When facilitation is not the answer

Facilitation, understood as designing and leading a participatory group process, can have a transformative effect. In the hands of a skilled professional, a facilitated process can help a group discuss difficult issues, resolve conflicts, make sound decisions and use its time well.

Facilitation is not, however, a panacea. There are circumstances in which even the best facilitator will not be able to function effectively – and others in which it would be unethical to try.

Here are few of those situations.

  • The decision has already been made. If the intention of bringing people together is to get them to “validate” or “buy into” a plan that they had no hand in creating and that they cannot modify or contribute to, a facilitator is not needed. A persuasive salesperson would be a better investment.
  • The only venue is an auditorium. As the same word suggests, an auditorium (from the Latin audire, to hear) is for listening. The fixed seats facing a stage do not permit group members to turn and face each other, form circles, meet in small groups, or otherwise exchange ideas and work together. If there are no other spaces where true participation can occur, a facilitator is not needed. A master of ceremonies will suffice.
  • No clear purpose or desired outcomes for the meeting. A facilitator can help a leader or organizing committee clarify what they hope to accomplish by bringing a group together. This planning is essential to creating an event that justifies the time and attention of those invited to attend. But until this work has been done, it would be better to cancel or postpone the meeting and take everyone out to lunch instead.
  • A miracle is needed – now. Facilitators can help groups achieve amazing breakthroughs, transform long-standing conflicts and/or deal with complex issues, but these kinds of results cannot be delivered “on demand.” Just putting key stakeholders in the same room for an hour or two is seldom sufficient to produce miraculous results. If you cannot give the facilitator time to prepare for a challenging job or give the participants time to work together, prayer may be your best recourse.