Choosing a facilitator

There are times in the life of every group when the team has a really difficult matter to resolve, or would benefit from fresh thinking and a different perspective.

There may also be meetings when you as team leader would appreciate having an ally by your side. Someone who could run the group process so that you can focus and contribute to the discussion. How can you decide whether a facilitator would help you? How can you know if the facilitator you have is right for your team at this time?

If you were to list the characteristics of the ideal facilitator, I expect you’d look for someone who was trustworthy, discreet, sensitive and tough. But you’d also want them to be part strategist, partly practical and part business person. They’d also need to be part psychologist, part listener, part sounding board and part catalyst. It’s a wish list that could go on indefinitely as you begin to outline the paragon of virtue you’re searching for.

Nevertheless you’d be right to want it all. You’d be praised for trying to find someone you can trust. A person who can deliver both what you know you want, as well as what you don’t yet know you’ll want.

The art and science of facilitation

Facilitation has been described as ‘the art of hosting’. Hosting involves creating a space where people feel relaxed, at ease and as a consequence, able to talk freely and directly. It also means providing a space where conversation can continue through conflict and establishing methods of bringing about resolution and renewal.

The magic and mastery of hosting recalls a description of the perfect hotelier. They must be:

“… diplomats, democrats, autocrats, acrobats and doormats. They must have the facility to entertain prime ministers, princes of industry, pickpockets, gamblers, bookmakers, pirates, philanthropists, popsies and prudes. They must be on both sides of the ‘political fence’ and be able to jump the fence. They should be, or have been, footballers, golfers, bowlers, tennis players, cricketers, dart players, sailors, pigeon fanciers, motor racers and linguists as well as have a good knowledge of any other sport involving dice, cards, horse racing and billiards. This is also useful, as they have sometimes to settle arguments and squabbles. They must be qualified boxers, wrestlers, weight-lifters, sprinters and peacemakers.”

Great facilitators need to be just as multi-talented as this and more. But above – or underneath – all the potential roles they have to play, they also have to be people who are at ease with themselves and comfortable in their own skin.

So what of facilitators?

If you’re looking for a facilitator for your group, the following checklist may help you define what makes a truly great facilitator:

  • They take time to understand you and your world. A great facilitator begins with a deep curiosity. They want to know what’s in your head, and what has driven you to this point and what you want to achieve.
  • They arrive with an open mind. They don’t know the solution in advance, or have a ready-made answer. Instead, they’re committed to finding a solution and working with you to create the best possible outcome for you and the group. It’s through this willing openness that the group is then infused with a renewed sense of what could be.
  • They have a tried-and-tested way of opening up possibilities. Great facilitators create structure and process. This supports new thinking by providing a clear process within which everyone can learn and feel they belong. A great facilitator knows that for new possibilities to emerge different thinking has to happen and new ways of working have to be encouraged and adopted by the group.
  • They have a way of involving people that diffuses tension and disarms critics. A great facilitator’s influencing skills are profound, diverse and wide-ranging. They can, for instance, calm an irate board member as well as coax an introverted participant to open up. One way they do this, is by bringing a sense of perspective to the group, sometimes through humour, sometimes through their creativity.
  • They create ease and harmony, and yet will not let anyone off the hook. A great facilitator has in their repertoire of influencing skills a range of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ ways of intervening: they can equally challenge and confront, nurture and inspire.
  • They generate trust. Great facilitators make it safe for people to: learn; experiment; think outside the box; agree and disagree; say difficult things; get the previously unmentioned on the table and help people to ‘tell it like it is’.
  • They are experts in process and in securing results. Great facilitators create structure, and they let processes run. Wise forethought creates an invisible infrastructure, while their total presence creates the best possible framework one that responds precisely to the needs of the day. They also know when to stop and change direction. For all of their expertise ‘in process’, the best facilitators are also very outcome-focused. They know they’re there to get a result, and they’re mindful of your commercial realities.

All of this adds up to someone very special and the art of hosting needs a skilful host. When practiced well facilitation is a craft that people hardly realise they are subject to.In his internationally successful book, The Tao of Leadership, the late John Heider said this of great facilitation:

“The wise facilitator does not intervene unnecessarily. The facilitator’s presence is felt, but often the people manage for themselves. Lesser facilitators do a lot, say a lot…

Imagine that the facilitator is the midwife; assisting at someone else’s birth… Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening. If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped, yet still free and in charge. When the baby is born, the mother will rightly say: ‘We did it ourselves!’ (Adapted from The Tao of Leadership, 1985)

A great facilitator that works in this way will engender trust. You will trust them and your team will have confidence in them as they recognise the results of better decisions and a better group process. As a leader you need to invest in this sort of resource and recognise that a great host is an invaluable catalyst.