Facilitator Language


June 17th, 2007

Earlier this year, Andrew and Sascha Rixon and I collaborated on a paper about facilitator language. It was published in the IAF Journal (you can download a copy of the paper here.

Our major finding was that there actually is a special type of language that facilitators use that is different from other ‘business’ or ‘workplace’ language usage. And facilitators use language intentionally to reinforce the atmosphere, or mood, they are trying to establish within a workshop that will support the work or business that participants need to do.

It’s important to remember that facilitators are concerned with process – with participants bringing knowledge, wisdom and ideas, ie content, to populate the processes that facilitators specialise in. However if it was as simple as providing a process, who would need facilitators? Facilitators also bring an awareness of the individuals in the group, and the group as a whole – and the ability to adapt and modify processes (sometimes micro-changes that would go unnoticed by most people through to wholescale changes where one process is completely abandoned in favour of something else).This is not done on a whim – but based on a whole suite of complex observations, analyses and gut reactions!

Important in this whole approach is language – both the language that the facilitator uses and the language the facilitator hears. And this I think is central to the skill of facilitation. At the recent Facilitative Disaster & Crisis Intervention Training Workshops held in Melbourne in collaboration with the Global Facilitator Service Corps, (GFSC) we explored the language that people might hear at different stages of recovery following a traumatic change, crisis or disaster.

The GFSC model explores the multidimensional needs and responses of individuals, families, organisations and communities following a traumatic event. The four basic needs that underpin the model are survival, security, autonomy and transcendence. And the corresponding bahaviours commonly seen with each phase are reactive, receptive, proactive and interactive.

GFSC believes that facilitators bring a unique suite of skills that can complement the other support that people receive following a crisis or disaster. In particular, facilitators can work with groups – especially after the initial survival and security needs have been met by individuals. Facilitators know how to work with individuals in groups, and groups – especially to help with reconnecting individuals, families and the community. Integral to this ability are the listening and language skills that facilitators develop either deliberately and/or intuitively. Hearing the language that people use can help facilitators (and others) to identify how people are responding and what the appropriate responses should be. While this is amplified in disaster and crisis situations, the same is also true in organisational settings where the stakes may not be quite as high, but the responses are somewhat similar. For example, following a major organisational restructure, individual employees sometimes exhibit the same needs – and the language they use can help identify where they are at and what organisational responses might be appropriate.

Language appears to be one of the least studied and understood elements of facilitation. Lucky for all of us interested in this topic that Sascha is undertaking a PhD on exactly that topic.

3 Comments so far

  1. Johnnie Moore on June 17, 2007 2:46 pm

    Hi Viv: Very interesting. I just find it incredibly hard to define facilitation and I think our efforts to do so can be counter-productive. I’m very wary of saying facilitators bring special skills to bear. I don’t think it’s ultimately about either skills and certainly not about knowledge about people. The best I can manage is to say that it’s much more about presence and a willingness to participate.

    I have a feeling that the language is emergent from that willingness/intent. I feel troubled by the idea that we can be identified by the language we use; I think faciliators are often understandbly mocked because they are seen as cliched.

  2. Viv McWaters on June 19, 2007 12:59 pm

    Hi J – I just spent the last 10 mins composing an insightful and eloquent response just to lose it to the internet ether.Oh, well – karma, I suppose!
    Cheers, Viv

  3. Viv McWaters on June 19, 2007 12:59 pm

    Plus I can’t figure out why I turn up as anonymous on my own blog!!!! Grrrrrrr!

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