I've attended a meeting where a BA was the SME of the topic at hand, but had no facilitation skills. That was the worst meeting I've ever attended.
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Victoria posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:31 PM
Just got the opportunity to read this amazing article.

I have a question regarding Facilitation, when someone asks you to prepare a "Facilitation Plan" what are they expecting; would it be the way you would carry out the Facilitation meeting(s) or does it go deeper than that?
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