When people ask what I do and I say “facilitator” I am often met with a look of either curiosity or bafflement or both. This is frequently followed by the question “so what do you facilitate?” (a fairly sensible question) and when I say something along the lines of “group discussions” it doesn’t always provide the necessary clarity. Sometimes people stop listening as they can’t quite work out what it is I do. I don’t blame them. I have honed my explanation over the years but it’s still hard to get into a concise sentence of two.
Sometimes I long for those days when people asked me that question and I replied “Speech and Language Therapist”. But then I remember that with this apparently transparent job title came a whole set of assumptions. Assumptions are rather annoying as you have to work hard to move people on from them. Sometimes it’s best when the starting point to understanding something is a blank face, a nice clean slate to work with. The most common response I got when I said I was a Speech and Language Therapist which in itself doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue (the irony was not lost on me) was “oh you must be so patient”. Which wasn’t actually true, but which may also be why I am no longer in that profession! Followed by the idea that I worked with people with stutters (I didn’t). Hopefully things have moved on a bit and people have a better understanding of what SLTs do these days.
If you really want to understand what I do, then you need to be prepared to invest a little in the conversation and ask some questions. Asking good questions, opening up the conversation, helping people to make sense of information and draw conclusions is part of what group facilitation is about, but I’m also pretty good at listening to other people’s questions. You might need to hear about some examples and try to work out if it relates to anything you know. We all try to link things back to the known, and when we can’t quite work something out it makes us feel uncomfortable. A good story is helpful, a little anecdote, and I know many a facilitator with a fair few of those.
For those of you that already know what a group facilitator does, it’s refreshing. I love those conversations too and I like to hear the story behind it, how do you know about it and if you’ve experienced it first hand what did you get out of it. It’s much easier and we can bond a bit about it. Even better if you want to talk shop, then I can really geek out and share stories about processes, materials, tools and techniques……
The world of facilitation is in fact quite vast and deep and possibly a bit confusing. It has rather a fuzzy shape with no clearly defined edges. It is a lot of slightly different things to different people and there are probably plenty of people who are facilitating but maybe don’t call it that. So let’s see if we can do a bit of untangling (something that facilitators are pretty good at).
What is group facilitation?
Imagine you are in a room with a whole load of other people. Maybe you are all working together on something and know each other. Maybe you don’t know each other but have a common cause or goal. Maybe you work in different teams so know some people but not others. Either way the group of people you are a part of need to discuss something important. You need to communicate effectively with each other to do this and make sure you don’t veer off course. You need to have some ways of capturing what you are talking about, and come up with something at the end that will mean you have met your goal. The importance of what you are discussing may be greater to some people that others, so you may need help encouraging them to invest in the group discussion. The person helping you all keep your “eyes on the prize” is that facilitator.
The facilitator may be variously called a group facilitator, process facilitator, workshop facilitator, meeting facilitator, professional facilitator and probably many other things besides. The place you might be experiencing this is probably a workshop but equally may be a meeting, session, focus group, event or roundtable. There are many different avenues for facilitation to play out and it depends on the group, the purpose, the time and space available and a whole lot more. I should also add that there are all sorts of virtual facilitation tools available that don’t necessarily need everyone (or anyone) to be physically present.
Why would you want facilitation?
The key benefits of facilitation and what you will get from it depend very much on what you want it for in the first place. Just what do you hope to get from bringing a group of people together? It’s great to have a group discussion, but this involves an investment of time and resources so you need to be clear what it is you want to achieve. Common problems that people often come to a facilitator with are:
- A lack of direction in a company or organisation, sometimes precipitated by growth or change
- New teams coming together, bringing different ways of working and different team cultures
- The need to create vision, strategies or plans in a collaborative way
- An overflow of ideas without any way to capture or direct them
- Disagreements and lack of consensus
- The need to reflect or review a policy, project or plan with all the key players so that all the right feedback is provided.
