Facilitation, Facilitator, Facilitative

Facilitation is defined by thefreedictionary.com as “The act of making easy or easier…” Most of us experience it when we attend a group meeting and someone, we may or may not know, starts asking us questions and expecting responses.

Everywhere you turn now days we hear people calling themselves facilitators. A facilitator is someone that is trained in facilitation, uses facilitative techniques with individuals or groups to help them understand, and/or make a decision without an interest in the decision itself. Many training session in facilitation describe the facilitator as holding a neutral role with respect to the group. This neutral role, or position the facilitator maintains means that they have on interest in driving the decision in any specific direction. They are neutral to the content. Their interest is in the process of making the decision and the quality and openness of the interaction of those participating.

Anytime a individual has a stake or an interest in the decision being made or the conclusion of the group they cease being a facilitator because they no longer hold a neutral role. They have a stake in the decision so at the minimum they become a stakeholder.

So many things, today, are called facilitators. Yet, they are often some professional using facilitative methods to achieve their end rather than that of their customers. People are facilitative when they apply the tools and techniques of facilitation to what they are doing with others. Let’s examine facilitative sales for instance. The job of the sales person is to close the sale as quickly as possible. The job of a facilitative salesperson is to make the buying decision easier for the customer. They do this by applying facilitative techniques of asking questions and listening that focus the needs of the customer toward the product that will best meet those needs. If they don’t have exactly what the customer needs then whatever is the closest fit is what is offered. In a few rare cases the customer may be redirected to an associate organization with a product that is a better fit. But, that is rare since it goes against the job of the sales person – to close the sale.

The reason for discussing the sales person using facilitative practices is to highlight one of the primary differences between what I call a group facilitator and someone using facilitative practices in sales and calling themselves a facilitator. The key differentiator is what we call “content”. The sales person has a hand in the content and steers the customer decision toward their product or service. One might hear, “Based on what you tell me this is the car you are looking for.” I am not saying that this is wrong, it is simply a fact of the sales persons role. The customer came to them so they must want one of their products, here is the product that best matches their described needs. In this case the sales person is steering the customer toward a decision favorable to the sales person or the sales persons organization.

Let’s look at another example where people call themselves facilitators, but are simply another profession using facilitative practices to accomplish their own content objectives. Instructors, teachers, or trainers are people hired to deliver specific content around sharing or developing knowledge, skills or abilities in others. Many, now days, call themselves facilitators because they use facilitative practices while delivering their content. By doing this they make the training session interesting and learning often fun. This is great! Yet, they are not facilitators in the true since of the word because they hold and deliver that content. If they ask a question that doesn’t go where they expect it to go, they must step back and redirect until they get what they want. They must accomplish objectives that are established by an authority other than the group. When I train people in facilitation, I am a trainer using facilitative practices to teach people how to be facilitators. I have specific things to teach my participants so that they will understand facilitation, it’s practices, principles and values.

When I facilitate a group discussion, problem solving or strategy session my interest is in being true to the process that I bring to the groups work. The results of that work are based on what the group thinks is important and chooses to do about it, not me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions. I do, however, as a facilitator, my opinions are insulated from the group. I oppose opportunities to tell the group what they should do. I oppose requests to share my opinions when I am serving in the facilitation role. Sometimes I am hired as a consultant, a subject matter expert, that uses facilitation during my group sessions. When I serve more than one role, like consultant and facilitator, I am very obvious about from what role I am responding to a question. I have a physical separation between the facilitator, standing apart from the group, and consultant, sitting at the table as part of the group. I treat my comments as comments from someone else in the group. Usually, I avoid dual roles when working as a facilitator. When I do it is usually only with a customer that I have worked with for some time.

My point in this article is to discuss and separate the terms Facilitation, Facilitator, and Facilitative. First, I defined facilitation. Then I discussed the confusing practice of many professions calling  themselves facilitators event though they only use facilitative practices in non-facilitator roles. Finally, I discussed how process is key to facilitation and how a facilitator creates role differentiation when filling more than the facilitators role with a single group.

Next article I will discuss how process is the key to being a professional group facilitator.

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