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What is facilitation? The ultimate article summarising the job and explaining why companies need facilitators!

  • February 21, 2022
  • Roxane
  • Facilitation

It's the same old story. We meet someone new who inevitably ends up asking you what you do for a living. We come out with the usual "I'm a facilitator" with a hint of concern as we stare at the person in front of us, trying to guess "On a scale of 0 to 10, how confused is he or she?", as our explanation will have to adapt accordingly. Some are satisfied with a brief expose of the craft, but for all those who are curious and want to know more, here’s everything they need to know about facilitation!

For starters, what is facilitation?

Facilitation is an approach through which an individual, the facilitator, intervenes to help a group achieve a common goal and produce deliverables in a collaborative way, including to...

  • identify and solve problems,
  • come up with new ideas,
  • make decisions,
  • develop a roadmap,
  • create consensus around a strategy,
  • prioritise items, etc.

Facilitation refers to an approach and posture and takes the form of activities or exercises carried out during group workshops to achieve deliverables determined by or with the client/sponsor.

Using metaphors (here, bricks) can be useful for complex exercises!

Using metaphors (here, bricks) can be useful for complex exercises!

What is specific about the approach of facilitators?

Facilitators generally adopt a “low” posture with the client team and workshop participants, which consists in being curious and assuming other people, rather than themselves, have the answers. This attitude requires:

- To ask questions (preferably the right ones!),

- To have a neutral view of the answers,

- To be an active and unbiased listener.

This key behavioural trait could be compared to Socrates' maieutics, the art of asking the right questions to bring ideas to life! It’s opposed to the "high" posture of “the one who knows" and shares his knowledge and expertise. This low posture means that the facilitator does not need to be an expert in the client's field, on the contrary! Being an outsider guarantees neutrality and keeps facilitators from taking sides or from pushing participants to answer in a certain way. The facilitator's top skill is his ability to ask, reformulate and listen.

Here’s a quick summary of the qualities linked to the two types of posture:

If you’d like to dig deeper, you can have a look at the Facilitator Competency Framework written by the International Facilitation Association.

Do facilitators only ask questions, then?

Of course not! The facilitation team plays a pivotal role in guiding clients and participants towards their shared objective. How?

  • 🎯 They clarify the goals and identify obstacles

Asking the right questions to the clients is the fundamental basis and starting point. In pulling on certain threads and exploring new avenues, facilitators may detect things that are being kept silent (a tense working environment? interpersonal tensions? etc.), identify crucial goals that remain dormant or find pitfalls to avoid. It is therefore critical to address and clarify these points ahead of the workshop itself.

  • ✍️ They choose the methodology and design the process

Once the goals have been agreed on, the facilitation team designs the entire process and layout of the collaborative session(s). Drawing on Creative Problem Solving, the Art of Hosting, Agile methods, or other lesser-known approaches, they design a custom-made sequence of activities with specific lengths, instructions, modalities, etc. The methodological design requires both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience to avoid collective biases likely to affect groups dynamics and the results!

  • ⚠️ They keep the session “under control”

Not to be overlooked, they prepare the logistics and handle the technical side of the workshop. Depending on the size of the group, the venue, the type of session, the issues at stake or the constraints, this part may be short or take a lot of time. A collaborative session of 300 people set during an annual seminar requires more work than an informal and remote meeting of 15 participants. But as we often say: "the devil is in the details" and "all that can go wrong will go wrong". Fortunately, an experienced facilitation team knows the potential risks and their solutions and has multiple contingency plans. Good facilitators are extremely thorough: they contact the IT department in cases of remote workshops, talk to technical managers for seminars, pre-test everything, etc. Nobody wants to come face-to-face with a "404 not found" after clicking on the link to the workshop 😱.

  • 💬 They animate the collaborative sessions

On top of client support and workshop design, facilitators, well, facilitate collaborative sessions. This aspect of the craft requires using all the knowledge gathered with the clients during the preparation phase to optimize discussions between participants when the day finally comes. The challenge often lies in enabling all the participants to speak out and participate in a friendly setting, while respecting the session’s constraints (timekeeping!) and ensuring that the client's goals are met. Quite a balancing act!

What do people do during collaborative workshops?

