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What is Facilitation?

Facilitation - what do we mean? 

One of the key learning messages from Colourblind, RSVP Design’s flagship communication skills exercise, is the importance of understanding messages in the way that is intended by the message senders. This requires careful use of language, conversations that explore different interpretations of the same words and a shifting of perspective to reach a point in which two people really do achieve shared meaning. 

When we have conversations with clients, we need to establish common understanding about a broad range of concepts and ‘facilitation’ is one of those. Interpretation ranges from setting up and administering an experiential learning task (“I can provide a couple of HR assistants who can help you to facilitate the activity”) through to conflict resolution and high level mediation. In the rest of this blog we aim to explore the differences and suggest some of the ways in which RSVP Design support facilitators as well as trainers. 

Key differences between training and facilitation 

Many of these client conversations suggest that training done experientially or interactively is very close to, or even the same as, facilitation. At RSVP Design we believe this is not the case - although it does sometimes feel like it! This blog aims to help you to discern the differences and identify whether what you actually need, in each specific development context, is training or facilitation. 

Ingrid Bens, a well known and respected expert in the field, defines a facilitator as “one who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high quality decisions. A helper and enabler whose goal is to support others as they achieve exceptional performance.” Note that this definition does not include a contribution of content alongside structure and process and describes the facilitator as a helper and enabler rather than a subject matter expert. 

So, what are the important differences between training and facilitation? 

Training is about passing on content. However ‘softly’ or experientially this is done, the role of the trainer is to pass on knowledge and skills ie. pre-determined content. The training provides information, theory and activities to help learners to retain that content and to learn at different levels, appropriate to their needs. 

In a training context, the trainer retains a lot of control over the way in which the content is provided, the size of the ‘chunks’ of information supplied and the type of learning activities selected. This means that a degree of hierarchical power is retained by the trainer as the ‘expert’ in the room. 

Trainers will also tend to retain control of the sequence, timings and ‘rules’ of the session. In order to achieve specific learning objectives, and to be able to ensure that learners learn those things as a priority, the training session is designed and planned according to best practice guidelines. However, this tends to make it relatively inflexible - necessarily, to ensure that there is time for practice, rehearsal and the reinforcement and application of the required learning. Training tends to be about building, over a period of time, knowledge and skills that will lead to future competence or mastery and the trainer is working towards long term performance outcomes. 

Process facilitation is about supporting thinking. It is content free and concentrates purely on enabling the group to access processes and tools that will help them to think, and therefore make decisions and choices, more effectively. The facilitator becomes a process guide, working in collaboration with a group of peers who themselves have all the content they need to achieve their own goals. The facilitator provides a process and flow, holds boundaries, remains present and focussed on the mood, energy and motivation of the group and offers suitable tools and techniques to support the group members in working together effectively. It is not the role of the facilitator to favour any ideas, content or decisions above others. However, the facilitator may offer a tool to help a group to generate more ideas, to evaluate ideas or to ‘cement’ a decision once they are ready to move forward. Facilitation is a flexible and adaptable process that does not follow a set agenda or a timeline. The facilitator follows the direction set by the group and this may change moment by moment. The facilitator tends to be more focussed on the ‘here and now’ than the trainer is, looking for immediate insights and shifts in position that indicate the way in which a group is moving or the need that they are currently expressing. Action and intervention is always a call of judgement and the facilitator is making professional choices at every moment. 

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