Facilitation … What is that?

The word “facilitation” is used everywhere these days and meaning different things to different people. It is popping up more and more in various circles, gaining momentum like a bike going downhill – this is good for the facilitation business, but not so good if the expectations are different.

I am hearing and seeing people wanting to use a facilitator to:

  • Chair a meeting
  • Instruct, train or teach
  • Smooth disputes or conflicts
  • Convince dissenting team members to go along.

These are only a few examples. Clearly, the facilitation world, including myself, has not done a good enough job to educate the non-facilitators about what facilitation truly means.

The word “facilitate” means “to make easier”. The facilitator’s primary role is to make it easier for a group to do its work and to increase the effectiveness of the group in doing its work, whether the work is to reach consensus, make decisions, to share information or to solve problems.

Two of the key characteristics of being a true facilitator are that the facilitator is:

  • substantively neutral to the content and unbiased, and
  • process-centric rather than content-centric.

A facilitator will use and blend various facilitation methods, techniques, tools and processes to achieve the purpose and desired outcomes of a group, in a meeting or workshop setting.

What can be confusing is when a person’s role is mixed up with the facilitator’s role. Not that it shouldn’t or couldn’t happen, one just needs to be very clear in his mind regarding his role at any given moment. A person can be a:

  • facilitative meeting chair
  • facilitative team leader
  • facilitative consultant
  • facilitative coach
  • facilitative trainer / instructor / teacher

This means that a person can use and integrate facilitation skills into their roles to accomplish what is needed. However, these mixed roles often introduce the elements of content and perceived biases. For example, if one does not separate the facilitator’s role and the other role(s) (such as a project team leader), it can cause possible mistrust in decision-making and/or confusion because the leader permits “out of scope” topics, past history and group dysfunction into a meeting without addressing them. In many situations, it is helpful to have an external voice and a neutral facilitator to separate the content and the process. The facilitator is there to serve the group as a whole.

When I came across the following tables for the first time, a light bulb went off in my head. The first table highlights the continuum of being a true facilitator to being a team leader or chair and the second table highlights how actively one needs to listen as a facilitator as opposed to being a presenter and trainer or instructor.

 

Facilitator

Facilitative Consultant

Facilitative Coach

Facilitative Trainer / Instructor

Facilitative Leader

Leader / Chair

3rd party 3rd party 3rd party or group member 3rd party or group member Group leader or member Group leader
Process expert Process expert Process expert Process expert Skilled in process Content Expert / Authority
Content neutral Content expert Involved in content Content expert Involved in content All about content and authority
Not substantive decision maker, nor mediator May be involved in content & decision making May be involved in content & decision making Involved in content & decision making in class Involved in content & decision making Involved in content & decision making, ultimately responsible for decisions made

(source: modified from R. Schwarz (2002) The Skilled Facilitator: A comprehensive resource for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers and coaches)

 

  Presenter

 

Trainer / Instructor Facilitator
Focus on

 

Content Content & Process Process
Deliverable Information

Inspiration

Skill Development

Knowledge Transfer

Group Insights, Desired Outcomes and Decisions

 

Approach Present

Tell

Teach

Involve

Ask

Guide

 

Telling vs.

Listening

80%

20%

50%

50%

20%

80%

 

(source: adapted from M. Wilkinson (2004) The Secrets of Facilitation)

Can you see where you are in these spectra? Do you see the benefits of having a neutral facilitator in your meetings and workshops? Do you want to learn some facilitation skills that would help to make you an even better meeting chair, team leader, consultant, coach or instructor? If so, contact us for facilitation training programs.

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