How do you facilitate?

It’s interesting how a random question from someone who doesn’t know you, can make you sit up and think for a moment. I’m a facilitator, but that probably means all kinds of different things to different people and maybe it’s time to explain what I mean by it?

I don’t normally find it very easy to stop ‘facilitating’. That’s not meant arrogantly – it’s just that when I eventually discovered the power of the approach, I got hooked. Of course, there are settings where you will find me let my hair down (ie, of course, my defences) and I step into another one of my ‘modes’ – very often the ‘entertainer’ or ‘teacher’.

Facilitating is a process by which you manage the behaviour of a group. In the last couple of months, some examples from my work have included;

  • Helping a group of people move from a sense of inadequacy and distrust to one of purpose having had their leader plucked from them.
  • Summarising the state of development in the thinking and feeling of delegates in two areas at two international conferences.
  • Enabling a small group of teachers to feel more confident in their handling of a particular challenge.
  • Supporting a group of business-people as they develop trust with one another and begin to share the less successful aspects of their lives and work with one another.
  • Encouraging a couple of networking groups to begin to develop their understanding of each other with a view to helping each other to develop their individual business interests.

I distinguish between ‘facilitation’, which is a group activity, and ‘coaching’, which is a one-to-one effort – though I am also aware that these aren’t rigid distinctions.

The question that was asked was ‘how do I facilitate?’ It’s a topic that has books written about it, but here’s a quick starter for ten about the things I’m doing when I am facilitating.

Firstly, I have in mind the intended outcome. I am not obsessive about reaching it. Often the stated outcome is not the real purpose of the group, so I try to remain open to possible alternatives – larger, smaller, overt and covert. For every participant there are probably, at least, a couple of other outcomes too – things they know they want, but wouldn’t voice, and things they may even be unaware of. Thus, at one of the networking meetings, one of the participants might unconsciously want to be taken seriously by the others – the boost to his self-esteem is like an intoxicant and he needs his fix – yet his stated intention could be far more oriented to ‘sales opportunities’.

So, when I am facilitating, I am mentally building a picture of these different outcomes – endeavouring to verify my intuition in some cases, and to help the group accomodate as many as possible.

It was Ed Schein, the ‘founder’ of organisation development, who presented a simple model of some of the ways in which groups operate. I keep this too in the back of my mind, and am constantly observing what is happening and trying to see where it fits into the model. Essentially he said that there were two streams of attention at any time – there was the ‘work task’ and the ‘people task’. I’ve alluded to this in the example above – the group work task is ‘networking’, the individual work task is building business contacts. But there’s also an individual people task – in this case, and for at least one of the participants, it is about building self-esteem.

Schein suggested that it was helpful to try to establish the ‘content’ of the two tasks as early as possible. The work content is often fairly explicit at the group level, but it is also often very unique, and highly secret, to the individuals. Thus, at one of the international conferences, it was easy to describe the work content – “to create a code of practice for corporate governance within an emerging economy”. At the individual delegate level there were all kinds of contributory and conflicting ‘work contents’, and this was compounded by a number of both formal and informal delegations – small groups sharing common views.

While the ‘people content’ can sometimes be controlled (by inviting or excluding some people), I often find myself trying to increase the number of people included and endeavouring to make sure that a relatively wide range of views are able to be heard by the ‘decision makers’. There’s a lot that can be done to manage the people content. I mentioned the individual who needed his self-esteem bolstering by the group – I will be attuned to this throughout and doing all I can to help, but what about some other dynamics that reflect ‘people content’?

Some professions and roles particularly favour people who are highly disciplined, very organised, detail oriented, and don’t like to engage with emotions. They often struggle with the social nuances and miss clues that would lead others to modify their behaviour themselves. As facilitator, I need to make sure that the dogmatism that these people can express isn’t interpretated as authoritative or the voice of an expert, but is just seen as one opinion among many. I don’t seek to put them in their place, but to help both them and others to see where they are coming from. This is all part of the management of the ‘people content’.

To address some work tasks, there are clear processes that we can follow – for example having a pre-distributed meeting agenda, using tools like brainstorming, moderating techniques, and talking circles, project planning, and so on.

To address the people tasks, there are similarly a variety of processes though these are often operating unconsciously. Even at quite informal events, these can be seen. The newcomer to the group might begin by testing the competitive strength of the others, before asserting themselves as a ‘leader’. They might do the equivalent of scent-marking. Almost certainly, in making their initial assessment of the people around them they will project certain characteristics onto others – whether positive or negative – and so decide who to devote most time to, who to use in order to demonstrate their own superiority, who to avoid engaging with until they are confident of their own space. There will be some people who take up most of the ‘air time’ and others who remain quiet.

If I am facilitating, I endeavour to observe and understand these dynamics, so that I can intervene to shift unhealthy ones from the perspective of the group task and the individual tasks. Thus, if I see that one player is trying to establish his authority by undermining the esteem of another, I might choose to empower the one who is being put down, to distract the efforts onto a more robust part of the group, or (occasionally) to try to raise the awareness of the individual about the purpose of his actions.

In groups that have become established, there are some processes, both individual and task, that have become so consistent that they are now part of the ‘way we do things around here’. Generally, I am very cautious about these as they are the mainstay of maintaining the status quo. However, some do no particular harm and can help the group at certain times. Thus, one group that I have worked with a lot over the years find it very hard to conceive of a meeting without a pre-circulated agenda (ie task content). If I sense that they are feeling ‘stuck’ I can call a meeting without an agenda, but they insist on it being held off-site and label it an ‘awayday’. Invariably they describe this as a ‘great’ event, ‘really useful’, and so on, yet they won’t entertain the idea that their regular meetings should be conducted in such a free manner. Schein’s phrase for this kind of aspect of fixed content or process, was ‘structure’ and, again, we talk of ‘task structure’ and ‘people structure’.

As facilitator, I am not operating in a vacuum. I too bring my ‘content’ whether it is the theoretical language that I draw on, my own life experiences and my integration and interpretation of them, my own needs – conscious and unconscious – and so on. I have my task processes that I like to follow (a simple example is that I keep my notes in diagrammatic form; another would be that I don’t like the formality with which some chair people try to control the people content by insisting on ‘speaking through the chair’) to the point that some are structures on which I rely. When threatened, I will generally use some consistent ways of re-establishing my role in the group. These are all aspects of myself that I have to manage in relation to the group too. The key is about awareness.

Some facilitators, I believe rather foolishly, try to claim that they don’t influence the direction of a decision – that they are ‘content neutral’. I simply don’t believe that this is possible. I enter a room with an agenda of my own – an outcome that I am looking for, and the direction that the group takes will be influenced by this no matter how hard I try to stop it. The key to my effectiveness is, again, about awareness and a preparedness to explore my own attachment to any particular outcome as it emerges.

Different facilitators draw on different theoretical frameworks to help their work. In a group context, I tend to focus on psychodynamics (Freud, Bion, Lewin), ethology (Darwin, Lorenz, von Frisch, Tinbergen), socio-biology (Ardrey, EO Wilson), and primatology (Washburn, Hershkovitz, Goodall, Fossey).

I remember trying to explore this topic with some MBA students once. As you might expect, I began with a group exercise designed to provide material on which to work, and then we had a ‘facilitated’ discussion. By the end of the day, two participants summed up the experience; “I will never, ever, take something at face value again.” “One of most exhausting days I’ve had – my head is absolutely spinning. How could anyone do that day-in, day-out?”

So that, in a nutshell, is one way of looking at what I do as a facilitator.

Best wishes

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