The Art of Facilitation

Sep 12, 2012 No Comments by

As a Change Agent, one of my most common roles is that of “Facilitator”.  One moment I will be asked to guide an executive team as they make tough decisions. The next, I’ll help resolve a personality dispute that’s blocking team success.

As a neutral Facilitator, I’m often called to help an individual or a team work through processes like strategic planning, high-risk problem resolution or fact-based decision making. It’s one of the most challenging parts of my job – and one of the most rewarding as well.

Change Agent Tip # 42: Practice the Art of Facilitation

Successful facilitation is a mix of art and science. In order to truly help people with their challenges, I encourage facilitators to take their role very seriously and develop their craft through learning and practice.

Over the next few posts, I’ll focus on the facilitation role and introduce several tools and techniques that have worked for me.

What’s It All About? Let’s start with a clear explanation of what is meant by “facilitation”.  I define facilitation as:

“…the craft of guiding human interaction toward a goal without taking over responsibility for the matter at hand.”

Facilitation = Balance: Facilitation involves maintaining a constant balance between opposing forces that could yield robust, executable results or generate a “brittle” consensus that may break down as soon as a contentious group has left a meeting.

Within that context, I think of facilitating as:

1. Thinking Like Switzerland: Neutrally helping people define and achieve a goal – not directing the process toward the predetermined outcome preferred by the facilitator or any single participant.

2. Leading Without Traditional Authority: Providing leadership to a situation, a person or a team – without taking over.

3. Staying Apolitical: Monitoring and enhancing group dynamics while being careful not to get pulled into internal political currents within the group.

4. Providing Structure: Offering a process for individuals or groups to stay on track and work through their challenges – but not dictating that the facilitator’s preferred process is the only way to get things done.

5. Rising To A Challenge: Being willing to tackle challenging problems and complex situations – without overshadowing those with true ownership of those situations.

6. Not Taking Sides: Guiding people toward a shared goal without having a specific, vested interest in the outcome.

7. Having a Thick Skin: Focusing on human interaction to achieve outcomes – without taking personal offense when people push back on the facilitator or the process.

Whenever I’m getting peppered with “feedback” while I’m facilitating, I imagine myself as Minnesota Wild Goalie Nikolas Backstrum preparing to handle a slap shot in the picture to your left… I deflect it, learn from the experience and keep my head in the game…

8. Listening & Fostering Dialogue: Encouraging open dialogue and actively listening to all opinions (and getting others to listen to alternate opinions) without shutting down dissenters.

9. Patiently Progressing Toward Goals: Respecting the time and contributions of all participants – without rushing the person or group to premature decisions or resolutions.

10. Balancing Strong & Weak Voices: Building real consensus for the solution(s) to a given problem and not allowing the strongest personalities in the room to dominate the discussion or force decisions.

11. Getting Results While Limiting Collateral Damage: Focusing on results and outcomes – while remembering that actual people are involved and that all people need to be treated with respect – even if they disagree with each other.

12. Synthesizing Results: Summarizing and capturing decisions, notes and other results without running them through an interpretation filter that alters their agreed-upon meaning.

13. Laying Groundwork: Planning ahead for the immediate steps that follow resolution of a given situation by setting clear, challenging and realistic goals for what will be done in the future based on the results of the facilitation.

14. Encouraging Team Development: Demonstrating effective facilitation techniques and celebrating success without taking individual credit for the work that a team has achieved.

I know that’s a long list, and you may even have a few things you’d add to it.  Feel free to hit the “Leave a Reply” link below to add your two cents. In the next few posts, I’ll go into more detail about how to actually accomplish this balancing act.

The best book in the world will not do much good buried on a bookshelf…

It’s Not Enough To Know: As with all Change Agent skills, it’s one thing to know what needs to be done – it’s another to execute on that knowledge. Unfortunately, I’ve worked with many clients and fellow consultants who’ve bought books and gathered “best practices” for facilitation – then promptly filed this good content away in a drawer or put it on a shelf without employing it. I highly encourage you to avoid this temptation.

Be Careful What You Ask For: Facilitation is one of the most critical skills a Change Agent can employ in the course of their work.

Being effective in this role requires some very specific skills and a lot of practice. I wouldn’t recommend it as a career field for the shy or the timid. Not everyone enjoys being in the middle of a thorny interpersonal conflict or being on the hook for keeping a team from wandering through endless hours of meetings without results. These are tasks that only appeal to a true Facilitator.

If that’s a role you think you might enjoy, I encourage you to learn more about it. A good place to start might be my next post, in which we’ll start to dig into the art and the science of facilitation.


Questions for Chatter:

  • What would you add to my list of facilitation behaviors/activities?
  • Should the art and science of facilitation be a part of everyone’s job description?
  • How would you make that happen in your organization?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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