As facilitators we do spend a lot of time shouting about facilitation; what it is, what the benefits are, what types there are. Let’s face it, if you love something you want to talk about it, sometimes quiet a lot.
Facilitation can be either an art or a science, or a craft or a skill….it is indeed many things.
But what about the person behind the process, what do they need to be like?
I have facilitated a fair few workshops, and I have been part of quite a few as well. I have been lucky enough to experience some extraordinary facilitators.
So what is it that makes a good facilitator so good?
1) Attention to detail – it’s the little things, the things that hold it all together behind the scenes. When all the materials just seem to magically appear, perhaps there is lots of colourful stationery, well designed flip charts and some things to play with. Or when the facilitator remembers everyone’s names, maybe even knows what kind of biscuits you like. Making people feel comfortable and creating a stimulating and friendly environment really is part of making everything run smoothly.
2) Active listening – You need the facilitator to really tune in well, and to make you feel like you are being listened to. This is harder when there is a lot of information being discussed, the group is large, or there are lots of small group discussions. But keeping tuned in to the group, picking up on queries and ideas is all part of the job. Often the facilitator will return to a point, or ask someone to hold a thought, or make a note of it if it can’t be addressed at that moment in time. There are certain techniques to keep up with all the different contributions, but the essence is a lot of good listening.
3) They are really “on it” with time keeping. I will admit it, this is the bit I have to work hardest at! I love a good discussion and good participation is part of what makes facilitating so enjoyable. Sometimes it is hard to know when to curtail it or bring it to a junction or even when to run over on a particular section in the interests of time. Having the skills to do this is a key part of the facilitator’s role and keeping on top of the time is one of the things that enables the outcomes to be met.
4) A good facilitator often makes it look easy. I have often heard this said, like somehow everything magically hangs together. In truth there is a lot of planning that goes on behind the scenes and then a lot of thinking on your feet during the workshop. It may look easy, but I promise you it’s not!
5) They make you feel like you want to join in. It’s part of the job to keep an eye on the participants, to make sure that everyone who wants to contribute can. The dynamic of the group is important to the effective running of the session, so you’ll want a facilitator who knows how to keep their eyes on how the group is getting along. Often there are some participants are engaged in the workshop, but not necessarily participating, and this is fine. But it’s recognising who those people are, and who wants to join in but can’t and then enabling them to do so that is key.
6) They’re not afraid to use some good tactics on that person who takes all the airspace. There is a balance to be struck between letting everyone have their say and giving a lot of time to one person’s potentially valuable input. Even if that person’s contributions might seem amazing and totally relevant, a workshop is a group exercise. It’s not easy to know where the line is sometimes, but as in number 5, it’s all about keeping an eye on the group.
7) They ask brilliant questions. Much of the information in the room will come from the participants, not the facilitator. Being able to ask really excellent questions, often the kind that make you think “ooh, good question” is what a good facilitator will do, and then give you the tools to help you answer it.
8) Doesn’t talk too much. I would hazard a guess that there are a few of us out there who do like to natter a bit! It’s part of the job, being a good communicator, a connector, someone who likes a good discussion. But the voice of the facilitator shouldn’t be the predominant one in the room. Stepping back to ensure the participants have the room they need is crucial.
9) Is neutral. Many discussions are absolutely fascinating, and there is a temptation to join in and share an opinion or two. But the key role of a facilitator is to guide the participants through the discussion, not to be a central part of it.
10) Copes with sudden changes of plan. Last minute changes often happen, and while they are not usually the kind of thing to invite, they are often surmountable. You may be expecting a group of 30 and only 6 turn up, the room isn’t the one you think it is. Maybe lots of people are delayed, there is a change in the agenda or time frame at the last minute, drilling next door makes it hard to hear… all of these have happened to me. Being able to re-jig and ride the changes is most definitely a skill and something that an experienced facilitator will to a large extent be happy to do. There will of course be a cut-off point, where sometimes there are too many changes to go ahead. These risks should be the kind of thing that you discuss with the facilitator in the lead up to the workshop.
11) Can tell you where to get the best marker pens! Ok, I added this just for fun, but there is a certain love of talking about materials and kit amongst facilitators. So if you know one, I bet they can tell you all about good pens (and other “stuff”).
Many of the skills to be a good facilitator are developed over time and need a lot of practise. We all draw from our different experiences, even those that at the time might not be the most positive. There is also a certain passion that you need to do the job, something that leads us all to really embrace working with groups, fielding conversations, thinking on our feet and managing fascinating discussions. So next time you need a facilitator, don’t forget to look for that twinkle in their eye!
What are your experiences of great facilitators?