Student leaders — whether they’re resident assistants, orientation leaders, club presidents, or student government association members — are often asked to step up to facilitate their peers. If you’re new in one of these roles, sometimes you get training, sometimes you get a packet and a pat on the back, and sometimes you don’t even get that.

But facilitation skills, which are key to being a top-notch student leader, are often left out of the picture altogether. With a new school year in full-swing for most folks, we wanted to do our part to help you get started on the right footing.

Here are 6 tips from our team that we think will help every first-time student facilitator. Another way to think about it: 6 things I wish someone told me before I assumed my first student leadership role (Forensic Science Club Prez, y’all!).

#1 Ask questions and be curious about the answers!

This might seem obvious, but unfortunately it’s often missed. Asking good questions is key to good facilitation, and one of the easiest ways to guarantee a question is “good” is a simple test: are you genuinely curious about the answer? If you are, you’re on the right track.

Meg said, “When I was a new student leader, people always told me to ‘read my group’ and I had no idea what that meant, or how to do it. If you want an easy way to get to know your group — their thoughts, feelings, wants, needs — ask questions, lots of questions, and be genuinely curious about the answers.”

When you’re getting started facilitating, worry less about the types of question (“open-ended” vs. “close-ended”). Instead, ask questions you care about hearing your peers respond to. Ask questions that hit at sincere concerns you have, where answers will affect your actions in the future. Ask questions that excite you.

#2 Be Flexible

Planning is succeeding, preparation is key to success, and other clichés, but when it comes time to facilitate a group of people toward a goal, things tend to go in directions we aren’t expecting — and that can be great! In order to make the most of the unexpected, which is what facilitation is so wonderful for, you need to be flexible.

Kaleigh said, “I always felt so nervous when I got started facilitating that I would stick too much to what I had planned to say, resulting in me missing opportunities to have more meaningful convos about what the group actually wanted to know or discuss.”

A good facilitator is one who can bend and not break. You’re there for your group, wherever your group decides to take you. Sometimes what you planned to say is what they need from you, and sometimes sticking to that plan will only help your nerves. Meet them where they are. Speaking of which…

#3 Appreciate How Every Group is Different

Once you’ve had a few facilitation experiences — maybe run a meeting, a training, or done some activities with a student group — you’ll start to notice patterns: discussions going in similar ways, people experiencing resistance to particular ideas, “ah hah!” moments. But don’t let patterns that naturally crop up become ruts you force a group into.

Meg said, “Another mysterious phrase I feel we use is ‘meet your group where they’re at’ and I think for returning leaders (or like OL’s that do groups all summer) a good thing to remember is just don’t try to recreate an experience that you had with a diff group. Have the best experience you can with this group.

No two groups are the same, and no two facilitations (even with the same people) are the same. Learn to love that. Look for the little differences that pop up and pull them into the center. It’ll make for a better experience for your group (you’ll be responding to them, instead of hoping they respond to you, and it’ll keep your role as a student leader fresh).

#4 Practice Timing

One of the most fun things about facilitation is how quickly time can fly by. Which is why one of the most common mistakes made by facilitators is losing track of time.

Mary-Margaret said, “Practice timing. Especially if you’re excited about the topic, it’s easy to get engrossed and run out of time for all of our material!”

If you’re going to be doing a similar facilitation several times (e.g., running chapter meetings), time how long each part takes. This will help you practice and improve. You may realize that you’re losing 30 minutes on introductions, which is why you don’t feel like you have enough time for a particular activity.

And make sure you leave time to debrief! As a general rule, if you’re doing an experiential-type activity, plan for at least twice as long to debrief as the experience itself takes (e.g., a 10 minute fishbowl would benefit from 20 minutes of debriefing time after).

#5 Think of Each Facilitation Moment as Practice for the Next

Speaking of practice, as a student leader you’re going to get lots of facilitation practice — whether you want it or not.

You might approach each facilitation experience like I did at first: “I need to do this perfectly or these students will die and the world will stop turning and then we freeze or something.”

Or you might approach it like I learned to (wayyy later, but not too late, I hope): “This experience is practice for the next one. What can I practice right now that will help me then?”

University life is ripe with all kinds of learning opportunities, and every time you get in front of a group of your peers is no different. The stakes are generally low (despite what load we decide to place on our shoulders). It’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake. It’s a perfect opportunity to notice that mistake, and make a small change to improve it next time.

#6 Remember it’s Not (Always) About You

Meg said, “Remember that your participants reactions are often not about you. College is over stimulating, nerve racking and unfamiliar at first. If someone’s not feeling your name game or participating, remember they may be tired, hungry, thirsty or a million other things maybe going on. It may not be you.”

And, ultimately, being a student leader, and facilitating your peers, isn’t really about you at all. It’s about them. Your task is — in some shape, form, or fashion — to help. To make easy. To make better.

You’ve got a lot of good in you. Hopefully we’ve helped you share some of it with those around you. Get to it.

Written by Sam Killermann

I'm one of the co-facilitators of FacilitatingXYZ and co-author of Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation. I'm a social justice facilitator, generally working in some context as a gender & sexuality educator. I'm also a comedian, bicyclist, and hummus fiend. I live in Austin.

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