How does a facilitator cultivate trust?

Vanessa MousavizadehFacilitation, Human Dynamics, Relationships, Teamwork, TrustLeave a Comment

iStock_000006995901Large (2)

Picture this: You’ve just been notified that you’ll be facilitating a multi-disciplinary team in implementing a new initiative. You schedule the first meeting and prepare an agenda, feeling confident that you’ll run this meeting like any other. You start the meeting with an ice breaker, launch into introductions, and get right to work on meeting logistics, sharing your draft of the meeting charter, and setting communication ground rules. The meeting ends; the team has accomplished so much! You are reveling in the afterglow of your facilitation super powers.

The second meeting comes around. You pushed for details to be worked out via email so the team could jump into brainstorming solutions. Everyone arrives punctually–they know you mean business! You launch the team into brain storming . . . and no one is willing to engage. The minutes drag on like a visit to the DMV, as you suppress your exasperation.  You started off on the right foot  .  .  . or did you? Assuming you have all the right expertise in the room, the most likely missing ingredient is TRUST.

Many factors contribute to lack of trust on a team. For example, team members may not know or trust each other’s intentions. They may doubt the motivations of the facilitator and wonder if the meeting is a safe place to openly share ideas. Focusing on results before building foundations of trust and establishing a safe space for work is a common mistake. You can force results without trust; but if you want collaborative, lasting results that everyone owns and champions, make time to build lasting relationships.

So, how does a facilitator cultivate trust? My approach is threefold:

  • Holding the space for the team to work is about understanding the neutral role of a facilitator.
  • Being a constant gardener is about fertilizing positive contributions.
  • Engaging in shuttle diplomacy means running interference and leveraging one-on-one interactions by engaging people between facilitated meetings.

Below is a breakdown of each of the approaches with examples.

Holding the space for the team to work

You are the moon that orbits around your team; you are not a team member.

You might think you have much to contribute regarding the content of the meeting, but it is unlikely that you’ll be an effective and trusted facilitator if you contribute like a team member. Generally speaking, I influence decision making by organizing information in different ways, proposing new options, or by asking difficult questions, but I do not directly contribute to decision making.

When I have witnessed facilitators break out of orbit, making key decisions for a team, the facilitator has generally given up on collaboration and given in to forcing results at the cost of team trust. This sort of usurpation is more likely to occur when deadlines are looming or when the facilitator looses patience with the process. It occurs most often toward the end of a meeting, especially when the team hasn’t come up with a result. Such a scenario makes it hard for a facilitator to return to orbit because team members may no longer trust the facilitator to consistently hold the collaborative space for them to work.

Direct decision making drops a facilitator out of orbit because the facilitator has chosen to act like a team member rather than a neutral facilitator.  Not contributing to decision making but facilitating others in decision making builds trust between the facilitator and the team and ensures a facilitator’s appropriate place in the orbit–effectively supporting the team. Dropping out of orbit when collaboration or the process becomes frustrating may broadcast to team members that the facilitator does not trust them to produce the intended outcomes or that the facilitator’s opinion is worth more than theirs combined. One can’t be a neutral, effective facilitator and a team member at the same time. Pick one.

Being a constant gardener

Seek opportunities to fertilize brave contributions and to uproot negativity.

The body language of just one team member can shut down individual or team contributions and discourage collaborative problem solving. One hopeless comment or one eye roll left unaddressed can plague the team, just as one creative solution bravely shared and appreciated can motivate the team. Reading and effectively responding to body language and speech is a primary function of the facilitator role in helping to develop productive relationships.

For example,in an effort to improve team dynamics, I agreed to begin facilitating a team whose members were disgruntled with the facilitation by a supervisor who had recently left. When I arrived, team members’ snide comments, eye rolls, and negativity loomed like a dark cloud. I was transparent about why I was there, how I hoped to help, and what sort of outcomes they could expect if they invited me to work with them. I confronted negative statements with support and perspective, while openly encouraging brave suggestions. I did this during meetings and outside of meetings and encouraged them to support each other similarly.

As a result, the team became an engaged, optimistic, collaborative team, ready to try new ideas and suggest process improvements. In my experience, focusing attention on building relationships can effectively grow collaboration from a negative spiral, so long as all parties have built trust with the facilitator and all are compelled to try to change the status quo.

Engaging in shuttle diplomacy

Interactions outside of meetings are key opportunities to apply adhesive to further bind the relationship between the facilitator and the team.

Thus, what happens outside of meetings is just as important as what happens within them.  I actively use one-on-one interactions outside of meetings to reinforce positive contributions, to clarify miscommunications or motivations, and mediate between two parties on the side. I also occasionally coach and offer feedback to those who have trouble regulating emotions during meetings or who lack awareness of body language.

This method of following up outside of meetings can be emotionally exhausting and time consuming but conveys a vital message–I genuinely care about every contributor and will offer what I can to aid a team in reaching synergetic group participation in the pursuit of meaningful results. Here are some examples of how I have used shuttle diplomacy in the role of a facilitator and some additional tips for building trust:

  • Be vigilant about confidentiality.
  • Solicit and prepare for constructive feedback.
  • Give kudos for collaborative engagement, unusual ideas, and bravery.
  • Never gossip about another team member or show favorites.
  • Maximize on micro-opportunities: smile, make obvious eye contact, and make time for brief pleasantries.
  • Actively listen and empathize with those who confide in you. Walking meetings out of the office are a great way to engage with people.

On a final note: A facilitator who makes time to build strong relationships with and among team members will find the role more challenging but also potentially more rewarding. Investment by the facilitator in team dynamics can mean the difference between functional and dysfunctional or productive and unproductive. Operational tricks and tips for leading a team toward producing meaningful outcomes may fall short without intentional investment in building trust. In my experience, the level of investment in human dynamics corresponds to the degree of team success.

Vanessa Mousavizadeh, M.A., is Program Manager of Strategic Planning at Community Health Plan of Washington in Seattle, Washington. She is a guest blogger for


Vanessa MousavizadehHow does a facilitator cultivate trust?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *