What Is the Essence of Facilitation?
Three words and three questions to inform all of your facilitation work.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.
Mindsets and methods.
Principles and practices.
Tool and techniques.
Beliefs and behaviors.
We’ll explore all of these in the weeks ahead, but let’s begin with something more fundamental: defining the essence of facilitation.
Let me suggest it is contained in the word itself:facile and action … actions that make it easier.
These three simple words—making it easier—can inform every choice we make in our advance design of a session and its materials, as well as our real-time responses to what unfolds in a group.
Let’s unpack each of these questions.
1. What do you want to make easier?
Any facilitated effort shares some common answers to this initial question, including:
Respectful and thoughtful discussions and deliberations
Diverse perspectives and open-minded thinking
Efficient and effective use of participants’ time
Relevant content and meaningful application of it
Active participation and ownership of the outcomes
Building your own inventory of these elements (and reviewing and revising it regularly) is a useful starting point for your ongoing facilitation efforts. To it we want to add the elements that reflect specific events, their outcomes, and their contexts.
For example, what facilitators need to make easier will differ for:
an all-staff meeting versus a facilitated workshop at an association conference
a strategic planning summit versus a board of directors retreat
a new product development process versus a conflict mediation session
Think about the conversations and gatherings you (will) facilitate. What are some of the specific things you may need or want to make easier?
2. For whom are you trying to do so and what do you (need to) know about what they would find easier?
You get a lot of mileage out of applying your answers to the first question alone. But adding responses to this additional question transforms an “off the rack” design to more of a custom-tailored fit.
Imagine facilitating a group of nonprofit volunteers developing a strategic plan for an organization. What needs to be made easier will depend on the specific characteristics of the individuals in the group, as well as the nature of their relationships and interactions with each other. A few examples:
A group with limited exposure to ideas and thinking outside their organization may need assistance imagining new possibilities or drawing on diverse sources for ideas and inspiration.
A group whose members have limited familiarity with each other may need assistance in accelerating a sense of community and trust among participants in order to speak freely and engage in creative debate.
A group with no experience doing strategic planning may need basic education in terminology, concepts, and processes.
A group with limited resources may need insights into how others in similar situations create the future while managing the present.
No doubt you already have some ideas about what to make easier for the people and sessions you facilitate. Drawing on our own thinking is useful; drawing on participants’ perspectives is even more so.
Using simple surveys (and individual interviews in some instances) facilitators can gather insights about what support participants think they (or others in the group) might find beneficial.
My surveys or interviews usually include a brief restatement of the desired outcomes for the session and the work required followed by asking any or all of these questions:
When you’ve been a part of similar efforts in the past, what helped make them successful?
When you think about the work and the intended outcomes, what challenges or barriers, if any, might we need to work around or address?
What would make it easier for you to fully contribute to this work? What information might you want in advance to help you prepare? What discussions or interactions with others during the session would you find most helpful?
What do you think other participants might need in order to contribute their best effort to the work?
Gathering participant insights helps build their ownership for the outcomes and the sense that their time and contributions are valued. They are more likely to respect the process when they feel their input and perspectives are respected.
3. What design options, facilitation formats, and tools or techniques would best address the insights gleaned from questions #1 and #2?
The answers to the first two questions provide you a wealth of insight and information to inform your choices about the session’s design, the related advance communications and pre-work, as well as some of the real-time moments that may surface and require your intervention.
Honestly? You likely have more to consider than is actionable. You’ll need to sift through it and identify the handful of elements you think are most critical for the specific facilitation effort, the ones that will most influence your session design.
For each format, activity, or process you select to include in your draft design, I encourage you to identify at least one alternative, a backup plan you can shift to seamlessly if what’s happening in real-time suggests it may be best to do so. We’ll dig deeper into session design, format choices, and these “adapt and adjust” moments in subsequent posts.
Making it easier
Three simple, but powerful words.
I consider them to be both for my work, as well as the essence of facilitation. I draw on them constantly throughout the design and facilitation of every event or conversation in which I am involved. Subsequent essays will call on them again both to inform our conversations here and hopefully, your choices in your own facilitation efforts.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2020. All rights reserved.
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