What Is Facilitation?

Recently while doing a workshop on facilitation skills, I heard the comment; “I thought I knew what facilitation was, but I really had no idea what it was until this workshop.” Facilitation is one of those words that is used so much, especially in education, that it has so many meanings for people and, therefore, it has lost its meaning. For some the word means performing the function of convening a meeting. For some it means being the master of ceremonies. And for others it means making something happen.

So what is facilitation anyway? In Facilitation at a Glance, Ingrid Bens describes facilitation as “a way of providing leadership without taking the reins.” A facilitator’s role is then described as the job of "enabling others to assume responsibility for the group and take the lead." In The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz describes the facilitator’s role as “to help the group improve its process in a manner consistent with the core values.” Thus facilitation is about assisting and educating a group to increase its effectiveness in doing its work and making its decisions.

How does a facilitator go about the process of facilitation? Again Roger Schwarz identifies core values that a facilitator can use to guide his or her work. Those values are;

  1. Valid Information,
  2. Free and informed choice,
  3. Internal commitment to the choice, and
  4. Compassion.

These core values become critical for guiding the work of the facilitator as she or he determines how best to intervene and assist the group in improving its work.

When individuals come to a group process to work with others, each person has a lifetime of experience and expertise that can impact the group process and affect the outcome. Each person must be ready and willing to share any and all valid information related to the group task at hand. This means sharing any thoughts or feelings an individual has about the issue, in addition to factual content information. Many of these thoughts and feelings may be assumptions that need to be checked out for accuracy. That is why it is critical that all the relevant information be shared. To help make this information valid it is helpful to use examples so that other members of the group gain a full understanding and appreciation of what is being shared.

When all of the valid information is being shared then group members can make free and informed choices. These choices are determined by the group members without fear of being forced or manipulated into a specific decision. When making these choices the facilitator must be careful not to cause a group member to change behavior, especially when the individual may be uncertain about his or her choice. The facilitator's role is one of providing an opportunity for group members to make decisions and to be certain that the necessary information for those decisions has been shared and understood by all group members.

Once the information has been shared and the group members have freely made their choices, there is more probability that the individuals have internal commitment to the choices made by the group. People tend to have more commitment to those decisions and choices they are able to freely make because they find more personal satisfaction with those choices and decisions.

If this group work can be done with compassion, which is "having a basic concern for the good of others", then the outcome of the group experience is significant for each group member. When individuals understand and feel that all group members are accountable to the group as a whole, they want to do their best to help the group accomplish its task. This kind of compassion is not based on pity or feeling sorry for others. It is based on being concerned for the best outcome for the group and its members. It requires a temporary suspension of judgment of others by the facilitator.

Using these core values, a facilitator has a much better chance of being helpful to the group and being successful at enabling the group members to step up and take leadership. A facilitator using these core values to shape her or his behavior with the group will be fulfilling the definition of facilitation as described above.

As you think about your next facilitation opportunity, reflect upon these core values and how you might incorporate them into your facilitations effort. Until next time, enjoy your work with groups and have a happy and peaceful holiday.