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Facilitation involves helping the participants discover for themselves.
A facilitator must be able to read not only individuals, but interaction between individuals, and the subtleties of group dynamics. If the goal is to help a group become a team, the facilitator's job is to observe, give feedback, and ask questions that will lead to insight.
If the learning that is to take place involves experiential exercises, the facilitator helps the participants process their experience, to clarify what they have gained from the experience and to help them gain additional insight from how others in the group may have experienced the same exercise.
What is a Facilitator?
There have been and will be many definitions of a facilitator. Webster defines "facilitation" as "increased ease of performance of any action." Others define it as "A process and group dynamics expert experienced in designing and leading group workshops and work sessions."
A facilitator is someone who uses some level of intuitive or explicit knowledge of group process to formulate and deliver some form of formal or informal process interventions at a shallow or deep level to help a group achieve what they want or need to do or get where they want or need to go.
There are a lot of different practices included within that definition - from doing developmental intervention in regular meetings to running workshops to conducting experience-based training. It implies that facilitators can have different levels of knowledge and skill, can work on all kinds of problems and challenges, can be servant of the group in fulfilling its desire or can push the group to keep digging until they find what needs to be done or where they need to go. Most importantly, it recognizes as a real facilitator the meeting attendee who jumps up and starts writing on the chalk board the key points that are being discussed, or puts up a hand and suggests that the group focus on a single problem or find out a little about each other or agree on how they're going to make decisions, based on nothing more than an intuitive sense that something is amiss.
But when you're going to call yourself a facilitator, you need to have some solid foundation from which to work, or else you'll feel like just another group leader or just another note taker.
There are a few simple ways of doing this: here are a few things done in almost every workshop, work session, or meeting that seems to make a big difference in meeting productivity. While volumes have been written and graduate degrees offered on each of these topics, the basics of facilitation are easily learned and provide a large measure of meeting improvement.
Facilitation is like playing the piano. You can practice the piano for years, learning new skills, pieces, and exercises and gaining experience and confidence. But when people want to sing "Happy Birthday" at a party, knowing what starting note is comfortable for a majority of people and being able to hit that one note on the piano makes a world of difference to how well the group sings together. By the same token, the basics of facilitation make a world of difference in how well groups work together.
The following sections will give you enough basis to facilitate a meeting or work session "pretty well." From this, you'll find out:
if this is something you want to do and are good at and
where you need to further develop your techniques, knowledge, and skills.
For simplicity, assume that you are going to facilitate a straightforward meeting or problem solving session. While many other aspects of facilitation must be brought to bear these basics will always be an important foundation.
While much of what follows will be about what to do when you don't have a chance to prepare (and you won't have a chance to prepare for the exercise in this session!), you should prepare before the session. Interview key players looking for themes, areas of agreement and contention, working styles, and hidden agendas. This will help you gain a sense of what to expect, as well as giving you an opportunity to let the participants know what to expect.
Prepare objectives and a high-level agenda and go over them with the sponsor or other key players. Then expand the agenda to a detailed facilitator's agenda, specifying time frames, techniques, exercises, and materials. Work with a colleague, or a knowledgeable client person to bounce ideas off or at least get a sanity check on your design.
Pay attention to room logistics; there are many good guidelines and checklists for room setup and logistic preparation.