The ways that facilitators may work to solve these problems could be:
- To help people dig deep and reflect on or review something that they have been working on together
- To help generate some ideas to move a project forward
- To build consensus on a particular issue
- To work collaboratively to create some plans
- To address challenges and problems that are being experienced
- To help make some important decisions
- To align values, purpose and direction
There may also be some elements of team or group dynamics that you need a facilitator for, for example:
- To manage a tricky discussion that is at risk of getting heated and unproductive
- Someone to enable people who don’t normally speak up to chip in
- To motivate people to invest their enthusiasm and energy in the discussion
- To contain and structure an overenthusiasm of input
- To create an environment where people will feel comfortable and able to share
Then there are some benefits that apply to all groups irrespective of what you actually need the facilitator for:
The group facilitator remains neutral to the outcome of the discussions and therefore guides and supports the discussion rather than encouraging people to change their view on something. They do this by focusing on the process where the content is largely generated by the participants. This is quite different from the role of a chairperson say, who is involved themselves in making key decisions and having a final say, or a trainer who is imparting new knowledge and learning. I have heard several debates and conversations about the facilitator’s ability to be completely neutral and as someone put it at a facilitation meet up I was part of a while ago “even by just being there you are not completely neutral”, meaning that every facilitator will have some degree of influence over the group. To a point this is true, but if someone doesn’t like my clothes on the day, or my choice of facilitation style, will that impact the group conversation? I would wager that if it does it wouldn’t be to a large degree and if I am doing my job well I will be able to shift the focus to the important stuff. Another of my previous jobs was a a translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross during the conflict in Nepal. The Red Cross is famously neutral but I agree, turning up in a situation, particularly as a Westerner, in a land cruiser clutching my bottled water is different to the norm and often caused people to have certain opinions. I was still neutral in my approach to the information that was shared with me. And that’s really the point, the facilitator does not deliberately try to influence the outcome of the process, whatever colour their shoes or post it notes!
Better group engagement – bringing in a facilitator to “manage” the discussions will help with engagement. By engagement I mean people really involved and invested in the group discussions. Engagement is slightly different from participation in that someone can be fully present and involved in the process but not necessarily offering ideas in plenary (the open group) or actively joining in activities. Some people prefer to sit back and absorb what is being said, and think and consolidate it. They don’t need to be active but it doesn’t mean they are not fully paying attention and present. Recognising this is a bit of an art. If engagement isn’t your problem and you actually have brilliant group engagement then the facilitator will focus on making this work for your group and maintaining this. Having an extremely engaged group is brilliant, but making sure that the engagement is positive and well managed is still important. It is also possible to get over enthusiastic participation, so managing this is even more important.
A better flow of communication – whether you have a lot of information to discuss, or you are trying to generate information as your goal you need people to communicate effectively. Sometimes there is a bit of directed untangling to be done as there may be a lot of half ideas, random thoughts and misinformation floating around. Ensuring that people are able to ask questions and add clarity, and that there is room to explore and solidify ideas through discussions is where the facilitator sits. Sometimes in a group setting, particularly when some people are shy or quiet and therefore reticent about their contributions there is a danger that misunderstandings don’t get flagged up. So checking in with people so that clarity is maintained is important. Creating time and space for everyone to join in if they feel able is key. And capturing what is being said so that vital information doesn’t get lost is all part of what we do.
Effective collaboration – whether the group are people all from different organisations or within the same organisation there will be some need for collaboration, even if this is just sharing ideas. Working together to share ideas, discuss challenges, or prioritise ideas requires some level or co-operation which the facilitator will enable.
Someone to organise the flow and the process of the workshop and keep an eye on the time and pace of the workshop. It’s not as easy as just throwing questions out to a room full of people and watching the clock, scribbling ideas up on a flipchart. There is a lot of planning that goes into a facilitated session, so that there is a clear process and plan to follow. Of course the facilitator also needs to be flexible withing this process to move and change things as they work with the group. But even if you are adopting the most free flow form of facilitation, there will be a fair bit of structure behind the scenes.
TOP TIP: If you think you might want to hire a facilitator – consider what your problem is in the first place and what you want the facilitator to actually do that you can’t do yourself. The more specific the brief, the better the facilitator can make the session.
When is facilitation used?
If you think you like the idea of a facilitator, it might be useful to have a chat with someone else who has used one. Larger companies often have them employed in house, but even they can bring in external facilitators when they need someone neutral. The advantages of having an in house facilitator is obvious (they know the company, know the people, know the subject) and if you are lucky you can use a facilitator from a different department and they you will have the best of both worlds. But if you are not a large company then you are unlikely to employ someone whose sole responsibility it is to facilitate. When people do a bit of facilitation here and there they may not be quite as effective as someone who does it all the time.
Facilitation is not really industry specific but works according to a specific problem, question or challenge being experienced by a team or group usually within a company or organisation. This may be a team that works together or across different teams and often across hierarchy. It could be group of board members, heads of departments or project team for example. They may be different teams coming together to form a new team.By definition of what makes a team a team, they usually have some common purpose, something that they all have a vested interest in, although the level of interest and investment may differ between individuals.
If not in house then often facilitators are brought in by a client who needs to work with external stakeholders – different individuals or groups of people with a common interest. They are brought together by the client and the facilitator works with those people in a group, according to the client’s goals. These may be people needed to give feedback on something, a public consultation for example, or to people from different walks of life all contributing ideas or knowledge for something.
Many events, workshops, sessions or team away days are not unitary pieces of work, and can feed into a much larger picture. Facilitators often work on a series of workshops that may flow one into another, or all contribute to a larger piece of work.
