What on earth does a facilitator DO? 

If you’ve ever wondered what the point of facilitation might be, then take a moment or two and see what Claire thought. She came along to assist me facilitating a full day session for a wonderful client a couple of weeks ago.  

To set the scene a little, the focus of this session was to enable the diverse members of a sustainable food network to meet up, make connections and to support each other as independent business owners.  

Over to Claire: 

I’ve never taken part in a professionally facilitated session before. I’ve been to many workshops, and even delivered a few myself in my former work. But to see a session run by Helene in her capacity as a professional facilitator was a whole new experience for me. I sort of knew what to expect – the schedule was set, and I was already well aware of what Helene does. But to see facilitation in action was a lesson in brilliant crowd control, expert planning and extreme flexibility!

I was there to help out – basically to act as an assistant as the group was quite large. In essence, I was there mainly to ding the bell to signal the end of a series of super short conversations, and to bring the group back together after breaks. Being chief bell dinger and general facilitation assistant meant I had the opportunity to observe Helene at her work without too much interruption. 

Facilitation bell
Important bell dinging

It is worth nothing that the person within in the organisation who’d planned the session with Helene was unfortunately taken ill the day before with COVID. This could have put a giant spanner in the works. However, thanks to a lot of advance planning beforehand, a good lead time and understanding of the client’s needs, the session went ahead swimmingly.  

The day consisted of a number of opportunities for participants to talk with different members of the group – some people already knew each other, some didn’t. There were experts there to share advice, and people who were there to find out more. It was the kind of event that could lead to some brilliant connections being made and some grand conversations taking place. It could also easily be a day of rambling discussions about almost anything, with some people feeling left out in the cold by the end. In other words: the day needed to move along, in a pre-decided direction but with the flexibility to allow for those connections and conversations to happen naturally.  

Facilitation in action

Thankfully, Helene’s facilitation experience and knowledge gives her the ability to know how and when to move things forward, and when to let them carry on for a while. The result is a session that flows beautifully keeps to time and yet doesn’t feel hurried. Something which if you ever been to a workshop or a session like that can often feel impossible. It always feels as if the last part of the day ends up being hurried, or even dropped due to time constraints. This can be really annoying, especially if the last parts are all about bringing together the different strands of an issue or problem. 

One of the things that really struck me throughout the day was just how adaptable a facilitator needs to be, and how Helene was able to easily keep to the plan all while allowing for unexpected moments to crop up.  

I could continue to wax lyrical about the different aspects of the day. Instead, I’m simply going to break this down into a short list of my top six reasons as to why a facilitator is an excellent addition to a workshop or event. 

My key takeaways from the day are: 

  1. A facilitator has done this before. They might not be an expert in your organisation or field, but they are just as expert at running a session as you are in your world. If you want a session to be useful, enjoyable and a good use of the time and money that it costs to bring people together, you might as well be sensible about it and get an expert in.  
  2. Likewise, a facilitator has no ego in your organisation. They have no skin in the game. They have no points to make. They don’t care who usually leads the group or discussions. They are there to make sure every voice is heard. In a way that works for the owner of the voice and for the benefit of the organisation and the goal. I can’t remember ever seeing a group where the dynamics were so well balanced. It was VERY impressive.  
  3. A facilitator knows what to do in every situation and has already prepared for almost every eventuality that might arise. Just because you didn’t think name badges would be necessary, doesn’t mean that the facilitator didn’t pack any, just in case. They did, and they’ll have packed countless other items that may, or may not be needed.  
  4. A facilitator can interrupt the most intense conversation with grace and good humour. This allows those talking to happily finish up while preventing a deep conversation from disrupting to the flow of the session. You try doing that without raising any hackles! 
  5. A facilitator is adaptable in a way that only experience can allow.  You might have a plan for the day, but often things will get in the way, causing untold havoc to your schedule. A good facilitator has many tricks up their sleeve and knows exactly how and when to use them. The best part is that in the time it takes you to dunk your biscuit, you won’t even realise that an issue has arisen, been dealt with and the flow restored! 

The most important facilitation takeaway:

You don’t have a sticky wall. Helene does, and it is portable, so she can bring it to any session. If you’ve never seen a sticky wall before, you are in for a treat. A sticky wall is simply some fabric which can be attached to a wall, and which is, indeed, sticky. Just sticky enough for paper to stick to it; not sticky enough that people start trying to play spiderman.  

The facilitation sticky wall

    Blue facilitation sticky wall
    The Facilitation Stickywall

    So, yes, I am clearly biased. But after watching Helene at work (and dinging my bell as my own contribution to the day) I really can’t see why anyone would try to run an important workshop or strategy planning session or goal-driven networking day without the skills, input and energy of a facilitator like Helene

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