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Category Archives: Developing Facilitators

Facilitation? Pffft! How easy is that!

Some time ago I was having coffee with someone who said “I don’t understand why you put so much attention to facilitation. What could be so hard in getting a bunch of people to sit around the table to talk”. She then said: “Mind you most of the facilitated meetings where I work are useless, just people talking around in circles and nothing ever comes of it”. I could have choked on my coffee there and then. I’m pleased to add this person has never been involved in a meeting I’ve facilitated.

How many ineffective meetings have you been to? Why does the meeting so often go off the rails when people sit around a table and talk? Why do so many discussions go around in circles?

Anyone who has been at an effectively facilitated meeting at work knows there is much more involved than getting people to sit around and talk. Facilitation is purposeful; in fact, the nature of the purpose is what distinguishes a facilitated group event from other types of group gatherings.

Although there are some crossovers, there are important differences between the role of a meeting chair, a moderator and a meeting facilitator, because their purpose is different. Even the ideal physical space is different. A boardroom is fine for a chaired meeting but problematic for a moderated discussion and counter-productive for a facilitated meeting.

People’s understanding of facilitation differs which causes confusion. I’ve sometimes been asked to facilitate a meeting when what the prospective client really wanted was someone to act as a moderator. My role would be to ask questions of a panel, field questions from the floor and manage the discussion. I was happy to undertake that role but asked my client to refer to me as a moderator, not a facilitator.

During the course of a meeting a facilitator may move into a discussion moderator role when appropriate – but overall we’re there to do much more than lead a discussion. The groups I work with as a facilitator have been convened for a specific purpose. They have a task/outcome to achieve within a timeframe and they seek the support of a skilled “process guide” to do that. I’m called in to help groups:

  • Better understand a complex issue when different people hold different parts of the puzzle or have different expertise
  • Solve a problem where more than one perspective is needed
  • Explore possibilities or options and make a decision
  • Plan something together and commit to implementing that plan
  • Decide upon and agree a course of action

This may involve sitting in circles or small groups – but discussions are always very focused.The whole point is for people to work collaboratively, which requires a focus on both the task and the relationships of people in the room. You might need to clarify the former and develop the latter.

The higher the stakes for the people involved the trickier this becomes. The facilitator needs to be able to work within a specifically designed process yet know when and how to be flexible around that design. A process that works well for one context may be disastrous for another.

Most of my facilitation work is within organisational settings. Someone – usually a leader but not always – suggests an independent facilitator be contracted. They understand the value of having someone who is a specialist at meetings who can incorporate different methods at the right time to help the group achieve its task. They also appreciate having someone “substantively neutral” (Roger Schwarz, The Skilled Facilitator, Jossey-Bass 2002) who can manage the overt or covert relationship dynamics that can derail a meeting, particularly when the stakes are high.

Sandy Schuman ups the ante and refers to group facilitation as a superlative task (also – Sandor Schuman, The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation, Jossey-Bass 2005).

Pffft! How easy could it be? Well, perhaps a little trickier than my coffee friend thinks.

How much value could you add if you could break the meeting pattern of a one way flow of information or “people just talking around a table and nothing ever coming of it” and help the group achieve productive outcomes?

I believe that all leaders, managers and subject matter experts need at least basic facilitation capabilities to support others as they collaborate to solve problems and make decisions. The need grows as organisations become more complex and specialised. It is a useful skill for just about anyone working in group settings that require collaboration to achieve a task. That’s why my core facilitation training workshop is called The Essential Facilitator.

Contact me if you’re looking for an experienced and qualified facilitator. I also train and mentor facilitators. Illuma’s The Essential Facilitator workshop is conducted as a public program or can be run in-house. I am a Certified Professional Facilitator with the IAF and a CPF Assessor. For more information email me

Flash Newsletter November 2016

Click here to read about –

  • Free webinar on scoping facilitation assignments
  • The Essential Facilitator – new workshop dates
  • Facilitation and All That Jazz – new blog
  • How to Refocus a Meeting After Someone Interrupts
  • What’s involved in becoming a CPF? (another free webinar)


Facilitation and All That Jazz

One day many moons ago, while I was preparing to run a facilitator training workshop I was also listening to an old recording of Miles Davis playing Bye Bye Blackbird. As I listened it struck me how much jazz and facilitation are connected. Ever since, I’ve woven that connection into my facilitation training workshops.

