The Importance of Facilitation

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July 1, 2013

Definitions and Boundaries: Facilitation involves working with a person or group to guide them toward an end. Normally it is to work with them so that they reach an agreed upon destination. Facilitation is most often thought of in the group or team setting, such as facilitating a meeting or a planning retreat. In the context of working with an individual, it tends to look like individual coaching.

Facilitators set the stage and the culture of the meeting, managing group time and drawing out comments and ideas from all participants so that the collective thought process is richer than that of individual thought. Facilitators also read between the lines on what is not said in order to challenge participants into deeper issues. Lastly, the facilitator manages negative aspects of group dynamics including barriers to reaching agreements, lack of proactivity, negative energy, scapegoats, and cheap closure.

Pure facilitation requires the facilitator to wear only one hat labeled “process expert.” To serve in this role requires the facilitator to be independent to the actual discussion if the facilitator is to be able to work with all personalities in the group. To draw out opinions from the wallflower or to tactfully redirect continual comments from a selfish bully requires a neutral party who is concerned only with the meeting’s process and outcomes. It takes confidence and courage with the utmost respect for the participants in order to protect the group process and keep the group goal-oriented and on-track.

The facilitator does not give advice, this is called being an advisor, consultant, or expert, and this is never facilitative. To add the role of the advisor or expert requires stating a technical or professional opinion, defending it, and hoping that you don’t alienate someone you might later need to coax into communication. Furthermore, giving advice often is not helpful because it bypasses how group members learn for themselves (remember Aristotle: You cannot teach a man anything, he must learn it for himself). The facilitator must never shortcut the process by assuming that his perceptions or understanding is consistent with others’. The skilled facilitator is aware of himself and others in order to lead the group down a pathway, exploring passages, toward an end. That does not mean the facilitator is not directive, but that direction should be related to uncovering or achieving the group’s goals. It can also mean that the facilitator is determined that the group makes a conscious decision to address the important or salient matters, because in most cases making no decision is, in fact, making a decision.

Facilitation is about movement and results.

Working with divergent individuals and ideas within groups, the facilitator brings objective focus to achieving results. In most cases meetings are convened with some idea for the desired results or the topics of conversation. In others the agenda items develop from an exploratory process led by the facilitator. In each case it is critical that meeting goals are established so that efforts can be structured in a way that the group achieves its agreed upon results for the session. The facilitator is there to get the job done.