What is group facilitation?
Definitions from three experts in the field
Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all the members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision–making authority, diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group’s effectiveness. Roger Schwarz, The Skilled Facilitator.
A facilitated session is a highly structured meeting in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants. Michael Wilkinson, The Secrets of Facilitation.
The facilitator´s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. S/he encourages full participation; s/he promotes mutual understanding; s/he fosters inclusive solutions, and s/he cultivates shared responsibility. Sam Kaner, The Facilitator´s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.
As group facilitators, we believe in the inherent value of the individual and the collective wisdom of the group. We strive to help the group make the best use of the contributions of each of its members. We set aside our personal opinions and support the group’s right to make its own choices. We believe that collaborative and cooperative interaction builds consensus and produces meaningful outcomes. We value professional collaboration to improve our profession.
(Adopted 29 June 2004, International Association of Facilitators.)
When to use a facilitator?
You need a facilitator when the meeting or event that you are planning meets one or more of the following criteria:
- Important decisions need to be made
- The group is large, diverse, and/or in conflict
- The issues under discussion are complex and there is no one clear “right answer”
- Successful implementation of a plan requires the informed consent and active support of key stakeholders
- Need to optimize the use of the group´s time and energy
Typical examples of situations in which facilitation is helpful
- Strategic planning
- Internal project review and evaluation
- Conflict transformation
- Consultations with partners or diverse publics
- Trans-disciplinary collaboration
- Forum, conference or symposium
What is the value added?
The opportunity costs of bringing a group together —whether in person or virtually— are enormous. IIFAC’s professional facilitators help justify the investment by creating events that:
- Have clearly defined objectives
- Are structured to produce the expected outputs and outcomes
- Use a variety of techniques to involve participants in meaningful discussions
- Have a realistic agenda that can be completed in the time allotted
- Have clear and agreed upon decision-making processes
- Bridge social and cultural differences among the participants
- Minimize wasted time and participant boredom
Internal or external facilitation?
In terms of the basic requirements of the job, internal and external facilitators have the same responsibility to focus on the group process so that the other participants can engage in the content of the discussion.
That said, there are some significant differences between internal and external facilitators. Knowing the relative merits of each can help you decide when to seek outside help.
|Member of the group or works for the organization||Independent consultant or works for another organization|
|Their services as facilitators are included in their salary or in the case of citizen’s groups, they are often volunteers.||Usually charges a fee for services|
|Sometimes lack training or experience||Trained professional, sometimes certified|
|More familiar with content and participants||More impartial|
Should the boss facilitate?
Being both the boss and the meeting facilitator can be challenging.
By definition, the boss often has a lot to say about the items on the agenda. Her job is not to be neutral, but rather, to be informed, inspiring and in charge. Whatever she says in the meeting will naturally carry a lot of weight. In short, the boss needs to be free to participate in the discussions.
In contrast, the facilitator, whether internal or external, does not intervene in the content of the meeting. The reasoning behind this is that by giving his opinion about issues under discussion, the facilitator erodes the trust of the group in his ability to serve as an impartial guide to their process.
Ideally, the boss and the facilitator work together to plan and carry out dynamic, productive meetings that keep participants awake and engaged.
|Participates in the discussion||Does not express personal opinions related to content or results|
|Votes on decisions or is the final decision maker||Does not vote on issues|
|Responsible for outcomes and results||Is not attached to a specific outcome (but is committed to making the meeting as productive as possible)|
Nevertheless, the boss/leader often must facilitate her own meetings and needs to master basic facilitation competencies. The following article describes the idea in more detail.
Should a content expert facilitate the meeting?
In the context of a meeting, the content experts are those who have knowledge and experience related to issues under discussion. They can be members of the group or invited guests. In either case, their principal role is to share information and express their points of view.
When content experts also facilitate the group process, they run the same risks as bosses who run their own meetings. Without meaning to cause harm, they tend to dominate the discussion, stifle dissent and discourage participation.
If you are a content expert who also must facilitate a meeting, proceed with caution. Consciously limit the amount that you express your opinion, creating space for the contributions of others. Do not take advantage of your double role to get in the last word. And consider getting some training as a group facilitator!
If we didn’t answer your question, ask it here.