End-of-year thoughts on facilitation


December 14th, 2008

My friend Sri is a Professor of Environmental Communication in Uppsala, Sweden. Today he sent this message: “Last year you gave me your gems – the 10 points in response to my question about what the challenges of facilitation were to you. They were useful. I’d like to pose a couple of different questions this time.

What does it mean to be a facilitator?
How much do you have to know about the context (of your facilitation) before hand?
How do you handle uncertainty?”

What does it mean to be a facilitator?
It’s useful to distinguish between ‘being a facilitator’ and ‘using facilitation skills’. I believe any professional working with others needs facilitation skills – enabling all the voices to be heard, capturing the wisdom of the participants, focusing a group; clarifying, summarising, and challenging. These are mixed and matched according to the need, purpose, and context. And that’s just for starters!

Taking on, or being endowed with, the role of facilitator is different. There’s expectations and responsibilities. In this case, being a facilitator means providing the best possible circumstances for the group to do the work they have to do. Sometimes this means working directly with the group, or providing an independent view of what they are, or aren’t doing. And sometimes it means just getting out of the way. What it does not mean is doing the work for the group. Or rescuing the group when the going gets tough.

Being a facilitator also means staying removed from the outcome – which makes it difficult if you are facilitating your own work team. A facilitator needs a measure of independence, and can add value to a group by feeding back what they see and hear without judgment.

It’s a difficult gig, facilitating. Even when you’re ‘out of the way’ you’re still noticing and present. Sometimes the role feels superfluous, but it does enable the group to focus on the work they have to do knowing that someone else is taking care of the space, time and dynamics, if needed.

How much do you have to know about the context (of your facilitation) before hand?
There’s a lot made of the importance of facilitators being neutral, impartial, objective etc. It IS important to be neutral – that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion. I need to keep that opinion to myself. Therefore, it should be possible to facilitate with no knowledge of the topic. However, this makes it difficult to do one of the most important aspects of facilitating – especially with new groups – and that is building trust and rapport. I can build trust and rapport with a group more quickly if I have some knowledge of their work, situation and industry. It also shows that I’ve done my homework and that I care. 

How do you handle uncertainty?
My greatest learning about dealing with uncertainty comes from improv theatre – recognising that I have no control of the outcome. I’ve also learnt to let go of the ‘what if’s’.

I also handle uncertainty by investing in my own development – knowing ‘stuff’ that might one day be useful, reading blogs, books, articles, attending conferences, hanging out with cool (smart) people who stretch my thinking and challenge me. I draw a lot on frameworks and models to help me make sense of uncertainty. I wrote about my favourite ones here.

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