The Art and Science of ‘brain friendly’ facilitation

Posted on October 31, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, looks at enhancing the art of facilitation with Neuroscience.

brain at chalkboard with pointer


This week I ran a session ‘Facilitating with the Brain in Mind’ with supervisors in a Port Authority. Many people in management or supervisory positions are often required to facilitate discussions with their teams in which they need to tackle issues, share learning and processes and to make decisions that support alignment with business strategy. Many managers are not necessarily trained in facilitation, particularly those who have been in a technical role and have been promoted to operational management positions. We know that ‘telling’ approaches don’t engage the hearts and minds of followers and ultimately don’t work. Facilitation has been described by some as an ‘art’. Are there insights about the brain that may have relevance to the practice of this ‘art’? In this blog we share some simple tips for facilitating with the brain in mind.

Tip 1- Prime people for the session

Many people think facilitation just happens in the room on the day. Prepare for the session by priming people beforehand. Let them know what is going to be on the agenda. Send out a couple of teaser questions:

  • I would like you to do some thinking about…
  • I have a suggestion. I will be discussing … and I would like your input on it.

This way people come primed to the session and have switched on their thinking before they even get in the room.

Tip 2 – Create certainty

Why are we here? What are we going to cover? Are we going to finish on time? These questions are of concern to our brains because brains crave certainty. Even small amounts of uncertainty can create a threat response. Have an agenda in a place all can see. Let people know when breaks will happen. Set some ground rules for the conversation, particularly if you know there might be some tough issues to discuss.

Tip 3 – Chunk information

Keep it simple. The brain can deal with around 4 pieces of information at any one time. Don’t fall into the trap of a lengthy full-page (or longer) agenda. Chunk your agenda into four key items. The brain is a serial processor and a short agenda will guard against overwhelm. If you are going to use powerpoint try and avoid death by powerpoint. There are some great tips in this blog about how to develop a ‘brain-friendly’ powerpoint.

Tip 4 – Start with wins and successes

The key organising principle of the brain is to minimize threat and maximize reward. Think about what you can do to keep people in a reward state. We all like to celebrate things that have gone well and yet, given the brain’s need to minimize threat, we will often head straight to the problem that needs fixing. Try starting your agenda with a ‘successes and wins’ item. When we get people to think about successes and wins we activate the reward circuitry of the brain and this supports them to settle into a reward state from the get go. It also provides an opportunity to reflect and learn from wins while, at the same time, helps to strengthen wiring around things we want to see people doing.

Tip 5 – Give choice

We all like to feel we have choice. When we perceive that we have control over events a reward response is created in our brain. A strong threat response can be activated when we are told how and when we should do something. In facilitation, threats to autonomy can be generated by lack of choice about the agenda or the processes used. Participants might wonder: Do they really care what I think anyway?  Who is going to decide what we talk about?

Give as many choices as possible to meet the brains’ need for autonomy. If there is flexibility have people suggest which item on the agenda should be tackled first.

Tip 6 – Show appreciation and acknowledgement

If someone raises a good point or a good question thank them and respond by saying ‘great question’, or ‘that’s a really important point’. This gives the person a status reward.  A threat response can be generated when we feel our status has been compromised. For example, dismissing someone’s idea or cutting someone off in mid-sentence, even if you think that their suggestion has a lot of flaws, can generate a status threat.

Tip 7 – Break it up

The brain loves novelty.  After about 20-25 minutes it will be looking for something new. Try and chunk your session into 20-25 minute blocks. Even if you need to share a new piece of information that will take longer than that, provide opportunities for people to switch focus after 20 minutes. For example invite people to have a chat in a pair about their thoughts about what they have just heard or pose reflection questions to the group. When you plan the session in this way people are more likely to keep their attention focused and feel less fatigued at the end. This is because attention is limited and focusing for long periods of time tires out our executive brain.

Tip 8 – Create conditions for insights to emerge

Facilitators have an important role in creating conditions for insight and ‘aha’ moments. We know that the brain needs to quieten down to have insights. This is why we sometimes have our best insights in the shower or going for a walk; usually when we aren’t thinking about a problem or issue. When people are on the verge of having an insight their attention is directed inwards as they start forming new connections in the brain. The worst thing we can do when a person is on the verge of an insight is interrupt them. Try and give people individual reflection time and resist filling silences if people seem to be turning their attention inwards. We can’t force insights and they don’t happen when we become stuck. A great question to ask when a group seems stuck is, “I wonder what would happen if we just stopped thinking about this problem for a while?” or “what might someone who knows nothing about this problem say about it?” These questions allow us to access maps in the brain to form together in new ways.

This is not an exhaustive list and we would love to hear your tips for ‘brain-friendly’ facilitation.



Linda-RayThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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One Response to “The Art and Science of ‘brain friendly’ facilitation”

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