Dr. Judith M. Newman

Participatory Workshops

Facilitating A Participatory Workshop

Published by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance

2.1 Facilitator Techniques

Participatory approaches use a range of techniques to facilitate learning and sharing.

When people first take part in participatory learning, they work with facilitators to learn different approaches to exploring local issues. Facilitators use various techniques to:

  • Help people feel comfortable with a participatory approach.
  • Encourage people to share information, ideas, concerns and knowledge.
  • Support learning in a group.
  • Help people to communicate effectively.
  • Manage group dynamics.
  • Keep the work practical and relevant.
  • Invite the group to take control of the learning and sharing process.

Facilitators ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to participate. Through active listening and good questioning, they demonstrate that each person's contribution is valuable. Facilitators help group members to develop communication skills by promoting discussion. Activities such as role play and case studies are used to explore different points of view.


Facilitators use games to help people get to know each other, to give participants more energy and enthusiasm, and to help people to work together.

Ice Breakers

Games that help people to get to know each other and to relax are called ?ice breakers?.

Body greeting game
Participants find a space to stand in. The facilitator shouts out a part of the body (such as knee). Everybody has to greet as many others as quickly as possible saying a greeting and using that part of the body (for example, saying "good morning" and touching knees together). The facilitator then shouts out another part of the body and the activity is repeated. As this game involves touching it may not be culturally appropriate in some countries.

This is how I feel
Participants stand up one at a time, state their names and use an adjective, starting with the same letter as their name, to describe how they are feeling at that moment. (For example, "I'm Nuzrat and I'm nervous" or "I'm Henri and I'm happy".)


When people look sleepy or tired, "energisers" can be used to get people moving and to give them more enthusiasm.

Ball Game
Make five balls using paper and tape. Everyone stands in a wide circle. Each participant throws the ball to a different participant across the circle until everyone has caught and thrown the ball once. Ask the participants to throw the ball around the circle again in the same order until a pattern is established. Keep the pattern going and slowly introduce more balls one by one until the group is effectively "juggling" a number of balls at the same time. 

Games to make people think

Games can also be used to help people think through issues that are part of the workshop. They can also be helpful for addressing problems that participants may encounter when they are trying to work together.

Knotty problem
This game shows people that they are in the best position to solve their own problems rather than outsiders. Two people from the group should volunteer to act as health workers and are asked to leave the room. Participants form a circle, holding each other by the hand. They should then tie themselves without letting go of the hands! into a firm knot. The health workers are asked back in the room to untangle the knot, giving only verbal instructions to the group. After three minutes the facilitator calls stop. You will see that the health workers will not succeed in solving the problem. Ask them to join the group and repeat the exercise, this time let the group disentangle itself: this should take about 20 seconds. As a feedback, encourage people to relate the game to their own lives.

Visual Tools

Facilitators can show their groups how to make visual representations (drawings or diagrams). The drawings or diagrams help participants to do many things, such as analyse problems, describe local situations, and rate the importance of things. These different learning aids are called ?visual tools?. The tools create a relaxed atmosphere to encourage people to work together. 

Community Mapping
People draw a map of their local community and mark important features, for example religious institutions, market places or schools. This is a non-threatening activity that can help people to discuss and analyse different topics that relate to HIV/AIDS.

Problem Trees
People draw a tree and list the causes of the problem at the roots, and the effects of the problem as the branches. This tool helps participants to break big problems down into smaller issues that can be more easily understood and addressed.

Facilitating Visual Tools

Facilitators can help participants to use visual tools by doing the following:

  • Give very clear instructions about what you want people to do. If necessary, provide an example of what it might look like.
  • Remind participants that the quality of the drawing is not important. What the drawing communicates is most important.
  • Make the activities unthreatening. For example, encourage people to work in whatever way they want, such as by drawing on paper or making things out of card.
  • Make the activities fun. For example, encourage participants to draw on a large scale.
  • Consider the use of three-dimensional images or natural ?props? such as chairs, fruits or stones to represent different things.

2.2 What Makes a Good Workshop Facilitator?

In a participatory workshop, the role of a facilitator is to support the learning process. The facilitator creates a supportive environment in which a "learning journey" can take place. Participants explore their own experiences and those of others, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and share their knowledge, ideas and concerns. If appropriate, a facilitator may also offer their own expertise in addition to facilitating the exchange of ideas and experience.

A facilitator does not need to be an "expert" or to be superhuman! However, they do need to have some basic professional and personal characteristics. Examples of these can be divided into three main areas: knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Facilitators do not have to have all of these characteristics. However, they should aim to have at least some from each area and to be open to developing more as they gain experience.


For example:

  • Friendly and honest.
  • Committed to helping people to learn for themselves.
  • Gender sensitive.
  • Respectful of culture, HIV status, sexual orientation and confidentiality.
  • Equal to participants.
  • Self-aware.


  • About HIV/AIDS.
  • About NGOs/CBOs and the challenges they face.
  • About the community and country context.
  • About the subject matter of the workshop.


For example:

  • Active listening and good questioning.
  • Open communication.
  • Managing group work.
  • Conflict resolution.
  • Summarising.
  • Time keeping.

