Tutorial: Visual Facilitation

Visual facilitation is the art of helping groups of people and teams to achieve higher than usual performance in their shared thinking and decision-making.The facilitator acts as a catalyst who adds value through activating and stimulating the process without taking decision power from the group. This includes flexibly adapting techniques of visual mapping to support shared meaning, shared mental modelling and mutual creativity.

Visual facilitation is about……using physical media to aid cognition and communication.

By using physical media we get three advantages:

  • information is embodied, so stuff can be positioned and moved
  • we can work with cognitive structures that are not confined by the grammar of language
  • we can map and explore multiple relationships.

This enables…

  • Physical manipulation expressing mental manipulation and shaping for understanding
  • Organising left-brain information with right brain pattern recognition and creation
  • Sharing thinking in a field of feeling
  • co-creation of new thoughts and insights

Combining shapes with words can be much more powerful than using just words or shapes alone. In H3Uni visual facilitation we make frequent use of combining words with shapes. We call this an 'idon' which is condensed from idea in an icon.


One commonly used idon is the hexagon. This is useful because it symbolises that, instead of being isolated, any idea can be connected with up to six others by simply placing them next to each other. The idea has been moved from being univalent on its own (like in a check list) to being up to six valent (valency is a term from chemistry describing how many other atoms an atom can connect with to make a molecule).

Idonic visual facilitation requires a combination of skills that have to be developed and used together. We all have these skills in some form or another but we need to practice using them in an integrated way. The deeper the skills and their integration the more effective the facilitator. The following system is a Skill Circle for visual facilitation with idons. Each of the eight skills is described below with some hints and tips about how to go about it.   The steps are presented here as they would be if you were doing a complete method like Hexagon Mapping, but bear in mind that this process underpins the use of idons in any H3Uni Method, where the overall structure will guide when to use this.   Steps 1-4 are completely general to the use of idons in any method.   Steps 5-8 are particular to each method.

Step 1: Forming a trigger question

When facilitating, it is important to “set off on the best foot”.  Artful facilitation can often involve reframing the way the client is approaching the task. It requires getting underneath any conclusions people may have already jumped to – even if they claim to have an open mind – and open up the investigation in a way that increases the scope for new thinking. The trigger question is a way of doing this. However, its principle role is to focus people’s minds and be a constant reference to “what we are here to do.” 

This is a good structure for creating trigger questions:

  • Preface This sets the context that has been prepared, directing the attention e.g. “Given that….”, “Considering…”
  • Question focus “What are the <factors, processes, uncertainties…>” Use a generic word that implies going beyond information, stimulates peripheral vision, vents anxieties, allows things to surface, circumvents the conscious judgemental ‘jumping to conclusions’ filters.
  • Purpose Conclude with a purposive aspect…”that are needed to navigate…,”  “that will shape…”

Example: “Given the need for greater well-being in our community what do you feel are the key considerations that we need to take into account if we are to improve our situation?”

The trigger question will be chosen in the context of the particular H3Uni Method you are using, and the step you are in.   Form example, when facilitating Three Horizons you will use a different trigger question for each horizon.   Each Method gives guidance on its own trigger questions.

Step 2: Appreciative listening to contributors

At this stage, in listening to contributors and their ideas, the facilitator lends the appreciative ear giving people a chance to form their thoughts without conversation and be heard by the rest of the group. The factors the facilitator needs to be looking out for to guide the process are:

  • When some group members are much more vocal than others.
  • When some group members think better in silence.
  • When there is concern about some members not participating.
  • When the group does not easily generate quantities of ideas.
  • When all or some group members are new to the team.
  • When the issue is controversial or there is heated conflict.
  • When there is a power-imbalance between facilitator and participants or participants.
  • When stakeholders like a(/some) quantitative output of the process.


Step 3: Formulating contributors' ideas clearly

A key principle of facilitation for inclusive and collaborative work is that all voices shall be heard. The following practices can great;ly help this process:

  • Each participant has the time to verbalise a thought – some may be long, some short.
  • Searching for the meaning to that person – sometimes some coaching is needed to get the essence of the idea clear.
  • Getting it into a form for future shared thinking – skill may need to be applied to getting a succint summary (to write on an idon).
  • The art of wording the essence and verifying that with the contributor; they have must have the editorial power.
  • Appreciating the contributor’s angle of approach – even if you personally disagree.
  • The skill of reformulating without censoring or adding.
  • Midwifing formulation ready for subsequent stages – a good response is “You have summarised that better than I could myself”.


Step 4: Confirming correct interpretation

Having appreciated each voice individually, it is important to appreciate the whole. If there are, say, 12 people in a group, by the time the twelfth has contributed, the first contributors may feel “left behind”. So everyone needs to feel they are part of an emerging whole. Here are some of the factors that will help.

