Facilitation Styles: A Review of Published Theories

As a professional facilitator, I have often been intrigued by the concept of having a defined style. Yet, there is very little in the literature available to help me define and assess my approach to facilitation, thereby defining my style. Many years ago I assisted with the development of a workshop in which we focused on applying team dynamics to facilitation. We aligned and translated five models, including Situational Leadership, Team Dynamics, the Personal Profile System (DiSC), Power Mode and Conflict Mode. The facilitator identified a facilitation approach that translated Situational Leadership styles into styles that would be used by a group facilitator. We called this Situational Facilitation.

Situational Facilitation was designed based on two dimensions, Supportive and Directive Behaviors around Task and the level of familiarity around Relationships. This resulted in four basic styles.

Much later, after applying a significant amount of work on the styles, I discovered that the concept was previously developed, but not to the level of detail I had taken it. So I continued the work. While researching other theories, I uncovered several from a variety of sources. This article is intended to present these other theories. My next article will present the Situational Facilitation Styles.

Styles in Facilitation Literature

As a prelude to developing the Situational Facilitation Styles theory I felt it was important to research the topic and explore what others wrote about the styles of group facilitation. What I found was a lot of articles on “facilitation styles” but the vast majority of it was written for the training facilitator or grade school educator. There is actually very little research or writing on facilitation styles for group facilitators. Out of dozens or books and articles, only six actually contribute to the discussion of facilitation styles for facilitators. The table, below, shares key points of the best of nine theories.

Facilitation Styles in Literature

These books and articles are review in the order of the significance the authors made in their effort to explain their theories. The first four contain the most significant discussion on styles. The remaining four only pay it lip service. Three of the nine only related to the group facilitator in a peripheral way; meaning that the authors referred to facilitators as trainers or counselors instead of group group facilitators.
1. Developing Facilitation Skills; A Handbook for Group Facilitators by Patricia Prendiville © Combat Poverty Agency, New Edition 2008 (Chapter 2; page 14) Styles of Facilitation. Prendiville poses that facilitation style is based on the task/activity, people involved, time available and needs of group members. She poses four styles that are based specifically on the task but does not address any of the other elements that should determine style like the people involved and their needs and time available to work. The styles identified are:

  1. Directive: When the facilitator is providing instruction and information.
  2. Exploratory: When the facilitator is asking questions to explore experience and ideas.
  3. Delegating: When the facilitator is assigning tasks, roles, functions to group members.
  4. Participative: When the facilitator is participating in and guiding group discussion, sharing experiences with the group and encouraging group members to do likewise. This seems to be a rather simplistic, activity-based, approach to facilitation styles. Based on the descriptions, it seems possible for the facilitator to use all four styles in the course of a single meeting or event.

  5. 2. “Facilitation Made Easy: Practical Tips to Improve Meetings & Workshops” Esther Cameron (2nd Edition) 2001 (pages 3 – 6). Cameron opens her book describing the facilitator role and styles. In it she shares what she calls three Bi-Polar scales:

    1. Energy – with a range from Active (high energy) to Reflective (low energy),
    2. Orientation – with a range from Theoretical (academic) to Fact-Based (observed),
    3. Control – with a range from Aggressive (high control) to Passive (low control).
    4. The combination of approaches provides for up to eight styles but Cameron does not break it down that far. Instead she simply describes each scale, what drives that scale, actions associated with the scale and potential pitfalls to that style. This can be a perfectly valid styles approach, however, it fails to share any depth of thought on the styles.

      3. “The Practical Guide to Facilitation: A Self Study Resource” by John D. Farrell and Richard G. Weaver (71 – 89). Ferrell proposed that facilitation style has four continuum each with two point range (73) (Similar to Cameron). The continuum are:

      1. Getting Own Way – with Direct and Indirect as the range,
      2. Responding to People – with Reserved and Outgoing as the range,
      3. Pacing Activity – with Urgent and Steady as the range, and
      4. Dealing with Details – with Unstructured and Precise as the range.