The truth is pretty much everyone can use a facilitator, the question is why do you want one and what will they do for you. If you are looking to be trained in a particular topic, the chances are you are looking in the wrong place. But if you need to have a group discussion and you want someone to design and manage that discussion for you, then you may very well be after a facilitator.
TOP TIP: Ask if anyone you know has ever used a facilitator and find out a bit more about what they did.
How does facilitation work?
There are of course many different formats and methodologies and approached and I don’t pretend to be an expert in them all! Much of the work I do is based on an approach called Technologies of Participation, but I do mix and match with several other methodologies. There are also a number of digital platforms that enable facilitators to work virtually, for example iDeeter and an enormous array of tools available. Many methodologies complement each other and I try to create my own blend according to clients’ needs, and I also like to mix it up a bit for my own practice.
The facilitator will work with the client to find out what it is that they need and then create an outline process for the workshop or session. The process for me is pretty much the heart of any session or workshop. It’s the way that the session hangs together and will usually involve activities, one flowing on to another, bringing with it the participants so that everything interconnects and becomes more streamlined. There are a number of facilitation tools that facilitators use (activities like SWOT analyses or affinity mapping for example) within the process which is driven by the facilitator responding the the needs of the participants. The process is the sort of glue that holds things together and being able to create that process is integral to a good outcome. Although many people know a lot of different tools and techniques, it’s creating that journey with a good flow that is a real skill.
Techniques really refer more to the management of the group (such as splitting people into smaller groups or guiding the discussion in some way). And on top of the tools and techniques are usually some kind of resources (for me I often use a lot of coloured paper, marker pens and flip chart paper), and of course my stickywall.
There will always be a debate about how much control the facilitator has or should have over the group and how free flow and flexible the whole process is. This will depend on a number of factors including what the client needs, what happens in the session, how type of methodologies the facilitator uses and who that facilitator is.
TOP TIP: Work with the facilitator to discuss style and processes so you can decide what may suit your particular team.
Who are facilitators?
So as you may have already gathered my own background is in Speech and Language Therapy. Yep. If you want to know more about my journey then read my blog here.
Facilitators can be “just” facilitators, by which I mean they focus entirely on the process facilitation and not content experts. In reality many facilitators that I know also do some kind of training or coaching too. Some facilitators may be experts in particular fields such as environmental sustainability or in a particular industry. Many work very specifically with certain methodologies or using specific techniques such as graphic facilitation or virtual facilitation. There are some certain characteristics that I think are important as a facilitator. Not everyone will be right for each group, it very much depends on what you need them to do.
Some people use facilitation skills in their work but may not actually call themselves facilitators as this is just a part of what they do, for example UX practitioners, project managers or management consultants.
There are also trainers who train in a very facilitative style (very interactive and participatory) and so call themselves facilitators. There is a blurry line between the two, and for me the difference is very much about how much input the facilitator puts in to the content. This is however a discussion for another day!
TOP TIP: Ask people you know if they have ever done any facilitation, I’ll bet you that there are a few people that have had a go. You might be surprised at just where facilitation skills can be found!
There is actually a membership body for facilitators – The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) of which I am a member, and a part of the leadership team that hosts facilitators meet ups. If you think you know what you want but need to find a facilitator then that’s a pretty good place to start. Or you can call me! I love each and every opportunity to talk about all kinds of group discussions and how to make them better (and promise not to bore you!), so even if you just want to know a little bit more about facilitation and whether it could be useful to you, don’t be shy give me a shout.
Why am I a facilitator?
Before I go I thought I would share a bit about my why. As you may have gathered with my references to previous jobs that I have had, I have quite a diverse background! But there is a thread through it all. And that is that I really enjoy enhancing, enabling and instilling enthusiasm in people to communicate more effectively as a group. I like helping people to get to the bottom of whatever it is they need to discuss and come out with something useful at the end. In the past I have done this 1:1 (and still do in some situations) but there is something about working with a group that really thrills me. It’s the combination of working together with lots if different perspectives, sometimes busting it apart but always trying to bring it back together. Training is quite linear, you are heading towards a fairly pre-determined outcome. But group facilitation carries risk, you just don’t really know what is going to be created at the end, you really have to think on your feet. And I think I like that!
I am great at planning but not so good at carrying out my own plans, I prefer to help you with yours.
I am great at coming up with ideas but not great at following them through, so I may as well lend a hand with other people’s.
I am great at asking the right questions, but not brilliant at providing the answers. So it’s best if I help you with yours.
So I will leave you to ponder. Do get in touch.
Oh and one more thing…..my business grows by referrals, so if you know of anyone who knows anyone who might need a facilitator, do pass on my details.