What facilitators do for a group – a work in progress


June 10th, 2010

Every now and again I dabble in different forms of facilitation training – that is, someone asks to learn about facilitation. What they are often asking for are fail-safe approaches to get pre-determined outcomes from diverse groups. Oh, if only it was so easy!

I sometimes explore what facilitators CAN do for a group. And my understanding of this has changed over time. Let me share with you two lists – one I made a few years ago, and one I made last week. I think the differences indicate a significant shift in my own understanding of, and approach to, facilitation.

So here’s the old list:

Provides processes that enable groups to do their best thinking
There’s no one right process – facilitators clarify what the group needs to do and selects appropriate processes that enable everyone to contribute and to reach a conclusion in the time available.

Provides a safe environment
Sets up the space and provides an environment that encourages participation where the participants feel safe and encouraged to contribute.

Provides a focus for the group
The facilitator provides a point of focus and continuity for the group, and can sometimes be a conduit for all the information and opinions that individuals contribute.

Provides an overview of the whole workshop and summarises
Facilitators keep the big picture in mind and keep track of where the group is at, what has been achieved and what still needs to be done. They also summarise discussions, and the outcomes of other activities where appropriate.

Moves things along at an appropriate pace, changes pace or calls a break when needed, and finishes on time
Facilitators don’t allow the group to get bogged down, or to move too fast. They keep track of time on behalf of the group and adjusts the program to ensure that the workshop finishes on time.

Clarifies meaning
Asks open-ended questions to unearth more information and clarify what the speaker really means.

Uses intentional activities
Knows what type of thinking or work the group has to do and chooses activities that reflect that. Or selects activities that illuminate a learning point or need in the group. Or selects an activity that reveals something the group is not prepared to accept.

Ensures that the works is captured
Uses processes that capture the group’s thinking, and ensures this is kept, recorded and distributed.

Okay, I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with that list, it’s just that, well, it now makes me cringe a bit. I suppose this is one of the challenges of sharing our thoughts on-line. It’s there for everyone to see, warts and all. This list now feels a bit naive and a bit arrogant. So here’s my new list of what facilitators can do for a group.

Challenges habitual thinking and behaviours
A facilitated workshop provides a break from normal routine and is a waste of time if the same thinking and routines used in the workplace are simply moved to a workshop setting. Facilitators can use a whole range of approaches to challenge habits and to enable groups to experience different ways of thinking and acting together.

Notices more
A facilitator can notice what’s happening on behalf of the group – not judging, not interpreting or analysing, just noticing. This can be important for a group that is usually too busy doing to ever notice itself or others.

Gets out of their way
Start, and then get out of the way and let people get on with it. People often don’t need more instructions, information, processes, details or help. They just need the time and space to get on with it.

Is flexible
Be prepared to throw away the plan, pre-conceived ideas and anything else, and improvise based on what you notice.

Is present
Your very presence changes and influences the group in ways that it’s not possible to predict – so be present to whatever the group is doing right now, not what they did before, or what they will be doing later.

This latest thinking comes from recognising that it is possible to shoehorn people into processes; that it is possible to keep people active, produce a product and go back to work satisfied that a good workshop was had – yet nothing changes. I’ve done it myself and I’ve seen it too often. It’s ultimately demoralising, not very fulfilling and leads to clients searching endlessly for the next magic bullet.

If I believe (and I do) that facilitators really do have a responsibility to challenge habitual thinking and behaviours then I have no choice than to continually challenge (and be challenged on) my own thinking and behaviour. This ongoing exploration of what it means to be a facilitator is a part of that challenge.

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