Sunday 31st May 09:05

Questions and Answers: The Role of the Facilitator

facilitation_175What is "facilitation"?
Facilitaton is a way of helping others to achieve their aims, usually in a face-to-face situation such as a meeting. It comes from the word "facile", meaning "easy", in other words, making someone else's process a little bit easier.
OK. That sounds good but in practice what does it mean?
Well, let's show you with a simple application. Look again at your first question, "What is facilitation?". I gave you my answer which is the way most of us have been taught to respond to questions. So now you have my view of "facilitation". However, I don't know whether that's really helped you or answered what was really on your mind. So it was not a real facilitative answer. Can you think of any other ways in which I could have replied to your question without giving you my answer?

Well, I suppose we could have had a discussion in which you asked me more about what I was looking for.
Yes. That would have been more facilitative. Any other ways?

Ah, I know what you're getting at. You'd have asked me what I thought facilitation was, wouldn't you?
Ha, ha, ha. Yes, you're right. I would have. Obviously, you asked the question because you have a need right now to clarify something in your mind. So, instead of me telling you what I thought, it would have been more helpful if I'd given you time and space to explore what you thought it meant. As a matter of interest, what would you have said?

Well, I'd have said it's a way of running a meeting without telling people what to do. Is that right?
Now you're tempting me to say, "Do you think you're right?" (smile). Yes, you're on the right lines. Facilitators take themselves out of the process by standing on the lines and putting the participants of the meeting centre-stage. It's their meeting, their process, and their outcomes that matter not yours. Left to themselves, people might struggle to get anywhere and, often, someone in the group assumes the role of leader and starts to tell others what to do.

But isn't that a recipe for chaos?
Yes, it is. And often there is chaos at the start of a facilitative meeting because people have been used to being told what to do and what to think and aren't used to being left to work things out for themselves. But a well-facilitated group soon realises that, if they are to make progress, they need to sort out their own processes, including relationships and roles.

So, does a facilitator just sit idly by while the group struggles?
No, a facilitator never sits idly. He or she needs to be always aware of what is happening in the group and how they are progressing. Sometimes an experienced facilitator will allow a group to go through a difficult patch because there are valuable lessons for them to learn. Sometimes, the facilitator will intervene, maybe in a gentle way with a suggestion of how the group might proceed. And sometimes, the facilitator might have to stop the group and tell them to work in a different way.

So, there are no fixed rules in facilitation?
No. It's your judgment of how you can best help the group move on.

So, it's really a soft skill?
Yes, very much so. It has some similarities to delegating, empowering, and counselling. You take yourself out of things and put others centre-stage. It needs skilful listening, trusting, and presence. You work by being there for others, being supportive, but never taking away their own power to work things out for themselves. It's what some people call a "non-doing" skill.

Why is it still rare to see facilitation used?
I'm still tempted to ask you why you think it is (smile). In my view, it's because most managers and leaders are afraid to let go of control. They fear the chaos we talked about earlier. However, when you trust people and give them room and support, the solutions people come up with are always much more valuable, relevant, and powerful than those you impose on them.