On September 12 of 2001, I was scheduled to give a facilitator training to up to 150 leaders in state government. Shocked and horrified by the events of 9/11, I wondered if the workshop should be canceled. What could the relevance of facilitation possibly be to this horribly changed world? The organizers decided to move forward, and as I drove to the training site, I wondered how I would even approach the event.
As I drove, I reviewed in my mind why I value facilitation. I thought about one of its many definitions, “the art of ensuring that all voices are heard.” I began to feel its relevance to the changed world. Though, in itself, facilitation cannot ensure collaboration or agreement among people with diverse viewpoints, it can make it easier to work together toward a shared solution. I realized on September 12th that facilitation is one of the many essential tools of peace that is available to all of us.
What is Facilitation?
The root word of facilitation is “facile,” or easy, so facilitation can mean “to make it easy.” My question to groups is “To make it easy for whom?” Certainly not the facilitator, as truly great facilitation can be exhausting (even as it can remain invisible to group members!) Facilitation involves bringing out and focusing the wisdom of the group, often as the group creates something new or solves a problem. The safer and easier the facilitator can make it for group members to hear and be heard, the easier solutions become.
As Sam Kaner, et all, say in their Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, “Most groups do not know how to solve tough problems on their own. They do not know how to build a shared framework of understanding-they seldom realize its significance. They dread conflict and discomfort and they try hard to avoid it. Yet, by avoiding the struggle to integrate one another’s perspectives, the members of such a group greatly diminish their own potential to be effective. They need a facilitator.”
To paraphrase Michael Doyle, a facilitator is the keeper of the flame of an open, inclusive, participatory process. What could be more relevant in these times?
Facilitation as a Core Leadership Competency
In her book, Facilitating With Ease, Ingrid Bens speaks of expert facilitation as a “core leadership competency,” one that organizations need throughout their levels and their life spans. Today’s leaders need to manage constant change. Managers are expected to facilitate collaborative processes that elicit ownership by generating active participation and empowering people to take charge. They can live up to these demands only by mastering some basics of facilitation.
When I began to teach facilitation skills in the mid 1980’s, facilitation was often confused with group therapy or mediation. Facilitation is now perceived as a discrete, essential skill for anyone who is serious about increasing his or her ability to lead others. The field of facilitation itself has gained viability and visibility. Since the late 1980’s, facilitation has its own worldwide association, The International Association of Facilitators.
The Facilitator’s Power in Today’s World
Participants in my workshops sometimes admit to confusion when I talk about the power a facilitator possesses. “Since a facilitator is neutral,” they ask, “How can he or she be powerful?” This question could only be asked in a culture that narrowly defines only knowledge as power, overlooks the value of process, and equates neutrality with passivity.
The quality of process between people in a meeting impacts the quality of the group’s final product. A facilitator is enormously powerful in orchestrating process. A facilitator helps the group members hear others and be heard. He or she helps connect themes and ideas throughout the meeting to ensure a robust solution. At times, he or she acts like a “traffic cop,” preventing dominance from one point of view, and ensuring the process remains fair and balanced.
|Content Expert or Facilitator:
Different Types of Power
|Presents Information||Guides Process|
|Provides the Right Answers||Provides the Right Questions|
|Focus on Content||Focus on Outcomes|
|One-Way Communication||Multi-Directional Communication|
A facilitator’s power is equal to that of any content expert in the roomÑit’s just a different kind of power.
5 Principles for Today’s Facilitators
As we become more “swamped” with data, information and “noise,” the ability to lead productive group dialogue will steadily increase in value. Here are five principles to guide our practice as facilitators in today’s times:
- Practice “Field Awareness”
Enhance your awareness of both the tangibles and intangibles that are always present in the group experience. Increase your skills at “following the Ôchi,’ or energy. in the group. Listen, watch and feel what’s going on. Then make decisions whether to intervene and what skills to use.
- Be a Mirror, Not a Magnet
Help the group become conscious of its own process; deflect attention from yourself. Also remember that the participants will most likely reflect back to you the same levels of energy, commitment, and authenticity that you model.
- Create Safety
Clarity about process can help create safety. Clearly describe what will occur. Explain the outcomes, clarify roles, introduce processes, help group develop behavioral groundrules.
- Practice Non-Attachment
As a neutral facilitator, you may become the target for participants’ emotions. Remember and fulfill your role as a neutral facilitator. Co-facilitate or bow out if your “buttons get too pushed.”
- Focus on the Outcome
Your ultimate role is to help the group achieve its stated outcomes. Strengthen your facilitation skills and be prepared to focus on the outcomes while maintaining full inclusion and participation.
In these times of Jerry Springer, road rage, swift organizational change and insecurity, it’s especially important to hear each other and to be heard. Those people with highly honed facilitation skills will help lead our future.