Facilitation – an introduction

Facilitation is about two things. It is about having a process which people will follow, and it is about intervening to enable the people to follow that process.
Good facilitation looks almost effortless because the process naturally picks up where the people are, and it it seems to intuitively understand where they want to go. The real skill of facilitation lies in the process, and so it is somewhat ironic that many people tend to think of facilitators in terms of the ‘intervention’ side of their role.

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect process, certainly not when dealing with people. No matter how well designed the initial process may be, it will go off-track if its progress is not carefully maintained (and this is where the intervention comes in).
Facilitators are the custodians of ‘how’ things are being done. They are people who maintain their awareness in the meta-level of the meeting, observing the patterns that develop, comparing these against the process that was intended, and making small adjustments and interventions to keep things on track to a successful and valuable outcome.
Key within this is maintaining the ‘four essentials of success’ at a functional level within the meeting:
  • Are people clear and in agreement about what they are trying to achieve in this activity?
  • Are they supportive of, and working in line with, an agreed and plausible approach to deliver that objective?
  • Does everybody understand their role within that approach, and are they willing and able to effect that role?
  • Is the communication that is taking place constructive, supportive, and likely to encourage progress?
On this last point, the facilitator sometimes has a very special role to play in group discussions, and that is to maintain an easy flow while avoiding any sense of a free-for-all.
In a free-for-all, people listen for a gap in the dialogue to get their point in as soon as they can. In a worst-case scenario this can lead to speakers being interrupted the moment they pause for breath, people talking over each other, or having side-conversations.
Even in fairly minor cases of the above, people might be listening intently for another person to finish, but they are not actually listening to what that finish is; the absence of a pause between one person finishing and the next person talking is a sure sign that the focus of the meeting has shifted from listening to speaking. Two things commonly emerge from this: People end up interjecting to get the floor without thinking through the most efficient way to get their message across, and people (rightly) feel that they were not listened to the first time, so begin to repeat their points.
If, however, the facilitator highlights this issue, agrees ground rules around brevity, listening, and not repeating points, and then uses a non-intrusive technique for ‘queuing’ the inputs*, then people find that they are much better able to concentrate on the content rather than the gaps, they feel listened to, and consensus is more easily and more quickly achieved.
In summary, good facilitators are not influenced by the content of what is emerging in the decision (that is the responsibility of others), merely the quality of the approach by which the decisions were delivered. This is an uncomfortable concept for many people, because they infer all sorts of incorrect value statements from it, such as ‘the process is more important than the outcome’. What they overlook in these judgements is:
  • The quality of the process is ultimately evaluated by the quality of the outcome
  • The process can change (even frequently) but it is still the process
  • More successful outcomes are delivered through process than through a collection of random acts
  • A sequence of acts that are not random, however they arise, are still a process, and still need to be monitored to ensure they are taking the group in the right direction.
* One that works very well is for the facilitator to get people to catch his/her eye if they want to speak, and then keep them in order in their head. Before they invite the next person to speak, they run through the remaining order e.g., ‘Sue, and then Lucy, and then Fred’, and simply drop those who have spoken off the front of their list, and add new ones to the end of it.

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