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Facilitation

By
Juliana Birkhoff
Heidi Burgess

Updated May 2013

 

Definition:

Facilitation is a set of strategies, tactics, and skills used to help people work creatively and productively together, and to manage meetings or group processes.

Users:

Groups who need to work effectively together to solve problems.

Description:

When several people with different interests meet together, they often have trouble organizing information and communicating effectively. A facilitator is a person who helps groups do this.  Facilitators are typically (but not always) neutrals acceptable to all the participants.  They can come from within or outside the organization, and  they have no decision making authority.  Their role is simply to organize and run the meeting--to encourage full participation, stimulate discussion and mutual understanding, and help the discussants stay on track and moving toward their own pre-determined goal(s).

The facilitator first works with the group to help them design a meeting that will meet their objectives. S/he helps them get the right people to the meeting and works with the group before the meeting to develop the agenda. S/he helps them decide how much time to schedule for different kinds of interactions and which interactions will help the group accomplish its desired goals. The facilitator may also help the group work productively between meetings--by assigning, monitoring, collecting, and disseminating work group products, or doing research on particular questions and providing results to the group between meetings.

As the meeting begins, the facilitator reiterates the goals of the meeting and the desired outcomes. S/he will also help the group develop and stick to any ground rules.

During the meeting, the facilitator will manage the interaction to create a productive climate for creativity, full participation, mutual understanding, communication, and problem solving. Some of the tactics a facilitator uses include:  determining who speaks when, focusing the discussion, paraphrasing to confirm and enhance understanding,  tracking different lines of thought, drawing out and encouraging divergent perspectives, and noting areas of agreement and disagreement.

As the meeting ends, the facilitator will help the group clarify authority, commitments, and accountability for any next steps or decisions. The facilitator will also ensure that any discussion, learnings, next steps, or agreements are captured in writing and shared fully for the group. This may be in minutes or in an informal meeting summary. Finally, the facilitator tries to make his or her strategies, tactics, and skills explicit so that the group is continually learning better ways to function as a group.

Example:

A pre-school has been having a problem with one of its teachers, who is disliked by many of the parents (who want her to be fired), but is strongly supported by other parents. The director of the school recognizes that the teacher has problems, but feels she can become a better teacher if given the time to learn. After having received about 20 calls demanding that the teacher be dismissed, the director calls for a parent meeting to discuss concerns. She hires an outside facilitator to run the meeting, so that there are no concerns about conflicts-of-interest, and so that she (the director) can attend more effectively to what is being said. The facilitator meets with several of the concerned parents and the director before the meeting, and on the basis of that, develops an agenda and a proposed set of ground rules. These are presented at the beginning of the full meeting, adjusted slightly on the basis of comments, and then accepted by the group. The group moves through the agenda, identifying concerns and optional responses to deal with the concerns. The group recognizes that the problems are not all the teacher, but also other issues concerning school policies and parental responsibilities that were not being adequately fulfilled. The group comes up with an action plan to remedy all of the problems, while retaining the teacher who was initially identified as "the problem."

Applications:

Facilitation is useful whenever a group needs to work together to make difficult or complicated decisions. Often facilitators are used as standard procedure at business meetings to keep the discussion focused on the agenda, to make sure everyone is heard, and that the meeting proceeds as efficiently as possible--ending on time with the goals of the meeting met.

Links to Related Articles:

Mediation
Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building
Option Identification and Evaluation
Ground Rules

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