So you want to be a facilitator? Advice for the uninitiated.


November 11th, 2013

Occasionally, someone will ask me how I became a facilitator (by surprise, is the answer) and what they need to do to become a facilitator (do facilitation, is the answer). Sometimes they’ll press me for a little more (helpful) information. Here it is – thanks to the wonderful people on the Facilitating With Confidence LinkedIn Group, who answered my call for what advice they would give. Do go there and read all their comments. Great stuff.

Where's the facilitator?It’s not about you! The group you are facilitating is central – they are the ‘heroes’ of the workshop. When you understand this you will also be clear that they know more than you do and it’s vital to acknowledge and use their existing knowledge. Therefore you don’t need to be a subject matter expert, because you are a process expert – you know which process will most likely help the group.

I was once facilitating in China (through a translator) and made this point about not needing to know about the subject you’re facilitating. They didn’t believe me. Instead of arguing, I showed them. With only translation of my English instructions into Chinese, the whole process was conducted entirely in Chinese. All the data was written in Chinese (and not translated). In the end, they believed me.

It’s about you and the group in partnership Watch the language that can reveal a lot: for example, what’s the difference between ‘facilitating for a group’ and ‘facilitating with a group’. I wish I’d known when first starting out how important it is to build a partnership with the group, to work on the issue together, to see the group as allies, share with them what’s going on in your mind, and ask for their help. You’re not there as a magician to entertain them, or to impose your opinions.

It doesn’t matter what process you use! Yes, I know this contradicts something said earlier. Processes are tools, some are better for some jobs and others, that’s for sure and it’s helpful to have a process that is matched to outcomes. If you are starting out facilitating though, the only way to learn this is by trying different processes. There’s no formulae or golden rule as long as whatever you do gets the participants working with each other, connecting to each other and to the purpose of the session.

Get the participants to do the workLet them do the work Most of the work of facilitating happens before you even set foot in front of a group. Once with the group, your job is to get them working then get out of the way. Give them time and space to get on with it. You’re not a teacher, it’s not a classroom, they’re adults, you don’t have to check their work. They’ll figure it out.

Use space and movement Have lots of space, get rid of the tables, get people moving about as they work. We all spend too much time in our heads. Connecting with others and ideas also requires us to connect with ourselves, including our whole body. Movement helps with this. Not convinced yet? Check this out, “sitting is the new smoking.”

Look after yourself Know yourself. Know what works for you to enable you to enter a facilitation centred, calm and fully present. I can’t tell you what works for you (but I know what works for me). You’ll have to figure this out for yourself. Plus it’s a good thing to know for just about anything you might do.

Get used to the blank looks (1) You’ll be at a party, or the hairdressers, or in a bar and someone will ask what you do (don’t they always?). When you answer, facilitator, they’ll stare at you blankly for a moment, blink, and eventually say ‘what’s that?’ Have a snappy answer ready.

Get used to blank looks (2) This will happen when you are actually facilitating with a group. You’ll say something that you’re pretty sure you spoke in a reconisable language (to you, and to them) yet they will stare at you as if you just spoke in gibberish. Don’t get flustered, just wait for them to catch up. See below.

Notice more, change less This from my facilitation partner Johnnie Moore. The tendency is to always be doing something, to think that it’s not working and you should do something else. Better to notice more and change less. Just let the group get on with it, but be present for them and step in if you really need to. Again, the only way to learn this is by facilitating.

Facilitation is not for everyone Some people are just not cut out to be a facilitator. That’s okay. I’m not cut out to be an accountant – I can barely manage basic book-keeping! – and I’m okay with that.

Get out there and facilitate! I want to learn Spanish. And it’s not going to happen until I start speaking Spanish. If you want to be a facilitator, don’t wait until you are ready. Find opportunities to facilitate, even if it’s only for a few minutes in a regular meeting.

Hasta luego.

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