      He devotes considerable thought to describing each continuum and the preferences (73 – 80). Concise descriptions of each preference include examples of how it is expressed, it’s strengths and how the facilitator may respond in times of stress.

      The remainder of Ferrell’s material, related to style, is about uncovering and understanding your style, the style others use, exploring other styles and challenges to applying them yourself. He uses the INSIGHT INVENTORY™ as a key tool for understanding self in preparation for learning to adapt to meet the needs of group. As an alternative he offers 9 pages that can be used with the Insight Inventory, separate from the inventory as a stand-alone assessment to build your knowledge around using and adapting styles.

      4. “The Facilitator’s Handbook” (1989) by John Heron. Chapter 9 (pages 136 – 143) describes one of the most developed approaches of facilitation styles. This approach was expanded to some extent in a later text “The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook” (1999) (chapter 1; page 13, and Chapter 18; pages 335 – 343). However, Heron’s research and writing reflects facilitation from a training and therapeutic counseling perspective. While both have some value to the group facilitator they also have distracting and competing components that the group facilitator should not be engaging in. He states that a facilitator’s style is based on their personal values, principles, purpose, and composition of the group. He goes on to discuss how to develop a style by creating a self-assessment matrix using his three styles.
      Heron is probably the most cited author on facilitation styles by other authors. In a nutshell his styles are based on the level of control and direction around each of the dimensions with respect to how much control a facilitator exercises (doing for, doing with, or other do). The styles are described as:

        1. Hierarchical: The facilitator directs the learning process and does things for the group or the individual. As the facilitator, you decide on what and how things will be managed. You take responsibility for all the major decisions, and for the processes and direction of the learning. So in this style the Facilitator is the leader invested with authority and responsibility for group learning.
        2. Co-operative: The facilitator collaborates with the group or the individual in devising the learning process. As facilitator, you share power/control and guide them towards becoming more self-directing by conferring with them. Together you would negotiate the outcomes, and while you would share your views, these would become one of many to be considered collectively.
        3. Autonomous: You respect the autonomy of the group or the individual, and give them freedom to find their own way, using their own judgment, without any intervention on your part. Learning becomes totally self-directed and unprompted. This does not mean you abdicate responsibility, but it is a subtle approach where space is provided so that the group or the individual can determine their own learning. This is something of a supporting style. The facilitator provides the support the groups needs to accomplish what they want to do.
        4. In addition to these three styles, Heron also discusses six dimensions (Planning, Meaning, Confronting, Feeling, Structuring and Valuing) the differing levels of which reflect the styles. Each style is appropriate to different individuals or group situations. Heron notes that a facilitator is likely to have a preference for one style over the other, but that it is important to recognize that each style is useful for different contexts, and for different groups and individuals. So, it is advisable for a facilitator to become familiar with all three approaches and should make a conscious effort to use the style which is most appropriate for any given situation or group.

          Unfortunately, Heron’s approach to facilitation has been focused around the facilitation applied by a trainer and therapeutic counselors. This focus is at odds with the group concept of facilitation. While there may be several differences, the one that matters most is in Heron’s view that the facilitator owns the responsibility for the “content”.

          Group facilitators bring expertise in process and can even apply an understanding of the “content” in which the client is engaged. However, they should not allow their content knowledge to drive the results. Group facilitators use their content knowledge to question and help clarify thereby expanding the knowledge of the participants allowing participant content to direct the results. If a facilitator is an expert in the content area the client would look to them to provide that expertise as a consultant or Subject Matter Expert using facilitative techniques. In the same way the facilitator that serves as a trainer as a primary function has content knowledge, specific goals, and outcomes that they are responsible to generate.

