You might be an experienced facilitator, in which case this article will provide a refresher course of a few key traits worth keeping in mind. But you also might be coming to facilitate for the first time, in which case the post will aim to breakdown what it means to be a facilitator and give some advice on the fundamentals of the practice.
When we talk about facilitation what we are talking about is the person in the room whose role it is to guide the group’s conversation and discussion towards achieving the stated goal of the session. This is often done by encouraging an open discussion, keeping track of time, and challenging participants to push themselves. Facilitating is not the same as managing or leading. It requires active listening skills but passive leadership skills to gently guide the group to find their own solutions, rather than leading them there yourself.
A good facilitator maintains the groups’ discipline in terms of time and in terms of the focus of the discussion. You need to work continuously to refocus the discussion to keep the group on topic and proactively move participants’ efforts in the direction of the ultimate goal. This might involve steering the group back on topic when digressions occur, speeding up or slowing down a discussion that is not going at a productive pace, or pushing participants to make collective decisions so the group can move on.
Then again, contradictory to the previous point, there is also the need on the facilitator’s part to be flexible. Good preparation is key to good facilitation, but you also need to be willing to depart from your own schedule or framework in order to maximise the potential of your group. By working in the moment to capitalise on a productive train of thought, or recalculating your time allowances to ensure all tasks are completed, reactivity is an important skill to master as a facilitator.
One hallmark of a great facilitator is the ability to draw on the skills and expertise of everyone in the room in order to achieve the group’s stated goals as efficiently as possible. Knowing who is in the room (names but also roles) will help you to maximise the attributes of all the participants. Encouraging the quieter members of the group to speak up, while reining in some of the more enthusiastic speakers is a delicate but valuable skill. Inclusion is extremely important in bringing out all the great ideas from the team and covering every relevant point of view.
While you should include everyone as much as you can, that doesn’t include yourself. It is important to remain impartial and above the discussion, listening actively and guiding the discussion rather than contributing to it. For this reason the best facilitators are often not managers, or certainly not the manager of the team in question. An outside perspective to act as a guiding hand is always valuable.
Finally, be BOLD! You should be impartial and not force yourself and your own opinions on the discussion, but you also need to show a fearlessness in questioning and challenging the thinking of others. This will help to develop the thinking of the group without steering it or leading it in a particular direction. Being impartial does not mean to be timid. The tactful use of open ended questions will help participants develop their ideas by themselves, but in a way they wouldn’t have without facilitation.
So, as you can see, the skill of being a good facilitator is to grapple with the tensions between a collection of sometimes contradictory practices. You should be disciplined and strict with your group, but also flexible and adaptable. You should be impartial and detached, but also bold and forceful when you need to be. And above all you should be inclusive of everyone in the group. Finding a way to balance these skills takes some practice, but you will quickly find your own way and become a confident, expert facilitator.