Experts and Participants

There’s a problem with the title of this post if we think of experts and participants as being some sort of dichotomy. So I’ll try and clear up any misunderstanding right now. If participants are not experts, then why are we allowing them to participate in solving a problem, generating ideas or planning a strategy? We have to be particularly careful of suggesting that participants are anything less than experts with regard to the question a facilitation poses. We need participant thought and participant input. A facilitated process is not a training or other learning process, in which it is our job as facilitator to impart expert knowledge onto non-expert learners. It’s about calling on participants’ experience, knowledge and innovation to create new, unique results. If we allow the dichotomy to persist, participants will be reduced to those who sit and ask questions and applaud at the end.

However, it may still be sensible and necessary to involve “other” experts in a facilitated group process. There are several reasons for this:

  • The group of participants has requested external (and maybe neutral) expertise to help mediate differing views or conflicting opinions.
  • The facilitated process is embedded in a broader process, which needs to be explained.
  • A specific question (i.e. financing projects, press work, political decision making process, technical matter) needs to be temporarily addressed by an expert in order for the group to continue working.
  • etc. etc.

Generally, the expertise required to solve the group’s problem or reach the group’s common result should be contained in the group. The most important attribute of a facilitator is his/her confidence and trust in the group’s capability to solve problems and come up with good ideas. If we, as facilitators, start doubting the group’s expertise too much, the group will push responsibility for its results from it (“We’re not qualified to answer that…”) and rely on the experts who’ve not managed to provide the answers in the first place!

Trust in the process and trust in the group.


3 thoughts on “Experts and Participants

  1. Shawn Cunningham

    I feel quite strong that as facilitators, we should always make it clear to our participants when we want to make an expert input during a workshop. I then site down or take a less dominant position in the room and make my input. I agree with you that we should always remember that even if the participants are not technical gurus on a given workshop subject, that they are often the user-experts, or affected-experts.

    1. Natasha Walker Post author

      I do the same thing. I also think it’s important to say “I’d like to make an input on that issue,” and wait to get a basic “OK” from the participants. Of course, here we have to be doubly aware that our input may well be taken as a sort of “I know better” challenge. It’s so often the case that the user-experts or affected-experts as you say have much better and wiser answers for their own situation than we have from our learnings or knowledge of other situations.

  2. Nina Björstrand

    See, I told you I’d visit your blog. Looks great so far!

    I also promised to give you more info on the up-and-coming “twinkling” last time we met:

    “No one really knows why it goes by this name, but it’s basically a way for people to signal their agreement with what is being said without having to all put up their hands and get called on, just so they can say “I agree with what —– said.” Anyone who agrees with what the speaker is saying just opens their hands and wiggles their fingers in the air. This helps the speaker gauge the response to what they’re saying and allows the facilitator to assess the level of consensus within the group – if everyone’s twinkling, time to move on to the next item on the agenda!” (Source:

    For more info on different hand signs, see: (and wow, there’s loads of more homepages on the subject, but this one has a good overview)


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