That will widely depend on the goal of the session and the methodology used! Among the most common are methodologies traditionally linked to the world of facilitation, such as:

  • The Art of Hosting with the Open Forum and the World Café, mainly focused on discussions to generate ideas.
  • Problem solving approaches such as Creative Problem Solving - each phase of this approach has a specific objective (reformulating the problem, finding ideas, prototyping, etc.).
  • Methods like Lego® Serious Play® which involve building a model to address a question or a problem.

Each methodology has its own tools, whether low or high-tech (read our "2022 Selection of the 5 best tools to facilitate your brainstorming and collaborative workshops online"), but the core of collaborative workshop is very often discussion and exchanges focusing on the common goal. Some facilitation teams specialize in one specific method, while others are more playful and borrow tools and methodologies from related fields - such as Design Thinking or Agile methods, or even create their own tools. It’s not uncommon to take part in workshops involving drawing activities, cards games, small skits, or even entire Serious Games!

Facilitator, coach, consultant: what’s the difference?

Have you noticed similarities with the coaching and consulting sectors? You’re right! Long story short, a facilitator guides groups through a process to reach a common goal.

The coach guides individuals (sometimes groups) by asking questions to get the client to move forward on his own. In team coaching, the goal is to achieve collective effectiveness by focusing on team members and their interactions and go beyond individual abilities. Both the coach and the facilitator prefer the “low” posture. But the former focuses on the individuals and their emotions, while the latter prioritises the process and the group.

The consultant, on the other hand, guides a person or a group by relying on his or her expertise to achieve a quantifiable result. The main difference lies in his “high” posture, meaning that he has an opinion on the business at hand.

When and why ask professional facilitators for help?

Many organisations have their own resources to facilitate workshops, considering managers are used to leading meetings where their teams express themselves and collaborate. So why use a professional facilitation team?

Their experience saves you time ⏱

Need to organise a workshop in record time or during a busy period? An outside team can take over its organisation and their extensive experience allows them to understand your issues and prepare the session very quickly.

Their outlook helps reenergize your workshops ⚡️

Do you know how to organise collaborative workshops but noticed your participants are getting a tad bored of doing the same activities? This could be an opportunity to call on a professional team used to innovate and will allow you to think outside the box to surprise your participants and increase their engagement!

Their methodological expertise is key to avoid pitfalls and group bias ⚠️

The expertise of the facilitation teams relies on methodologies and activities to foster collaboration while ensuring positive group dynamics and high value-added discussions. There are many pitfalls likely to prevent effective collaboration and negatively impact the deliverable (like how hierarchy can smother discussions, or false consensus biases). Experienced facilitators will identify the obstacles to overcome and tell you about all the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed setup for you to have an informed view of the discussions to come!

Their experience allows them to manage complex setups 🤯

Facilitation teams run workshops daily for all kinds of organisations and can adapt to a wide range of contexts, audiences, and objectives, while a large company may only run one or two large-scale seminars a year. That’s why experienced facilitators can manage sessions even when:

  • There’s a large number of participants (seminar...)
  • The technical setup is crucial (remote workshop, with control room...)
  • The exercise is complex (rotating groups, large amount of information shared, difficult subject...)

The accumulated experience allows facilitators to manage any request or situation.

They bring a new perspective 👀

Their posture requires them to keep a distance from the topic, allowing them to focus on the ultimate goal and final deliverable. If opinions differ within the client team (the sponsoring team organising the workshop), experienced facilitators will help you reach a consensus while keeping your initial objective in mind. Their advice won’t be influenced by the internal dynamics of your organisation (tensions? conflicting interests?). These subtle benefits can make a huge difference when organising key strategic workshops!

That’s the end of our overview! While we couldn’t cover every single aspect of the facilitation craft (there are many specialities like visual facilitation etc.) , this article should give you an overall understanding of the trade and its benefits. Next time you meet a facilitator, you can tell him/her you know what it’s all about ;).

Sources (in French)

Positions du formateur-coach-consultant :

Posture du coach

Théorie sur les postures haute et basse

P.Watzlawick « Une logique de la communication » – p65-69 – J.A.Malarewicz – « Systémique et entreprise »

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