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Facilitation means in summary the guidance of a group in a meeting or a workshop towards a goal. We all have experienced meetings where no one takes the role of guiding the discussion. In worst case there isn’t even a predefined goal for the session or a plan on how to get to that goal is missing. The discussion deviates, the more talkative ones dominate the space and others are just passively listening. If something comes out from this meeting it doesn’t represent the view of the whole group and not all feel committed to the outcome. To avoid this scenario and instead make meetings productive, participatory and meaningful, the skills and role of a facilitator are needed.
If we look at the term facilitation from a little closer, we could define it as focused guidance of a group towards a predefined goal through promoting active and equal participation of every group member. This happens through careful process design, use of different group work methods and influencing the creation and maintenance of a safe and participatory atmosphere. A central element of facilitation is facilitator’s neutrality. Facilitator guides the process, but doesn’t bring answers or opinions, or take sides.
If you wish to develop your facilitation skills, where should you then pay attention? Here are five skill areas worth diving in.
Typically, and ideally, facilitator has a client, either internal or external, who needs the facilitation service. Therefore, the output and outcome definition looks quite much like a coaching conversation in which the facilitator asks meaningful open questions from the client to help them provide relevant information and define their expectations for the session. Output means the concrete deliverables from the session, such as an action plan, a strategy document or a set of identified values.
The more in detail you probe on how does the output look like as a document, or what form it has, the better are you aligned with the client’s expectations. Outcome here refers to the impact of the workshop on participants, such as creating an atmosphere of trust, feeling committed, feeling aligned, or having clarity on the next steps. One of my favorite questions to explore the expected outcome is: Imagine the session was an amazing success. What is different now?
Process design is not only a skill, but also a choice to prioritize intentionally time to the preparation phase. The success of the event depends very much on the time invested in the design and preparation. Knowledge of different group work methods for different phases of a session is fundamental, such as methods for icebreakers, problem analysis, brainstorming, idea evaluation or action planning. It is important to be able to evaluate realistically how much time the use of different methods requires for an x number of participants.
The simplest way to do this is to visualize in your head the session step by step and the use of time for different phases, taking also into consideration the time needed to give instructions, move into breakout sessions etc. For example, the number of toilets available for a larger number of participants gives a useful hint on the time realistically needed for a break! The design should include not only a list with method titles and times, but a breakdown of a method to different phases with specific instructions, key questions that guide the work, debriefing questions and plan for documentation – and the timing for each phase.
Creation of a psychologically safe working environment is something you should also think about already in the design phase: how to set a participatory environment where everyone feels at their ease to share, ask and express thoughts and feelings. The choice of the icebreaker / warmup activity plays a part in this as well. Aim of the warmup activity is to open the conversation and relax atmosphere. People should feel comfortable to participate in it and understand the why behind that or any other activity. It is essential that in the warmup phase there are no right or wrong answers, nor the need to evaluate other participants’ answers.
Also, skipping the warmup altogether and asking the group to jump directly to the deep end of the pool has its consequences that you should consider. If you don’t gradually build trust in the group, it will be difficult for the participants, especially for some, to openly share their views. Also, your behavior as facilitator plays a big part in the creation of psychologically safe organization culture. Showing genuine interest in participants’ comments and validating behaviors that contribute to open and safe working environment make people feel comfortable participating. Also, welcoming different kinds of feelings, while making sure that they are expressed with respect to others (and intervening if not) is fundamental.
Managing the discussion time is sometimes the most visible behavior of a facilitator and a true gift for some very talkative groups. For many facilitators it is also the most difficult one, as we don’t like to interrupt a good flow or seem rude. Remember that this is often the key reason for which you have been hired and that it is fantastic for the participants to be able to go with the flow of discussion while knowing that someone else will take care of the time and make sure the time is wisely and efficiently spent. If it helps you, you can clarify your own role also as a time manager in the beginning of the session to make sure that everyone is ok with that.
Also, you need to find a way to manage the group that fits your personality. I, for example, like to use a “gentle but firm” style saying something like: Its wonderful to see how enthusiastic you are about this topic! We however have also some other things to cover today, so I’m afraid we need to move on.. You need a degree of flexibility in the time management as well, as you are serving the needs of the group as a facilitator, you need to have an eye for the group’s needs. The clearer your plan is, the easier it is to flex from that and make up the distance in another phase. If for some reason it looks like you wouldn’t achieve the pre-agreed output & outcome if you adapt to the group’s needs, you need to recontract the session objectives with your client before making the decision.
This is the question on which I’m regularly challenged: Does the facilitator really need to be neutral? And what if the facilitator covers at the same time other roles, such as that of a leader or of an expert? My answer? As you can see from this post, professional facilitation requires attention on quite many things, even without bringing your own views on the table. Guidance of the process or management of the time becomes much more complicated if you yourself are also participating in the conversations.
Creation and maintenance of a psychologically safe atmosphere is also more challenging if you take a side (by stating your own opinions). And in general, creating a participatory atmosphere can be challenging if you as a facilitator give your own answers, because that easily passivates other participants. So my invitation is to be aware of the fact that mixing or combining different roles comes with a cost. If you do have several roles in a session, I would invite you to be highly aware of the impact of bringing your own views or opinions to the group and also explore alternatives:
Finally, its good to remember that there are a number of things on which facilitator is not – and should not be neutral, such as the choice of methods, the use of time or the behaviors expressed in the group. As a facilitator, you can express your personality in a variety of ways even without bringing your input to the content, and you still have influencing power – it is just packaged differently.
At the end, quoting Bill O’Brien: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” We might say it this way: the success of our actions as facilitators does not depend on What we do or How we do it, but on the Inner Place from which we operate. That’s one place to start.
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