Facilitation is a process of enabling groups to work cooperatively and effectively together and which emphasises the involvement of all participants in a meaningful way.
The word ‘facilitator’ comes from the Latin –facilitas, which roughly means ‘easiness’. Thus a facilitator is someone who works to make meetings and group interactions easier. Another way of looking at it is the facilitator as a catalyst for better group interactions; the role isn’t about providing knowledge or ideas but helping participants make better use of the knowledge and ideas that they collectively possess.
The facilitator is neutral in terms of content -but not the process. He or she should act as a trusted third party and not skew the debate to favour any one side or group. An awareness of power differences is important.
The role of the facilitator is distinct from that of a chair or other more directive leadership roles in meetings. The table below is useful as a reference point:
Leader as expert
Participation is exception
Few questions, predominantly leading and closed ones
Make majority decisions
Process focus, allowing participants to focus on content
Acknowledging participants as experts
Participation the rule
Frequently using open ended questions to probe issues
Seek win-win solutions/consensus
Facilitation is not always appropriate. It may be better not to use a facilitative approach if:
- The decision-making timescales are very tight
- A particular predetermined outcome from the meeting or event is required
- There is a high level of conflict amongst your participants
- Key decision makers refuse to give up power around the decision
Facilitation processes require a number of different roles to be effective. Several roles can be filled by one person or an entire team can be dedicated to one particular role, depending on the size of the process and the resources available.
It is important to be clear about the role you and your colleagues are playing at any given time to avoid:
- Duplication of effort
- Contradictory actions
- Omission of key tasks
The five roles are:
- Process designer
- Designing and overseeing the process
- Choosing and adapting methods to fit each individual situation.
- Clarifying objectives and goals.
- Setting realistic schedules for meetings
- Keeping discussions focused and productive through the use of skilful questioning.
- Helping people to be clear about their needs and to get their point across,
- Clarifying vague and ambiguous statements.
- Ensuring that the discussion is balanced and everyone has a chance to speak and be heard.
- Create a visible and accurate record of the event
- Writing clearly under pressure
- Ability to capture complex thoughts in a few concise words
- Observing and interpreting interactions between participants
- Analysing and evaluating progress
- Preparing and managing equipment, venues, catering, volunteers, etc.
- Attending to the spoken and unspoken needs of participants.