Building Rapport: 7 Top Tips for Facilitators

You’re about to kick off the workshop. You’ve planned it meticulously. You’re in a cool venue. You’ve designed a dynamic, creative workshop process. As a facilitator, the key thing now is to focus on building a rapport with the expectant faces looking at you. You need to create a close, harmonious relationship with everyone in the room.

With rapport you can direct the session exactly how you want. Without rapport, you’ll find people are unwilling to join in. They’ll respond in a lacklustre way and operate at half-speed. They’ll start rebelling. They'll start playing with their phones or will get lost on their way back from the coffee break.

So, how does a facilitator build rapport in workshops?

1 It starts before the workshop begins

During the planning phase, get to understand the people who are attending. You’ll then get a feel for what’s in store. Ask the session owner for the low down on them. As you send emails detailing their pre-work, take the opportunity to introduce yourself. Explain what’s in store and re-assure them that it’s going to fun and engaging. Give everyone an opportunity to call you. By the time everyone arrives, they’ll at least know who you are and feel primed and ready to go.

2 Introduce yourself upfront

The participants need to know you are. As people drift into the meeting room I always try and say hello and make them feel comfortable. Direct them towards the coffee, point out the bathrooms, show them where to sit. And as you kick off the day, say something about yourself. Nothing too long or boastful. Just enough for them to get a sense of who you are. It’s easy to forget to do this in your eagerness to make a fast start. Make sure you don’t. It’s important.

2. Name people

There’s a lovely quote from Dale Carnegie.

“A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

He’s right. Taking the time to memorise and call out people’s names is so important. It signals you’re listening, that you care about what they have to say. It also allows you to direct people more overtly and ask questions more pointedly. Memorising names is something I find difficult and it takes a real effort. Here are some further tips on how to do it. Even if you can’t remember everyone, especially if it’s a big group, do your best to remember at least a few.

3 Involve everybody

Make sure you’ve built a rapport with everyone in the room, not just the more senior or extrovert characters. There’s a risk you’ll spend your time connecting with the familiar, friendly faces. If you notice there’s a few quieter characters, try and draw them in. Early in the session, check that every individual has made a meaningful contribution. If not, encourage this to happen. Ask them some direct questions. Encourage them to present their ideas.

4 Stay present and engaged throughout

It’s tempting when people are working on exercises to take a bit of time out. To check your emails, look out the window, have a chat with your fellow facilitator. Make sure you avoid this. People will notice if you’ve checked out of the session and will feel a bit let down. ‘I’m working really hard here and the facilitator doesn’t care’, they’ll think. Instead, stay attentive. Don’t interrupt people but make sure you keep an eye on everyone and ensure you’re available for them. When people are presenting back their ideas/thoughts, stay focused. Listen closely and acknowledge what they’ve said.

5 Keep it playful

People enjoy playing more than working. Maintaining a relaxed playful tone is essential, no matter how serious the topic. Set the tone early with a nice warm-up exercise. Take time for the odd energiser. Encourage humour and don’t be afraid to join in. It needs to feel spontaneous. You don’t want to labelled as the boring one at the front of the room. However, beware of trying to be funny at someone else’s expense. It’s a surefire way of damaging your any rapport you’ve created.

6 Provide constructive feedback

When people present ideas and thoughts, listen - really listen. Then provide constructive feedback, ie ‘friendly evaluation’. Say what you like about what you’ve heard. Add something that you feel is helpful. If you don’t feel qualified to pass judgement, then ask other people, making sure they add value to the discussion.

7 Respond to the energy in the room

Always be aware of how people are feeling. If everything’s going well, then go with the flow. If people are flagging or you sense a dip, then do something about it. Don’t ignore it. Call a quick break, even if it’s unscheduled. Encourage people to get some fresh air. Do something physical to get people back on track.

To sum up. Building rapport should be your first priority when you begin a workshop. Get to know everyone straight away and don’t forget to keep working on it throughout. Use these tips to help you. Once people know you and trust you they’ll be willing and able to do their best work.