A facilitator is literally defined as “one who helps others to learn or who helps to make things easy.” A facilitator helps participants to collaborate as they explore a topic or issue. The goal is to encourage participants to think productively and ultimately to articulate key ideas, to ask vital questions, to uncover variables, to find solutions, and/or to identify productive actions. The facilitator may or may not be a content expert (ROBERT 2009). The word trainer is often used interchangeably with facilitator, but the trainer usually connotes a facilitator who has content expertise. Both facilitators and trainers must understand how adults learn and how to draw out the best thinking of a group.
The process (how) and the content (what) are the two dimensions of any interaction between people. The content of any meeting is what is being discussed: the task at hand, the subjects being dealt with and the problems being solved. Because it’s the verbal portion of the meeting, the content is obvious and typically consumes the attention of the members.
The process on the other hand deals with how things are being discussed: the methods, procedures, format and tools used. The process also includes the style of the interaction, the group dynamics and the climate that’s established. Because the process is silent, it’s harder to pinpoint. It’s the aspect of most meetings that’s largely unseen and often ignored, while people are focused on the content. To put it shot, the core business of a facilitator is to manage the process and leave the content to the participants (BENS 2005).
(Adapted from BENS 2005)
Regardless of the type of meeting or training facilitated, the following core practices should be followed:
Originally, facilitation was created to be a neutral role played by an unbiased outsider. The role of this neutral, third party is solely to support group decision-making without exerting influence over the outcome (BENS 2005). In team discussions and decision-making processes, facilitators must stick to this completely neutral role and only focus on process and stay out of the content. This means taking a pragmatic view of the different opinions coming from the members and staying objective to appear unbiased to everyone’s points.
Also in training, ideally, there should be a facilitator taking care of the learning process staying neutral, and experts taking care of the learning contents. However, very often this ideal job-sharing situation cannot be maintained in longer courses due to financial constraints. In such situations, the facilitator may have to take over additional roles and may be a combination of facilitator, expert, guide, coach and leader.
Can one person be both?
In the role of an expert or teacher, the facilitator teaches by showing how things are done, by example, by providing relevant and meaningful information, and by instruction where appropriate. The underlying intention here is to teach participants how to learn for themselves using their own experience as a benchmark.
In the role of guide, the facilitator provides wise counsel and appropriate advice; the intention here is to enable participants to become able to guide themselves, and to welcome responsibility.
In the role of coach, the facilitator provides direct instruction to fine tune individual performance; the underlying intention is to set high standards and to enable staff to become self managing.
In the role as a leader, facilitating team building is needed to promote a productive and more solid team. Moreover, the facilitator encourages group members to participate and interact and directs the group to a cohesive decision. The leader also stimulates a constructive and healthy debate among the team members (YOUNG and LANDALE 1999).
A facilitator may need to call on a wide range of skills and tools, from problem solving and decision making, to team management and communications. The definition of facilitate is "to make easy" or "ease a process". What a facilitator does is plan, guide and manage a group event to ensure that the group's objectives are met effectively, with clear thinking, good participation and full buy-in from everyone who is involved. The facilitator should also act as a “referee” in the team. As a referee, order and regulation should be implemented during discussion. This also includes being able to control difficult and problematic group members to carry on with a smooth interaction and managing heated arguments on a professional level, so that defamation and misunderstandings during discussions do not happen (www.exforsys.com).
Besides managing the group, training facilitators are fully responsible for all issues related to the process of the training – from the agenda and the applied learning methodologies to the temperature in the room. The facilitator should have the following issues under his control at all times:
A meeting without a facilitator is about as effective as a team trying to have a game without a referee (BENS 2005). This applies even more to decision making processes, where a neutral facilitator handling the process is inevitable to be successful. In training, professional facilitation will improve the learning impact and will make a simple series of expert lectures to a compact meaningful training course with a thread. If a full-time facilitator is not available, a resource person may have to take over the role as a facilitator, besides his other functions in a training course. This “switching hats” between e.g. facilitator and expert is demanding and might confuse participants if it is not communicated well.
BENS, I. (2005): Facilitating with ease! Core skills for facilitators, team leaders and members, managers, consultants and trainers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
ROBERT, B. (2009): The Role of the Facilitator - Understanding What Facilitators Really DO. Canada: Bacal & Associates Business & Management. URL [Accessed: 17.05.2010].
This PDF-file explains different facilitations techniques as well as roles and responsibilities of effective facilitator.
This pdf-file concentrates on the difficulty of being neutral as a facilitator. It is built up as a session with main objectives and at the end of session the facilitators should be able to be neutral and know what to do in order to reach this goal. It is also good practice for refreshing the skills.
Explains the tasks to perform during facilitating a session and provides cue cards that can be adapted for individual use.
http://work911.com/ [Accessed: 17.05.2010]
This website offers some basic explanations on the role of facilitators, and depicts which competencies and characteristics a facilitator should have in order to be good.
http://www.workshopexercises.com/ [Accessed: 17.05.2010]
This site is intended to serve as a focal point for professionals to not only discover new things that they can do to boost their training, but also to serve as a social exchange space.
http://www.tellusconsultants.com/ [Accessed: 17.05.2010]
A manual for group facilitators which highlights some basics qualities and responsibilities of a facilitator.
http://www.exforsys.com/ [Accessed: 17.05.2010]
This site contains modules about effective facilitation.
http://www.mindtools.com/ [Accessed: 17.05.2010]
This article gives a general overview about facilitation. It explains the role of a facilitator as well as what to do in order to make facilitation successful.