When Is Facilitation Really Facilitation?

Recently I was asked to facilitate a discussion with a group of individuals around a specific topic. The facilitated small group discussion was a breakout session within a larger meeting. In order to decide whether or not to accept the request, I asked a variety of questions about purpose, design, format, my role, etc. The more questions I asked the more I became aware that the person requesting my services didn’t really understand what he meant by facilitation. It was not clear to him whether the small groups were to make decisions or just to share individual perspectives. He didn’t really know how the small group discussion was supposed to fit into the larger meeting. About all he knew was that they needed “facilitators” for the time they had scheduled for the small groups.

As I interacted with the individual, I was reminded of the four core values of facilitation that Roger Schwarz shares in his book, The Skilled Facilitator. For several years I have studied and tried to practice those values when working with groups and I find them to be very valuable to the effectiveness of my work (when I get it right). Those values provide for me the guidance to know what to ask and to begin understanding when others have a different perspective of the group process.

The four values are: valid information, free and informed choice, internal commitment, and compassion. These values have helped me understand that for many being a facilitator means to be in front of the group and keep the group involved for a scheduled period of time. For some it means to be a host for the event. And for others it means directing what the group should do and how it should do it.

By actually studying (and I’m constantly learning how important these values are to the group process) and applying these values to the groups with which I interact, I have discovered that some leaders misunderstand group process and facilitation. For them the group process is to get compliance to their predetermined idea or outcome. They know they should have group discussion, but they don’t expect that discussion to result in any anything different than what they have already decided.

When the group leader subscribes to these four values the leader understands that the result may be different from his or her perspective, and that is okay. The leader who understands these values will “facilitate” the group to make certain all of the relevant information is being shared; and shared in a way that all group members understand the other perspectives and the reasoning behind those different perspectives.

When the group members feel free to share all the relevant information they are more comfortable making decisions that define the objectives and the methods for achieving those objectives. The group members don’t feel manipulated or coerced because the decisions are based on the shared valid information.

Making free and informed decisions results in the group members feeling personally responsible for the decisions. The group members own the decisions and are committed to acting on those decisions. The group members are not waiting to be rewarded for their compliance to the decisions.

To facilitate a group from the approach just described requires the leader to function with compassion for others. The facilitative leader temporarily suspends judgment and works to appreciate all other group members for what they bring to the table.

So as I continued to ask questions of the individual requesting my facilitative skills, I reflected upon these four values and used them to determine that the individual really didn’t know what they wanted and I shifted my questions. I now had the information I needed to know that I did not want to facilitate the group as I was being asked to do. So I began to ask if there was any chance to have input into the workshop design in order to better engage the participants and really utilize the ideas of the participants.

The individual was very excited to discuss these options which led to a redesign of the event and more opportunity for participant input into the outcomes of the workshop. It was a real win-win-win.

So the next time you are asked to facilitate an event, you might consider the four values to help you determine what kind of facilitation they are asking you to provide. Until next time, keep looking for those opportunities to use your facilitation skills and know when facilitation is really facilitation.