  • It is good to use the visual record that has been created to review all the contributions briefly (reading them out and pointing) as a recapitulation for the group
  • When doing this try to include everyone emotionally as well as informationally
  • In doing this you are holding the space for everyone to stay in the shared process
  • This gives confidence that individuals have been heard and helps their motivation and atention span
  • Knowing you have been heard enables people to relax and pay attention
  • Allowing questions of clarification, not discussion or argument (at this stage). This helps get beyond the words spoken in order to clarify for that person and for the rest of the group

Step 5: Mapping the contribution

This is the crucial step which provokes the collaborative thinking. The various ideas that have been collected, reviewed and assimilated now become the items of thought which are open to reconfiguration. They are like chess pieces on a chessboard. Otherwise thinking in a group is like playing chess blindfold with no shared rules! This is where the dynamic power of the idon method to help share and reconfigure thinking takes place. This is cognitive reframing. The essential features of this stage are:

  • Forming new patterns of thought in a visible way.
  • Going beyond the limitations of verbal grammar and linear logic
  • Using the power of idons to move the thinking up a level in a shared process
  • Enabling deeper interactions between people
  • Sparking creative insights

There are many options for cognitive framing (problem structuring) depending on what suits the question.  This is what the inventory of methods in the H3Uni Resource Library is about. The backgound diagrams for H3Uni methods take several generic forms including:

  • grids
  • trees
  • loops
  • contours
  • clusters

Each Tutorial introduces the relevant structure for the method.   The Thinking Skills introduce more diagrammatic tools, and it is good to be fluent in all of these so that you can bring them in as required to supplement the basic method process.

Step 6: Relating ideas to each other

This aspect is about the dynamics that take place in people’s minds, using the idons, within the chosen cognitive framing, on the shared visual space (wall, whiteboard, pin board). The first level of conversation in the previous steps was around: “what are you saying?” and “what are you meaning?” This is now the second level of conversation which is about: “how do these things relate?” “what is the meaning of the emerging pattern?” Here are some things to bear in mind for this stage:

  • From first level elicitation, to second level conversation which is generative
  • Using differences to promote conversation
  • Different opinions lead to different positioning judgements challenging new synthesis
  • Visibly sharing these judgements
  • Emergent properties of the conversation
  • Homing in on shared understanding
  • Clarifying deeper mutual agreement or difference

Step 7: What is the meaning?

Facilitating co-creation requires the facilitator to help the group be clear about the distinction between analysis and synthesis. This stage is not about picking the situation apart but about looking for new patterns of connection which evoke new meaning. The new meaning, in turn, evokes new possibilities for action – for example, solution approaches to the the original problem which had not been previously generated, recognised or considered. Analysis tends to categorisation; synthesis gravitates to patterns of connection.  Gestalt (the recognition of meaningful pattern) operates in thought as well as in perception.  

You can use the following mental operations to stimulate creation and recognition of pattern:

  • Similarity – what are common factors between the different areas we have come up with?
  • Anomaly – what stands out as incongruous in the picture the previous stage has set up?
  • Continuation – what seems to flow from what?
  • Closure – do some things complete the gaps in other things?
  • Proximity – what happens when distant things are brought closely together?
  • Figure/ground – what happens when we put priority features in the backgound and put background things up front?
  • Meaning – what are we seeing together now and what does it mean for us?

Step 8: Harvest insights

For a satisfying process it is important to help the group step back and see what has been accomplished. There are a number of angles on this that prove useful. Often the ending is where the time available for the whole process is squeezed and it is easy to simply close down after the last stage. The following possible approaches offer ways of accomplishing this completion stage. Without it we may find some of the good work evaporates – that is why this stage is called harvesting. We need to gather the crop.

  • Get the group to share reflections on the movement from the starting position to the conclusion.
  • Ask “What has come out of the exercise?”
  • Harvesting as narrative – get someone to tell the story of where we are at now, using the visual structure as prompt.
  • Have people share and appreciate movement in individuals – this usually reflects movement in the group and gives it expression
  • If the group are doing this because of a common task, has this exercise aligned them better?
  • If there were value conflicts at the start has this generated better mutual understanding?
  • Has the exercise opened up new possibilities for concerted action?
  • Are there new fields of inquiry that the group need to pursue?

It is often useful to take photographs of the output or to map this with visual software. This is especially relevant if the session is part of an ongoing project.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

How to Use this License


This license allows anyone to download and share this method as it is shown here with others as long as H3Uni or H3Uni.org is given credit. The methods cannot be changed in any way or used commercially without prior consent.

View License Deed  I  View Legal Code