2.3 What Key Skills do Workshop Facilitators Need?

Facilitators need to build a broad base of knowledge, skills and attitudes. In general, facilitators need to develop key skills in four main areas:

  • Encouraging sharing and learning.
  • Communicating well.
  • Keeping material practical and relevant.
  • Responding to group dynamics.

The following information aims to provide a ?checklist? and some ideas of the techniques that facilitators use to make sure participants have the best possible learning experience:

a) Encouraging Sharing and Learning

Question the meaning of participants? drawings.

Drawings can lead to useful discussions, if facilitators ask good, open-ended questions both during the process and after the drawing is finished. This questioning allows participants to explain what their drawings mean. Some useful questions include:

  • What did you draw first and why?
  • What is happening in the drawing? What are the consequences and for whom?
  • What part of the drawing caused the most discussion in the group and why?
  • What is not included in the drawing and why?

Encourage two-way communication. For example, by actively listening to people and by using open, rather than closed questions.

Active Listening and Good Questioning

Active listening encourages the open communication of ideas and feelings by making a participant feel not only heard, but also understood. Some tips include:

  • Look at the person who is speaking to show that you are both interested in what they are saying and that you understand.
  • Pay attention to your body language to show physically that you are listening.
  • Listen to both what is said and how it is said to pick up the emotion as well as the words.
  • Summarise what you have heard to show that you have caught the main points.

 Good questioning encourages people to go beyond simply providing information it prompts them to share their views. Some tips include:

  • Ask open-ended rather than closed questions. For example: "What was the meeting like?" rather than: "Did you go to the meeting?"
  • Ask probing questions. For example: "Could you explain what you meant about men not talking to their sons about sex?"
  • Ask clarifying questions. For example: "Is it that people lack condoms or that they lack good quality condoms?"
  • Ask questions about personal views and feelings. For example: "What do you feel about local services for STI treatment?"
  • Give, and ask, for feedback. For example, after group work or presentations.

Paraphrase (or summing up). For example, to confirm people's key points. 

Summing Up

Summarising is an important skill for drawing conclusions and results from workshop activities. Tips include:

  • State the positive points first.
  • Highlight where there was agreement or differences.
  • Reflect on people's comments rather than your own opinions.
  • Focus on just the main points that have been made.

b) Communicating Well

Be enthusiastic, calm and confident.

Talk slowly and clearly. Use language that is simple and appropriate.

Provide clear guidance and instructions. For example, for group work.

Facilitating Group Work

Facilitating the work of groups is about more than enabling people to exchange information and learn from each other. It is also a way to build agreement and practical skills. Some tips include:

  • Be clear about the aim of the work, and agree it with the participants.
  • Keep activities focused and on track.
  • Encourage all group members to contribute.
  • End by summarising the discussion and agreeing action points.

Be honest. Be clear about what you do and don?t know.

Use positive body language. Make eye contact with all participants and be relaxed.

Make effective materials. Produce handouts for participants, prepare flipcharts or overhead transparencies with key information, and make examples to help explain activities or participatory approaches.

Display results well. Put participants? flipcharts up on the walls, on tables, or on the ground where everyone can see them.

c) Keeping the Work Practical and Relevent

Focus on practice rather than theory. Include case studies of real NGOs/CBOs in action. 

Talk about "we" and "us" rather than "they" and "them".

Link the activities to participants? own work. Ask "How could you use this in your day-today projects?".

d) Responding to Group Dynamics

Cope with power imbalances. Encourage people with different social and professional backgrounds to work as equals. 

Enable participants to give each other feedback. Help people to clarify the ideas and opinions of others. Show them how to question incorrect factual statements. Avoid crises. Deal with problems as they arise and work with the group to resolve them. 

Deal positively with criticism. It is important to find a way for the participants to challenge each other constructively. Encourage discussion of the criticism, such as by asking, "Can you explain why you feel that way?" or "What do others think?"

Accept that you may not be able to please everyone all the time! Accept the fact that group members do not always have to agree on everything. It is more important that they have shared different experiences and learned from them. 

Cope with judgemental attitudes. HIV/AIDS work often involves discussing issues that participants might consider wrong such as issues about sexuality and gender. Wherever possible, these attitudes should be challenged constructively by fellow participants in light of the potential impact on their HIV/AIDS work. 

Balance participation. Encourage quiet participants to speak and dominant ones to respect others. 

Facilitating Quiet and Dominant Participants

Facilitators can build the confidence of quiet participants and encourage them to become involved by:

  • Encouraging them to start by speaking during small group work.
  • Asking them to share their experiences in a discussion about their area of specific expertise.
  • Using activities whereby all participants are asked to make a small contribution.
  • Providing them with positive but not patronising feedback when they contribute. For example, try and build on, or reinforce, what they have said rather than say "well done" or "very good". 

Facilitators can work positively with dominant participants and support them to let others make a contribution by:

  • Giving them positive feedback and involving other participants in responding to them. For example, by saying "Thank you for that interesting viewpoint. What do other people think about it?"
  • Speaking with them privately during a break to ask them to allow others more time to participate.
  • Giving them a job to do within the workshop, for example providing the participants with a re-recap at the beginning of each day.
  • Drawing their attention to established ground rules about allowing everyone to contribute or using games that encourage awareness of one's own behaviour.


This is an extract from A Facilitators' Guide to Participatory Workshops with NGOs/CBOs Responding to HIV/AIDS, published by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in November 2001.

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