What’s so special about facilitation?

The ASE is special. Everyone I spoke to told me this from the moment I first heard of it. Quite how special I wasn’t sure. One thing I’d heard, in my research before joining the ASE, was the dedication and investment in expert facilitation to support collaborative solutions. But why? What’s so important about ‘facilitators’, what do they do anyway? I’m offering my observations around the perception of facilitation, my slice of the reality about the role and some thoughts about why it really matters.

At times I chuckle to myself when I hear people referring to someone as a facilitator, I wonder how much of a facilitator they really are, how many of the core skills, techniques and values they really hold and how apt they really are at the art form. I also chuckle when I mention my job title as ‘co-facilitator’ to anyone outside of this world. ‘OK so what does that actually mean?’ is usually the response I get and I launch into an explanation, usually with a ton of metaphors, analogies and examples to try to explain what it is we really do.

So what is facilitation?

A quick Google definition describes a facilitator as ‘someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains “neutral” meaning he/she does not take a particular position in the discussion.

Now different people have different opinions on the neutrality of a facilitator but that is for another debate at another time. The point of your role is to support others. It’s not about hogging a stage, about being in the lime light, about knowing all the answers or taking the lead. It’s most certainly not all ‘icebreakers’ and ‘energisers’, sharpies and flip charts, introductions and summarising (although if you are not good with these things I suggest you consider another profession).

It’s about enablement. Getting the most of the people and the time you have to get to the best outcome possible. In my eyes, being a facilitator is often a relatively thankless job. You work your guts out, you gather information, you listen (hard and actively), you question (and question some more using all the different forms of questioning in your arsenal), you plan, you iterate, you plan some more. You contract with your ‘sponsor’ for how you will act on the day and you prepare yourself for the performance that is about to follow (the art).

On the day

Then when you finally get everyone in the room, you throw the majority of your plans out the window and think on your feet because what you’re actually confronted with is radically different from what you were expecting.

You use your elegant and effective language skills to coach the best out of the collective genius in the room, working on the most challenging situation. You acknowledge that challenging people don’t exist and if any appear to be within the room it is up to you to overcome that. Their response is exactly that; a response to a stimulus they have experienced as unhelpful and they are merely giving feedback, that you the facilitator responds to, turning it around to a positive contribution to the group.

You manage the effective balance between people, process and time. You change your style to mirror or respond to those in the room whilst remembering the contract you made at the outset. You foster participation from all (even the introverts), gain mutual understanding (even with polar opposites), support the development of inclusive solutions (even when there is a clear hierarchy) and ensure that everyone leaves with a shared ownership and responsibility. You think on your feet and you get the job done. You end the day exhausted.

And the delegates?

They hardly notice a thing, they are oblivious to quite how much has gone on in your brain and around them and as they leave they ponder why you were even there, (all you did was introductions and some MC-ing, how is that a ‘specialist’ role?).

Over to you

So, that is my take on the beautiful art of facilitation. I would love to hear your comments and own experiences. Please do add these in the comment boxes below.