Playing around with the idea of jazz SCAT singing we use the term as an acronym to further examine the Skills, Conceptual Frameworks, Attitudes and Tools required for facilitation and for jazz musicians working in a band. (This session comes after we have explored the role of a facilitator).

Workshop participants draw correlations with Skills that are developed through practice such as: listening, dexterity, agility, being able to work collaboratively and more. Facilitators and jazz musicians need a Conceptual Framework that underpins and informs their work. For the jazz musician it is musical theory. For facilitators the frameworks include things such as group dynamics, systems thinking, conflict resolution and participatory decision-making. When drawing the correlations on Attitude (aligning with our values, mindset and “way of being”) one workshop group developed the following list:

  • co-creating live and in the moment
  • high tolerance for ambiguity
  • a willingness to go with the flow – someone else’s flow – and not need to know exactly what will happen next
  • respect for the abilities and contributions of others
  • preparedness to depart from the “script” while staying in key and in tune
  • knowing when to step in and when to step back
  • suspension of the need to be in charge or always in the spotlight
  • team work and collaboration
  • curiosity, openness to new ideas
  • a mindset of serving the group and what the whole group can achieve
  • recognising others know things you don’t and do things you can’t!

Tools? For a musician it is their instrument – knowing how to play it, what it can do etc. Facilitator’s tools are the processes and methods they use to reach appropriate and useful outcomes. These include “tools” such as process improvement methods, dialogue, consensus methods etc.

Then you put together the Skills, Conceptual frameworks, Attitude and Tools and practice – just like a musician. Always learning, reflecting and practicing.

You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.
John Coltrane

To continue the connections between jazz and facilitation …

Musicians in a jazz band co-create the music and it differs with each audience experience– just like facilitators who co-create the outcomes with the meeting participants.

Jazz musicians improvise within a framework. The music is spontaneous and not specifically prepared but it still follows musical form. Facilitators are always improvising. Facilitation agendas rarely go tightly to plan. Sometimes we may need to abandon the original plan altogether and take a different path to get the group where it needs to be – there’s more than one road to the destination. We work within dynamic situations and make in-the-moment judgements about what to do when, but we do this best when we have a solid foundation in group dynamics, process design and more.

When observing a really good facilitator in action with a group it may seem like they’re making it up as they go along – but if this was the case it would be chaos. They are being spontaneous within a context and a framework – just like jazz. Even free jazz that stretches the limits of improvisation within a form still works within a set of rules while breaking them.

Here’s an interesting article on the adage “You have to know the rules before you can break them”. This clearly articulates my views on improvisation in any field of endeavour, not just the creative arts. The same principles apply to facilitation e.g. knowing when to break the rule about ground rules and not have ground-rules 🙂
Here’s the Miles Davis recording of Bye Bye Blackbird I listened to many years ago and still play in facilitation training workshops. Set aside 8 minutes of your life and relax as you listen to 5 masters collaborate. Then think … what other connections can you make between a jazz musician and a facilitator? Enjoy. Miles Davis on trumpet. John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. Red Garland at the piano. Paul Chambers on bass. Philly Joe Jones on drums.

My facilitation training has evolved over 4 iterations in 20 years. The Foundations of Facilitation was run 18 times from 2012 to 2016. I’ve recently rebranded it as The Essential Facilitator. From this page you can also download a flyer, view a short video on YouTube and download a document “Our approach to facilitation and facilitation training”.

I’m a Certified Professional Facilitator and an Assessor with the International Association of Facilitators. Over the years I’ve trained hundreds of facilitators across many countries and from many backgrounds.

The next program for 2016 is in Melbourne December 1 & 2. Earlybird closes this Friday 19th and you can book online via our website and click on store. Canberra is scheduled for February 23 & 24 2017.

Contact me for more information or to organise a chat to discuss if the workshop is suitable for you. We also run the program in-house.

Flash Newsletter September 2016

Click here to read about

  • The Essential Facilitator – rebranding our core program
  • Joining the bits and pieces – Illuma’s framework of facilitation
  • Cognitive bias and life in a bubble
  • When a workshop becomes an Oasis
  • Keep the canaries alive and singing in your meetings
  • Rhonda is now an IAF Assessor
  • Tips – WAIT, WAIS WATT and some humour



Cognitive Bias and Life in a Bubble

I’ve just returned from the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) Asia conference, held this year in beautiful Hualien in Taiwan. Great conference 260+ delegates from 17 countries and a fabulous program.