          5.  “Facilitating Excellence: Styles and Processes of Facilitation” by John van Maurik (article in Leadership & Organization Development Journal; 1994, 15, 8 (Pages 30 – 34)). Van Maurik has developed a model of facilitation style called the ICIS Facilitation Model. The model seems to be reminiscent of Situational Leadership with two dimensions (Level of Intervention and Scale of Input) and four approaches;

          1. Intellectual Command (IC), marked by a high level of facts and data and a low level of intervention. The facilitator guides through clear guidelines, challenging the group and inserting points when needed.
          2. Incentives Approach (IA), marked by a high level of input and a high level of intervention. It is used with groups that lack commitment and energy or there are cynics that disagree with the tasks.
          3. Creative Group Catalyst (CG) marked by a low level of input and a low intervention level on the part of the facilitator. This style is for mature groups that want to do the work themselves and only fall back on the facilitator when needed. The facilitator is the group guide and
          4. Supportive Coach (SC). Marked by a low level of input and a high level of intervention. Used with groups that have the will but lack confidence that they know how to do it.

          Dimensions, Intervention and Input, are the three keys to Van Maurik’s ICIS styles. Intervention refers to the process interactions within the group (with each other) that require facilitation intervention to keep the group effective. Groups need intervention around Input when they are unsure of what to do. The level of input refers to the degree of participant knowledge and input that is required to be effective.

          However, Van Maurik indicates that while it seems to be reminiscent of Situational Leadership because it is situational in nature, there the comparison ends. He indicates that the model has closer ties with Brain Dominance by Ned Herrmann and the Live Orientations approach by Atkins and Katcher.

        6. Co-Facilitation, A Practical Guide to Using Partnerships in Facilitation by Joanna Knight and Warren Scott describe facilitation style as an individuals’ way of working with a group (pages 15 & 16). Like a finger-print each facilitator brings a slightly different style to a group. When working with a co-facilitator they suggest the practice of changing one’s style to provide a differing approach; like if one facilitator’s style is highly active the other can bring a reflective style. Later they discuss how differing styles can be detrimental to group effectiveness when the facilitators styles are at odds. Yet, they fail to effectively discuss styles at any level other than very superficially.

        7. The Skilled Facilitator, New & Revised, by Roger Schwarz only mentions facilitator style briefly at the end of chapter one (page 15) when Schwarz mentions building your own style and voice. For the most part Schwarz only discusses facilitation style through the lens of basic and developmental facilitation.

        8. Dynamic Facilitation by Jim Rough (Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People) is described as a facilitation style but I believe it is actually a facilitation specialty or an approach that has some element of style related to it. Unfortunately, Mr. Rough does not go into the development of what the styles are nor how he developed his style theory.

        9. “Basic Facilitator Development Course Manual with Teaching Notes” Association for Quality and Participation (AQP), 1996, Tab 4 pgs 4-15, 4-17 through 4-25. In this form of Situational Leadership (SL) an unknown author for AQP describes the four styles through two dimensions related to Task and Relationship. The resulting styles are:

        1. Directing – replaces the Telling dimension of SL. In this style the facilitator is decisive, structured, clear and specific about what is to be done.
        2. Coaching – replaces the Selling dimension of SL. In this style the facilitator is collaborative, and involving. They listen to group members and make suggestions.
        3. Encouraging – replaces the Participating dimension of SL. In this style the facilitator is considerate, patient and understanding. They advise the group, provide feedback and encourages the team to take control.
        4. Supporting – replaces the Delegating dimension of SL. In this style the facilitator is available to the group and responds to requests. They act as a colleague or a consultant.

        The descriptions of each style included the roles, behaviors, what the facilitator does and does not do. It also describes when each style is appropriate and when it is not.Of course there are many other articles and documents discussing facilitation styles in specific situations but the vast majority relate to instructional facilitation of children. While they are related to some degree, as is almost anything that has the word facilitation in it, I can’t help but avoid referencing them because of their specific focus; educating and training children in a learning environment, as opposed to working primarily with adults in a group environment.

        The 9 styles covered by the authors that have written about it are neither right or wrong, complete or all encompassing, theories. Certainly there is something of value in each of them. It is my hope that, in contributing a theory to the mix, it is something memorable, relatable, and capable of differentiating the value of each style based on when it would be most valuable to the groups we facilitate. I also believe that in doing the research to uncover these theories that I am influenced by them and may incorporate some aspect into my own theory.

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