The week of 19-25th October 2015 is International Facilitation Week and sees facilitators around the world engaging in a whole series of activities, events and programmes to celebrate the power and the art of facilitation. Under the guidance of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), facilitators all over the world will be showcasing their work and the impact that it can make in encouraging collaboration, dialogue, mediation, conflict resolution and the understanding of group process.
The word ‘facilitation’ has become widely used in the world of Learning and Development and yet there is often some confusion about what it actually means and how a ‘facilitator’ differs from a trainer, instructor, mentor or coach. Many professionals are highly experienced and skilled in instructional or training design and delivery and yet feel more vulnerable or uncertain when asked to move into a purely facilitative role. So what does facilitation actually mean and what are the implications for those who wish to use facilitation in its purest form?
What does it mean to be a facilitator?
The move from being a subject matter specialist and trainer to facilitator is a challenging one for many professionals whose career success has been based upon their knowledge and demonstration of expertise. Facilitation requires stepping away from the traditional role of ‘expert’ and instead becoming expert in ‘the art of not knowing’.
The root of the word of facilitation is facile: easy, fluent or flexible. The action word, facilitate, means ‘to make things easy’. Essentially, the act of facilitating is to enable something to happen easily. It is not to do something oneself but to promote the doing of it by others. Facilitators do not have answers to supply to the people they work with. They are not responsible for providing solutions, fixing problems or generating ideas. However, they are responsible for using their facilitation expertise to create an environment and conditions in which those they work with can achieve these things for themselves. This is the difference between saying, “This is the decision that you should make…” and “You must make your own decision but I will help you to understand and improve your decision-making process.” Effective facilitators provide the framework in which groups can learn for themselves, using non-judgmental interventions, as appropriate, to ensure that the group achieves specific goals that they have identified for themselves.
What are the most important facilitation skills?
Effective facilitators are skilled in the observation of individual behaviours and inter-personal interactions. They notice and challenge things that those involved may not be aware of. They are active and reflective listeners, using their skills of summary, clarification and ‘translation’ to ensure effective communication. They choose and formulate powerful questions that may alter perceptions of what is happening at any moment, or focus on new insights. Facilitators are also skilled in group management, gate-keeping and inclusion. Ultimately, facilitators are action orientated and have a focus on action and development planning.
Whilst facilitators do not make decisions, solve problems or generate new ideas on behalf of the group, they do develop and apply decision-making, problem-solving and creative thinking techniques that will support their clients as they move towards their own decisions and conclusions.
4 Basic Facilitation Skills
To work effectively as facilitators, there are some basic facilitation skills we must apply.
1) The first of these is ‘contracting’. This involves creating an agreement with the group about their purpose, the relationship between the facilitator and the group, with the responsibility for learning lying firmly with the learners, an understanding of each other’s expectations and some basic ground rules about the process. Even as we contract with a group, we are addressing some of the ‘big questions’ of facilitation which include:
Where does the power lie in this relationship?
Where does the responsibility for learning lie?
How and when should I, as the facilitator, intervene?
How do I ensure that I achieve the goals that I have been contracted to achieve and how do I measure my success as a facilitator?
2) The second principle is that facilitators should use great questions, rather than provide great answers. Questions are vital in the facilitator’s toolkit and RSVP Design have a range of resources and materials designed to develop questioning skills – please contact us to find out more!
3) The third guideline for facilitators is to challenge and confront appropriately. Confrontation, in the sense that it is used here, means challenging perceived boundaries (“You say you can’t do that. What would happen if you did?”) or incongruence (“You say you are confident and committed to this plan, but your posture and tone of voice suggests otherwise.”)
Confrontation may also mean challenging discrepancies, eg. in behaviour inside and outside of the facilitation sessions, in self-evaluation and feedback from others, in past and present statements, in the experience described by the group and the facilitator’s own feelings.
(You can find further information about this in Chapter 7 of Ann Alder’s book, Pattern Making and Pattern Breaking, available through the RSVP Design website.)
4) The final facilitation skill is the movement to action that must result from effective facilitation. There are many tools that support this, including formal action planning, the use of graphic facilitation and the creation of ‘rich pictures’, the creation of road maps, domain maps and competence based personal development plans. Again, RSVP Design have a range of facilitation tools on our website that support the development of powerful plans for the future.
Where can I learn more?
For those interested in the development of enhancement of your general, professional facilitation skills, there is a range of formal and informal training available. For a full, professional qualification, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the IAF’s training to become a Certified Professional Facilitator. This qualification is acknowledged and valued around the world and gives an indication of a high level of competence in facilitating groups.
For those more interested in the facilitation of learning, RSVP Design offer a range of practical, experiential workshops that build skills in the design and facilitation of learning events and programmes. We would be happy to talk to you about a tailored programme for your internal facilitators: please contact us to explore your needs.