One of the workshops I attended was on cognitive biases led by Shawn Chung. The workshop was a well-designed collaborative learning approach as sub-groups worked through a myriad of cards each describing a different biases. Shawn said he initially used Wikipedia to start his research for the workshop.

We were set a task to categorise the biases. Along the way we reflected on our own biases – as individuals and what happens in groups.

It soon became evident as we discussed and sorted the cards that we were filtering through our own biases. It’s pretty much impossible not to – biases help us process information, but they also are a hindrance when it comes to judgements and decision making. Discussions were made even more interesting by the different nationalities and cultures at each table and the additional filtering through language. In the end I felt like I was in some sort of post-modern prism or hall of mirrors.

I was reminded of this from Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power – “We are inside a bubble. It is a bubble into which we are placed at the moment of our birth. At first the bubble is open, but then it begins to close until it has sealed us in. The bubble is our perception. We live inside that bubble all our lives. And what we witness on its round walls is our reflection. The thing reflected is our view of the world. That view is first a description which is given to us from the moment of our bird until all our attention is caught by it and the description becomes a view.”

We all have biases – I do and so do you. They exist in all groups that we facilitate and that we are a part of. How do we as facilitators work to uncover, recognise, confront and mitigate for biases – our own and those that surface in groups? Can we ever burst the bubble and how do we do it responsibly? Is it irresponsible not to burst the bubble? How do we react to our own biases being challenged?

Some biases that come to mind in a recent facilitation are ‘Availability Cascade’ and ‘Ingroup Bias’. Both were strongly at work in the group and were having a negative impact but I only really worked out what was happening after the event. What cognitive biases were at work in my mind in the moment that I missed what was happening? And if I attended to that what else might I have missed? Since Shawn’s workshop I have been immersed in thinking and reading about bias – it could keep me going for a few years 🙂

I’m interested in the insights and wisdom from others on cognitive biases and facilitation. Your thoughts and experiences?

Facilitator Neutrality: not a study in beige

studyinbeigeThe issue of neutrality puts many facilitators in a quandary. Just what does it mean for a facilitator to be “neutral” and neutral about what?

If you have ever been invited to a facilitated meeting supposedly seeking different perspectives, then find the outcome is predetermined you will know about the damage done. Trust is compromised and it impacts your behaviour in future meetings (if you bother to attend).

It’s one matter for facilitators to maintain a neutral stance by containing their personal opinions but it’s another altogether when a client asks the facilitator to ensure a specific outcome from a meeting. It’s important that facilitators have “the neutrality discussion” with their clients and clarify expectations before launching into working with the group.

Nowadays my clients generally understand the facilitator’s role and one reason they contract a professional facilitator is because they seek impartiality. But sometimes our role is misunderstood. I have been asked to “facilitate” a meeting to ensure a specific outcome is achieved. I needed to explain how engaging a facilitator to drive through a decision could backfire spectacularly. I work to help groups reach an outcome that is genuinely up for exploration. If the client has a different agenda then ethically I’m obliged to decline the assignment.

Mostly I work within organisations and am contracted by a leader or leadership group. Wise leaders understand the best way to demonstrate the value of working collaboratively is to model it. Contracting an independent “neutral” facilitator gives leaders the freedom to engage in the “what” of a meeting rather than how it is done. The leader is also freed-up from the burden of managing the process and the dynamic and can concentrate on the content as a participant – interacting and engaging in dialogue with the others in the room.

Just what does it mean for a facilitator to be neutral? I once got myself into trouble when someone took exception to my intervention regarding unhelpful behaviours in the group “You told us you were neutral” he interjected “but by asking me to let others have their say you are not being completely neutral – you are favouring them”. I had in fact introduced myself as being “substantively neutral” a term borrowed from Roger Schwarz (The Skilled Facilitator, 2002) but I’d failed to explain what I meant by that term. From this man’s perspective neutral meant completely hands-off. Neutral is not a neutral word.

Over the years I’ve become more conscious of why I am doing what I am doing as a facilitator. I sort of drifted into group facilitation and initially didn’t have a framework that informed my practice. In my early days – back in the 80’s and 90’s, I undoubtedly got involved in content and influenced outcomes without being aware how this tainted the legitimacy of my role. By the time I joined the International Association of Facilitators in 2006 I understood the importance of impartiality – and I’d become increasingly conscious of how challenging this can be. The concept is enshrined in the preamble to the IAF’s Code of Ethics which states “Facilitators are called upon to fill an impartial role in helping groups become more effective.” As an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator I’m required to model the core competencies including F.3.c “Is vigilant to minimize influence on group outcomes”.

