What does a facilitator do?

A question that regularly arises is “What does a facilitator do?” which is a very pertinent question, especially in a business context. I will now try and provide a little more clarity on what, in my experience, good facilitators should do.

Wiktionary provides a very concise and accurate definition of what a facilitator is:

facilitator (plural facilitators)

  1. A person who helps a group to have an effective dialog without taking any side of the argument, especially in order to reach a consensus

Wikipedia provides a slightly longer article on the role of a business facilitator and some guidance on the role.

These are both useful definitions and reference points, however, they do not provide much detail on the skills required to be a good facilitator and the benefits that a professional facilitator can provide.

In many business contexts meetings can end up taking up much time, potentially involve large numbers of participants  and may not achieve the desired results. They can therefore be ineffective, inefficient and expensive. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t cover here, instead I will outline the role and list the skills a facilitator brings. I’ll round off by looking at the benefits of using a facilitator

Role

A facilitator is different from a trainer or a motivational speaker. Neither are they a subject matter expert.  A facilitator will understand what you are trying to achieve and guide you through a process. A facilitator should not become involved in the content of the meeting. I’ve heard it described as directing from the back or using a light hand on the tiller. The International Association of Facilitators state that “the facilitator’s responsibility is to address the journey rather than the destination”. One role which uses some facilitation approaches is the Speaker in the British Parliament whose role is to allow a subject to be debated without acrimony and with as many MPs as possible being able to make their point.

Skills required

Facilitators need great communication skills, especially listening. They need to be able to sense difficult situations and respond in constructive and inclusive way.

They need to have the self confidence to not worry that they don’t understand the jargon but to know they can guide you through a process. They also need to be prepared to challenge people and cope with confrontation with good grace. I often say to people that I have my scars from facilitating conflict but these make the next tense situation easier to deal with.

The aims and objectives of the group must be of paramount importance to the facilitator. People who need to be in the limelight don’t make good facilitators, you want someone who is more of a team player.

A facilitator has to be flexible enough to change the plan if that’s what required to meet the objectives. A plan is important but situations can change rapidly and you need to be able to think on your feet. This may involve revising a meeting plan and approach whilst the meeting is under way. At the end of the meeting the team should think “we did that” not “we did what the facilitator told us”

It helps if a facilitator can bring a range of tools and techniques to help a group and provide a structure to their discussions or decision making. The ability to unpick the jumble of information a group have brought and break issues down into small steps is also very useful

Benefits

When a facilitator is used the benefits will include:

  • Having a clearer understanding of what you want to achieve and a plan of how to achieve it
  • Overcoming some of the obstacles to progress caused by tensions between group members
  • Achieving more because the facilitator had responsibility for the process
  • A better understanding of the true root causes of your problems, based more on fact and less on gut instinct
  • Leaving with positive feelings and a sense of progress being made
  • Knowing that everyone had a chance to contribute and feels more included in the team

If you have regular (or irregular) meetings where the effectiveness is not acceptable or where there is a risk of conflict or a single person dominating the meeting, why not try using a professional facilitator to run the meeting?