The Facilitator's Tightrope

Inserting a facilitator into a group´s existing power dynamics is a risky business.

Often a facilitator’s help is requested because dysfunctional behaviors are inhibiting the group´s effectiveness. The client allegedly wants the facilitator to transform the way the group works together, generating miracles in the form of more participation, creative thinking, team collaboration and decisions that get implemented.

But do the conditions exist that would allow such profound changes to occur? Is the leadership really on board? Will the group accept intervention from an “outsider”? Is the facilitator skilled enough to deliver the desired results?

In the face of such uncertainty, the facilitator´s first step is to establish a healthy, collaborative relationship with the leadership team. Remember, they are taking a risk in hiring us. If we fail, they will look bad. We need the leaders to be very clear about the role of facilitator and the rationale for the participatory processes we propose. Without their understanding and support, our transformative mission is almost sure to fail.

Our next challenge is to earn the trust of the meeting participants. We cannot assume that just because we have reached an agreement with the leader, our presence will be welcomed by all. Many are likely to be skeptical or suspicious about our presence. Everything that we do (or say) will be subject to scrutiny and judgment. Everyone is watching.

We walk a tightrope on which we must set clear expectations about the group´s task at hand and also adjust to emerging ambiguities. We need to emanate confidence, but not arrogance, be respectful but not servile. We need to find ways for the traditionally silent or excluded to be heard, and apply strategies to prevent the habitually verbose from dominating the discussion.

And as we negotiate these competing demands, we must remember why we climbed up on that tightrope in the first place: to help the group achieve its highest aspirations. We are in service, not in charge. We have a responsibility to the group and those who hired us, and no authority to control the final outcomes.

So to walk the facilitator’s tightrope we need courage, poise, daring – and humility. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu said,

“The leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”