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The Facilitator's Task
The leader knows how to have a profound influence without making things happen. For example, facilitating what is happening is more potent than pushing for what you wish were happening. Demonstrating or modeling behaviors is more potent than imposing morality. Unbiased positions are stronger than prejudice…John Heider in The Tao of Leadership.

Ingrid Bens’ facilitators’ guidebook begins: "In many organizations, the idea of using a neutral third party to manage and improve meetings is now taking root. The result: the emergence of a new and important role in which the person who manages the meeting no longer participates in the discussion or tries to influence the outcome. Instead, he or she stays out of the discussion in order to focus on how the meeting is being run. Instead of offering opinions, this person provides participants with structure and tools. Instead of promoting a point of view, he or she manages participation to ensure that everyone is being heard. Instead of making decisions and giving orders, he or she supports the participants in identifying their own goals and developing their own action plans." What is she really saying about the Facilitator’s task?

  • Instead, he or she stays out of the discussion in order to focus on how the meeting is being run…The facilitator is responsible for the how of the meeting while the participants are responsible for the what of the meeting. The facilitator is the process expert while the participants are the content experts. While some knowledge of the content may help the facilitator enable the group, detailed knowledge is usually a hindrance since the facilitator will find it hard to not become a ‘content expert’. I once facilitated a four-day workshop on scientific research in tropical rainforests. While I have lived in a tropical rainforest I actually know very little about how they function. Some authorities suggest that a facilitator must always be a neutral third party. However, this is often impractical and many people find themselves called upon to facilitate their team, work group or committee. When this happens it is important that the group and the facilitator come to a common understanding of what the facilitator can and can not do. In addition the facilitator must make it clear when they are wearing their ‘facilitator hat’ and when they are wearing their ‘member-of-the-group hat’.

  • Instead of offering opinions, this person provides participants with structure and tools…The facilitator focuses on process. Their concern is the methods, structures and/or working tools that will enable a group to deal effectively with the content of the meeting. In the tropical rainforest workshop, mentioned above, I met before the event with the group organising the workshop. In that meeting we clarified their objectives for the meeting and decided upon the final products they wanted from the meeting. I then designed an agenda, structures and processes to accomplish the objectives and produce the final products in the four days. We began the actual workshop by presenting the plan for the four days and securing the group’s agreement to it.

  • Instead of promoting a point of view, he or she manages participation to ensure that everyone is being heard…How do you make sure that everyone is getting the ‘air time’ they need to make their opinion and thoughts known? Managing participation is one of the most challenging and sensitive tasks of the facilitator. One of the most common comments made to me after I have worked with a group is that they appreciated the way I tried to give everyone a chance to be heard. People don’t speak in a group for many reasons—the facilitator’s task is to understand the dynamics of the group and to enable full, authentic and effective participation.

  • Instead of making decisions and giving orders, he or she supports the participants in identifying their own goals and developing their own action plans…The key word in this sentence is own. In the last twenty years many management gurus have talked about buy-in or ownership as the key to motivation and commitment. Participating in the setting of goals and creating action plans creates this buy-in or ownership. Not so long ago I facilitated a workshop where the first decision facing the group was whether or not the organisation was going to continue to exist or not. After that decision we were to build a plan to accomplish whatever they had decided. As a facilitator I was to enable them to effectively make their decision and build a plan to carry it out—no matter what I thought of their decision. Again, this is especially challenging for the person chosen to facilitate his or her own group or team.

It seems to me that these four points above pretty much summarize the behaviour of a facilitator. However these points make some assumptions about the nature of facilitation and as Roger Schwarz reminds us, "Because assumptions clarify biases, identifying them is important." He says that facilitation, as we have been talking about it, is based on three core values. These values are guides for both group and facilitator behavior and must be part of the understanding between the group and the facilitator. Briefly, these three values are:

  • Valid information…means that people share all relevant information and do that in a way that enables others to understand it and independently validate it.

  • Free and informed choice…means that people define their own objectives and methods of achieving them. They are not coerced or manipulated and make these decisions based on valid information.

  • Internal commitment to the choice…means that people feel personally responsible for their decisions and that they find their choices intrinsically compelling or satisfying.

I was once asked to facilitate a meeting where the group leader had already decided what the group should do and wanted me to guide them to the same decision. I said no. To be a facilitator means to decide that every group has the knowledge and capacity to decide their destiny. Thus, "facilitating what is happening is more potent than pushing for what you wish were happening." This is true, whether it is a group of illiterate village people in Africa or a group of highly educated and professionally skilled leaders in Europe. The first task of the facilitator is to trust the group!

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  1. Bens, Ingrid. Facilitating with Ease! A step-by-step guidebook. Jossey-Bass Inc., 2000. (page 7)
  2. Heider, John. The Tao of Leadership. Gower Publishing, 1993. (page 115)
  3. Schwarz, Roger M. The Skilled Facilitator, Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. Jossey-Bass Inc., 1994.
    (pages 8-9) 
 

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