Are we talking too much and engaging too little?

The classic model of public speaking, where one person lectures a passive audience, is losing its appeal. More and more, people are recognising the value in learning from diverse perspectives, questioning the limitations of a single expert tackling complex issues, and appreciating the availability of high-quality content online.

Despite this shift, traditional formats like lectures and multi-day conferences filled with keynote speeches are still common, especially in engineering education and academia. These static formats clash with today’s demand for dynamic, interactive learning experiences and a growing awareness of how to use time effectively.

Imagine if we embraced more interactive methods of working with each other, rather than talking at each other. This shift could turn a one-way monologue into a collaborative, engaging, and productive exchange.

This is where facilitation comes in.

Facilitation harnesses the collective intelligence and creativity of a group, allowing participants to contribute unique insights and expertise to decision-making without becoming overwhelmed by multiple voices. This is crucial for co-creation, especially when working with communities or multiple stakeholders impacted by projects.

It is because of these important benefits that Engineers Without Borders UK has identified ‘facilitation’ as a core skill required amongst globally responsible engineers in its Competency Compass – a tool developed in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering and endorsed by the Engineering Council.

But what makes a good facilitator and can anyone practise this skill?

Oliver Broadbent, founder of Constructivist, explains how facilitation can make it *easier* for people to be involved in [the design] process.

Can anyone facilitate?

While many people can develop facilitation skills through training and practice, certain qualities can make some individuals naturally more suited to this role, for example those who thrive in relationship-based roles (leading a team (or business), working in teams, coordination, sales, business development, project management etc). 

Effective facilitation requires patience, an understanding of group dynamics and placing a value on the importance of the process more than the content you were planning to share. Facilitation also helps us to develop a broader set of skills, including active listening, empathy, and adaptability, which are essential in today’s interconnected world. And perhaps a better kept secret is that facilitation can be less anxiety-inducing and resource-intensive than simply delivering a presentation. 

While some people might naturally excel in these areas, others can develop these over time. But regardless of your own capability in actively facilitating, we firmly believe that anyone can enable effective facilitation to happen.

Why does this matter?

Creating inclusive outcomes

Engineers have a habit of underestimating the impact of their professional choices – especially if we don’t see or feel the impact first hand. Facilitation with stakeholders affected by a project, including marginalised and underrepresented groups, enables engineers to uncover possible unintended consequences, and better ideas for how to improve or solve a particular issue. By guiding discussions and creating a safe space for open communication, facilitators help minimise biases and power imbalances, ensuring that the best ideas come forward regardless of their origin.

>> Explore how gender inequality in design continues to negatively impact women worldwide.

Case study: Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was designed to cater for the needs of people living with disabilities or with limited mobility. By facilitating a co-creation design process with gamers with disabilities, the outcomes expanded access to gaming for individuals with disabilities but also set a new standard for inclusive design in the technology industry.

Improving performance

Effective facilitation can significantly enhance team performance by optimising time management, strengthening relationships, and integrating diverse viewpoints. It is particularly effective when multi-disciplinary teams are brought together to explore complex issues. 

Poorly run meetings are a common pitfall in projects, leading to wasted time and resources, frustration and disengagement. A skilled facilitator can structure meetings to stay focused on the agenda, set clear objectives, and ensure productive discussions. 

Additionally, facilitation builds stronger interpersonal relationships within a team. By encouraging respectful dialogue and active listening, facilitators help team members understand and appreciate each other’s contributions. This harmony enhances collaboration and reduces conflicts, contributing to a more cohesive and productive team environment.

Facilitators also play a crucial role in bringing diverse perspectives into the decision-making process. As discussed, engineering challenges benefit from a variety of viewpoints, and facilitators ensure that these are not only heard but integrated into the final outcomes. This diversity of thought leads to more robust and creative solutions, enhancing the overall quality and innovation of engineering projects.

Case study: Decision making in complex cancer cases is shared between a multidisciplinary team of health professionals (MDT). Through regular facilitated meetings they discuss cases and align quickly on shared treatment plans. An MDT approach is considered best practice for diagnosis and treatment of cancer, as it can significantly improve patient outcomes (higher survival rates and better quality of life) compared to those receiving care from individual practitioners. The MDT’s ability to rapidly address complications, adjust treatment plans, and provide comprehensive support is key to these improved outcomes.

Addressing complex problems

Engineering often involves tackling messy, complex problems that require more than just technical expertise. These problems, such as large-scale project management, benefit greatly from the human skills of facilitation that allow teams to navigate the ambiguity and interconnectedness of complex systems, mediate conflicts and find consensus amidst uncertainty. 

While machines excel at processing data and performing repetitive tasks, they lack the intuitiveness and adaptability that human facilitators bring to complex problem-solving scenarios.

Case study: In the Murray-Darling Basin of Australia, indigenous communities collaborated with government agencies and water management experts to develop Indigenous Water Plans (IWPs), aiming to address historical injustices and promote sustainable water management practices. Facilitators played a crucial role in this process, organising community consultations, mediating negotiations, and building capacity within indigenous communities. Through facilitated dialogue and consensus-building, stakeholders worked together to incorporate indigenous perspectives and priorities into water management decisions. The result was the creation of IWPs that reflect indigenous cultural values and aspirations, empowering indigenous communities to play a more active role in water governance and leading to the implementation of innovative and sustainable water management strategies informed by indigenous knowledge and expertise.

Putting facilitation into practice

Five years ago, Engineers Without Borders UK invited Oliver Broadbent from Constructivist to train our team in the four modes of facilitation. Since then, we’ve made sure every new team member gets this training. This boost in facilitation skills has been a game-changer for running our events and meetings, whether virtual or in-person, as well as for our training sessions and workshops on globally responsible engineering.

We’ve facilitated workshops with a wide range of people, from students and educators to CEOs from the Professional Engineering Institutions and mixed groups. Crucially, this established a more collaborative approach that has been critical to the development of our most recent products – the Reimagined Degree Map, Competency Compass, Advocate programme and Systems Change Lab.

>> Explore Constructivist’s ‘Facilitation Top Ten’ 

Facilitation is about valuing the time and input of the people you’re working with, ensuring the experience is both useful and enjoyable. As a site engineer, you can use facilitation to make informed decisions with input from tradespeople and fellow engineers. In project meetings, it enhances collaboration and decision-making. And it is an essential skill for community engagement. Ultimately, facilitation helps you connect better with others, foster more effective teamwork and improve your own critical thinking.

Design and delivery of a well-facilitated experience is a skill, and there are various roles you can play. You can be the lead facilitator of a session, a co-pilot, a supporting facilitator or the person ensuring the logistics are seamless. It’s important to recognise and appreciate these different roles within our teams and workplaces.

Milly Hennayake shares how effective facilitation can help us respond to people’s right to participate in designing the world around them.

In conclusion

How does change really happen? Is it effective to simply tell people what to do, or do we all need an opportunity to shape our shared future? Should we enforce change from the top down, or cultivate a movement for change from the ground up?

At its core, facilitation is about respecting people’s (democratic) right to participate in the design of the world around them. 

Next time you are asked to speak – in a lunch and learn, to a class, or during a conference – consider the potential of the people in the room and facilitate a conversation instead. 


This piece has been written as part of a 12-month campaign exploring the 12 competencies of globally responsible engineering identified in our Competency Compass. Each month, you can expect thought leadership content, ranging from panel discussions to video interviews to articles, focussed on one of the 12 competencies. Sign up to our newsletter to ensure you don’t miss anything!