What do Good Facilitators Do?

Facilitation is both an art and a science.  The “science” comes from what we know about how people think how groups behave and teams develop.  The “art” is how the facilitator learns to dance in the moment – seeing what is happening in a group, hearing what is behind the way the group talks with one another, listening for what is not being said, and letting the magic of the group’s collective intelligence organically emerge.

It is essential that leaders practice the facilitative approach and techniques that would help ensure transparency, equal voice, ensure diversity, respect for others and provide clarity on the accountability for themselves and for the team members.

Facilitators clearly distinguish between the   – the “What” and the “How” of Facilitation   the

  • The “What” is the content
  • The “How is the collection of structures, methods, techniques and frameworks to help the group access its collective intelligence.

Ingrid Bens, in her book, Facilitating with Ease, talks of a good facilitator who is some one who

  • helps the group define its overall goal, as well as its specific objectives
  • conducts background research to understand the needs of the group and what they hope to achieve
  • prepares a detailed agenda that includes process notes describing how the interaction will unfold
  • helps the group create rules of conduct that create an effective climate
  • makes sure that assumptions are surfaced and tested
  • questions and probes to encourage deeper exploration
  • encourages participation by everyone
  • guides group discussion to keep it on track
  • helps members constructively manage differences of opinion
  • helps the group to achieve closure and identify next steps

Core Practices of a Facilitator

Some of the core practices of a facilitator, according to Ingrid Bens, include 

  • Staying neutral – Facilitators stay neutral on the content. Staying neutral on the content of discussions is the hallmark of the facilitator role. Facilitators are neutral outsiders who have no stake in the outcome of discussions.
  • Listening actively – listening to “understand” than being “judgemental” – acknowledge different perspectives and prompt quiet people to take part.  to take part.
  • Asking questions – Questioning is the most fundamental tool of a facilitator. Questions can be used to test assumptions, probe for hidden information, challenge assumptions, and ratify for consensus. Effective questioning encourages people to look past symptoms to get at root causes.
  • Paraphrasing – by paraphrasing or repeating what participants say, facilitators let participants know that they are heard, acknowledge their input and provide an opportunity to clarify ideas
  • Summarizing discussions –   summarising ideas shared by members ensures everyone’s opinions are heard, checked for accuracy and could   possibly bring up new ideas or thoughts
  • Recording and synthesizing ideas – Use of flipcharts or whiteboards to gather and group discussion points and synthesize and build on ideas brought up by the participants
  • Keeping on track – bring participants back on track in case the discussion veer off track. Facilitators make use of a “Parking Lot sheet” for any extraneous topics for discussions later 
  • Testing assumptions – Facilitators manage the group climate, outline the parameters and constraints for the discussion, have a finger on the pulse of the group and help the group make necessary adjustments. 

Agile Team Facilitation Stance

According to Marsha Acker author of the book “The Art and Science of Facilitation”, “A Facilitator is an individual who uses self-awareness, self-management, group awareness and group process to enable teams to access their collective intelligence in order to achieve the desired outcomes” 

Facilitation is like a complex dance of polarities – when teams come together to collaborate, topics and decisions are rarely black and white – as a facilitator you help the group to define the shades of gray so that they make informed decisions.  Marsha further says that the role of a facilitator is to be a safari guide through the jungle of opinions, biases, interpersonal conflict, personal fears, organizational fears, and sub-surface group dynamics that are present in any group setting.

The book talks of five guiding principles of an Agile Team Facilitation stance – which help facilitators to support groups in doing their best work and offer a framework to promote effective collaboration in group settings.  Though the principle, Upholding Agile Mindset and Practices may not be applicable in non-Agile settings, the other principles would apply for any Team Facilitation workshops.   

Source: The Art and Science of Facilitation by Marsha Acker
  1.  Maintain Neutrality

Maintaining neutrality is the cornerstone principle of skilful facilitation- it is about the facilitator owning the process, and the team owning the content.  The facilitator should be neutral, set the group’s direction towards an agreed upon outcome, listen to competing ideas, share what you see in the process with facts, build trust in the group, letting go the need to be share your point of view and be non-judgemental.  

A good facilitator would do a lot of planning and design for facilitation, learn a model for group dynamics (such as Structural dynamics, the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance model or Sam Kaner’s Participatory Decision making model), share neutral leadership encouraging others to take up the role of a facilitator and asking for feedback and support that would help grow self-awareness and facilitation skills.

2. Standing in the Storm

Storms are places of difference where emotions are high and the stakes are raised – caused by messiness, uncertainty, hidden assumptions, power dynamics, hidden agendas and the like.  This is about seeking out and really listening to different points of view, options and perspectives.  It is about staying with differing opinions rather than deflecting or changing the subject. A facilitator holds the space for all to speak and be heard during a meeting.

A good facilitator will learn to cultivate self-awareness and management to stay in the situation, learn to slow down or press the pause button, know about group dynamics and managing conflict and help create a container for psychological safety for the team which fosters trust and safety. When managed well, storms can strengthen relationships and build confidence and trust in the team’s ability to get through difficult conversations.

3. Honour the Wisdom of the Group

This principle is all about trust – trusting that the group has its own wisdom and developing an environment where each member of the team can be a respected and valued collaborator. Facilitation is about believing that the group has everything they need – including the collective intelligence and ability to solve for anything.  If a team remains silent, it is not about a lack of wisdom, but about not having the environment that supports the group in voicing their needs – so facilitators need to create a space where all voices are heard.

To have that environment, it is important for the facilitator, with the support of leadership, create a container that fosters trust, connection and inclusiveness, be clear on the level of collaboration needed and design group processes that invite all voices and invite differing voices and be away from the process.    With respect to decision making, facilitators should be aware of how decisions are made –       leaders decide, leaders holding veto power, decision by consensus or decision by majority

4. Hold the Group’s Agenda

Questions such as “How can I best serve this group?” or “What does this group really need right now?” form the basis for this principle.   There could be situations where teams become defensive or have a feeling of resistance – in such situations it is important for the facilitator to meet that feeling with curiosity, focus on holding the group’s agenda and help the group tackle emergent dynamics. 

It is important to understand the three different levels of agenda that a group can have –

  • The Presenting agenda – the purpose of the meeting, the plan and desired outcomes
  • The Emergent agenda – what emerges in the room as conversations happen and ideas generated
  • The Developmental agenda – focuses on how the group works together – about group behaviour and dynamics

To be successful as a facilitator in holding the group’s agenda, it is important to be mindful in reading the room, collect sufficient data (surveys, interviews) in advance and help the group surface their agendas in the discussion.

5. Uphold the Agile Mindset

This principle could be looked into only in case as a facilitator you are in charge of helping a team become agile.  In practice, this principle can be agility itself: mindset, methods, and actions. There’s a foundational belief that a facilitator can help the team adapt the agile practices in the moment while still upholding the agile values and principles. This principle is best accomplished by modelling agile values and maintaining a servant leadership stance.

A good facilitator is not being truly agile if he is not collaborating or communicating effectively.  A good facilitator should develop a deep understanding of the Agile practices and mindset, assess how agile the team is, uncover the key for upholding agility with the team, and facilitate the process not provide solutions

Becoming a good facilitator takes time and improves with experience.  Adhering to the core practices and principles of Facilitation, preparation and practice in different kinds of live situations, making adjustments on the fly, dedicated hard work to improve your facilitation skills would ultimately be the difference between a mediocre facilitator and an excellent one.

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