Hug Me!

How do you know if you’ve done a good job facilitating?

There is no simple or universal answer to this question, but there is a wrong answer. Effective meeting facilitation is not about being liked. Just because a few of your participants sing your praises afterward doesn’t mean you’ve actually accomplished your goals. Conversely, just because your participants aren’t smiling or hugging each other or you afterward doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

The biggest mistake that facilitators make going into meetings is not going in with clear, aligned goals. If there’s no goal clarity, there’s no fair way of collectively assessing how you did.

Even if you have goal clarity, “reading the room” is not an effective way to assess those goals, regardless of how skillful you think you are. We as humans all suffer from cognitive biases and a predilection for projecting our own opinions onto others.

My friend, Ed, is a radiologist, and he recently pointed me to this op-ed about the recent trend in U.S. health care of conflating patient satisfaction with effectiveness. The problem is that research shows that high patient satisfaction scores do not correlate to healthier patients. However, they do correlate with higher spending on drugs and higher death rates.

People-pleasing is a natural human instinct, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Losing sight of other critical goals is. Relying on perceived satisfaction as a way to assess your performance will lead you down that stray path. Medicine has the advantage of having clearer, objective measures, but the absence of those measures does not mean you can give up trying.

I create evaluation surveys before meetings, and I always ask assessment questions about the meeting’s goals. This forces you and your co-designers to get clear about what your goals are and how you might measure success up-front, which in and of itself will make your meetings better. At worst, you get aggregate feedback that is more likely to be frank than feedback shared with the whole group or one-on-one at the end of a meeting, when everyone is on an emotional high (or low). But surveys are simply a starting point, and it’s important not to read too much into them.

Last April, I led a collaborative networks practitioners workshop on behalf of the Garfield Foundation. We had three goals, which we shared up-front with our participants:

  • Share the Garfield frame around collaborative action networks
  • Start developing a shared understanding of the participants’ frame around collaborative action networks
  • Create a valuable experience for practitioners who support, fund, and participate in collaborative action networks

At the end of the meeting, people shared glowing reflections on the two days, and several people came up to me praising me for my facilitation. If I were using that alone as my success metric, I might have thought that I had pulled off the best meeting ever. However, our evaluation survey told a more nuanced story.

We received high scores for the first and third goals, but a mixed (although overall solid) score for our second goal around developing a shared understanding of the participants’ frame. That also included a few biting comments about my facilitation.

I didn’t stress about the negative comments. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, I was not perfect, and even if I were, you’re not always going to please everyone. (In fact, when I expect to be diving into difficult conversation, which was not the case at this workshop, I often use that kind of negative feedback as a measure of success.)

The score on our second goal, however, required us to go deeper. We had to reflect on what we could have done better, but also what the scores did and didn’t tell us. This also got us thinking about behavioral metrics (as opposed to self-assessment surveys) that we could use to better track this goal.

There are no perfect ways to evaluate the effectiveness of your facilitation. But starting with clear goals takes you halfway there, and being thoughtful, intentional, and iterative about collecting better data will take you even further. Hugs are data too, so don’t discount them when you get them. Just don’t conflate them with success.

Photo by lintmachine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


  1. But will you be invited back if you are not liked?

    I agree whole-heartedly with your main premise, it’s absolutely not the goal, but if folks have a putrid experience, and specifically a putrid experience with you as the facilitator, it could effect their willingness to keep collaborating towards shared goals. I don’t need my groups to like me, but I think if they respect me they’ll show up more enthusiastically and wholly to every collaborative experience I’m a part of.

    1. I’m fascinated that you’re raising this point, Rebecca. You’re the second person to do so (the other being on my Facebook wall).

      On the one hand, this further reiterates the critical importance of being clear about the goals with the participants from the start. If they understand why they’re there, they’ll have more realistic expectations, and they’ll be more tolerant of difficult interactions. Everyone needs to understand when a putrid experience is because you’ve done a bad job or because you’re trying to navigate a putrid situation.

      On the other hand, it also demonstrates the structural conflict that facilitators and consultants often face — the (possibly valid) fear that they won’t get hired if people don’t like them, which leads them to prioritize “being liked” over other more important goals. (This is exactly the problem that I referenced regarding patient satisfaction surveys.)

      I won’t pretend that there’s a simple answer to this quandary, or that I’ve been immune to it. What I will say is that — if we’re sincere about our desire to impact the world, not just make clients happy — we need to at least confront these issues head on and reflect on and discuss them honestly.

  2. Perhaps the higher criteria for a faciliator is “appreciated”.

    That might bridge both “being liked” by satisfied participants and “being effective” in the process.

    What’s more, this taps into the “appreciative inquiry” tradition of which I’m a big fan.

    Your thoughts, Eugene?

    1. It’s nice and useful to be appreciated, but I can’t think of any meeting I’ve ever led where being appreciated was or should have been a goal.

      As I’ve written previously, enrollment is one of the biggest challenges with network projects, and a big part of enrolling participants is developing a relationship with them. Sometimes, gaining their trust is a critical part of the process, but I wouldn’t frame it as needing to be liked or appreciated.

  3. “Effective meeting facilitation is not about being liked.”

    Correct. Thanks for the courage to say it. Although I’ve only ever heard about the condition, ‘being liked’ sounds like it would be counterproductive.

    “How do you know if you’ve done a good job facilitating?”

    Being invited back and getting paid. Fortunately, I’ve hit 100% on both over the decades.

    My inclination is to push-back on the fetish of goals. Goals must not be given unquestioned reverence, respect, or magical devotion.

    For a facilitated session, an intimate offsite, group outcomes are far more important than goals.

    The expectation of hiring a top facilitator and and winging-off to an attractive resort setting is that emergence, self-organization and non-determinism are the key modalities. This is where top facilitators make a huge difference – group gestalt. They drive the ROI – return on interaction.

    Eugene already knows these properties well, of course, but like his post, it makes sense and takes courage to say it explicitly.

    Among the most effective techniques to move from a goals to rich outcomes is an authentic pre-event conversation between the facilitator and each participant. When impractical, strive to have some social activity the night or day before to discharge group ambivalence.

  4. I agree that goals, objectives and outcomes are an essential starting point, but possibly not a great outcome metric, especially when an unforeseen team dynamic emerges and impacts one or more of the goals. It’s not easy to have the crowd turn against you. To feel the strength I need to call hard truths I feel I have to be liked, not popular, and respected by the group.

    I want to move to series of events, rather than1-off sessions, so that being ‘not liked’ on 1 of the events is part of a journey we take together with ups and downs, especially when dealing with creative tension. This way, you hopefully get to actually see the group move toward their goals and have a chance to facilitate in good times and bad.

    1. Not doing one-offs is an excellent strategy for not falling into the trap of feeling like you need to be liked. It’s also just a great practice for consultants, and it’s hard to put into practice, because it requires drawing a line and holding it! Hope you’re having success with this, Jodi. Your clients would be foolish not to go for it!

  5. Never thought ‘appreciative inquiry’ meant being appreciated. That’s a new one for me and sort of funny…

    As usual, what I may offer is an aphorism.

    Vulnerability is power; empathy is innovation; leadership is power.

    Effective facilitation is not about being liked or appreciated. Rather it is tantamount to praxis intervention. It is our method at Colabria. Strive to achieve reflexivity. See:

I'd love to hear what you think! Please leave a comment below.