It’s the vigilance that I’m interested in because realistically, complete neutrality is impossible. Our reactions and responses “leak” from our facial expressions, body language, speech, voice and movement – regardless of how hard we try to maintain an impartial stance.

In writing this article I’ve found myself tied up in knots with language and meaning related to neutrality, objectivity and impartiality. They are not easy concepts and I’ve found myself reflecting on my own shortcomings – how, when, with whom might I have been less than impartial? As facilitators we need to strive towards being as objective as possible. This means being aware of own biases – but most of them are unconscious, so how can we be aware of our unconscious biases? It is so easy even unintentionally, to abuse the “power of the marker” or the power of being up the front of the room. This is why I now rarely scribe myself and why I often physically get out of the way during discussions. Bias can be very subtle for example, with whom do we make eye contact for the next comment.

I’m not an absolute purist. If I box myself into a position of absolute neutrality it would stifle my flexibility – and this is crucial to properly doing the job. By occasionally opening up a new line of thinking I may help the group move beyond being stuck or imprisoned by group-think. I do this by asking a question such as “what would stakeholder X say if they were in the room right now?” If and when tempted to step into content facilitators need to be mindful of their motive. It helps to check oneself and honestly ask “am I doing this to serve the group or to feed my own ego – or is it because I too am stuck and can’t think of an appropriate process to use right now to help the group”.

And speaking of process – that is where I am not neutral. As a professional facilitator that’s a key area of my expertise: knowing of a range of tools and methods, why they work and how, and when to appropriately apply them in the right situation.

In summary, developing a shared understanding with clients and groups of what is meant by facilitator impartiality and an agreement about what happens when the boundaries are blurred will serve everyone well.

The ultimate test of whether the facilitator was “vigilant to minimize influence on group outcomes” is the experience of the meeting participants and client. Did they think / feel the facilitator worked with them on an issue that was genuinely up for exploration? Did everyone have the opportunity to express ideas? Did the facilitator intervene fairly on matters of process? Did the facilitator guide the group to their own outcome using appropriate methods and processes?

Next Essential Facilitator Workshops

The Essential Facilitator

Next workshops

  • Canberra – September 22 & 23 2016
  • Melbourne – October 19 & 20 2016
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How much time, energy and money is wasted in poorly conceived and ineptly conducted meetings in your workplace? A skilled group facilitator can help you achieve much better outcomes. That facilitator need not come from outside your organisation. You have a valuable untapped resource in your own staff.

The workshop is perfect for:

  • Leaders facilitating rather than chairing meetings a meeting; Consultants working with groups;
  • Trainers being trainers being called upon for process facilitation rather than presentations
  • SME’s Agile and Process Improvement Practitioners, Project Managers
  • Anyone needing to lead collaborative meetings with positive outcomes

Contact us to arrange in-house programs.

Joining The Bits and Pieces: A holistic framework for facilitation

How have you learned facilitation? For many it’s been in bits and pieces: courses, workshops; PD sessions; reading; discussions with colleagues; on-line research etc. Facilitation is complex and dynamic. How do these bit and pieces relate and work as a system?

Your professional background e.g. IT, L&D may have provided you with a specific approach. Perhaps that approach needs be integrated into a broader framework to work more effectively with different groups and contexts.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been developing and refining Illuma’s framework of facilitation. After much thinking and tinkering I’ve settled on a final framework. People have said they find the model is equally useful for facilitative training and even change and leadership.

I’ve now developed a one-day workshop for experienced facilitators to examine different elements of facilitation and their experience and integrate these elements into a dynamics, holistic framework. We explore how parts systemically relate to the whole and what this means for you as a facilitator, your clients and for achieving productive outcomes. We work with your live case and situations.

It will be run as a one-day pre-conference workshop at the 17th IAF Conference in Hualien, Taiwan on 31 August, 2016.

Here’s a brief video:

My Facilitation Aha Moment

Facilitation Aha Moment

Rhonda has another lightbulb / aha moment at an IAF Victoria Chapter professional development event – February 2015

It was so long ago my hair didn’t have one strand of grey, but I remember that moment as if it was yesterday.

I was working as the Training Manager in a large organisation. I already had extensive experience working in intensive experiential learning situations and was gaining confidence in being able to manage difficult group situations. The big boss asked me to run a residential planning retreat for a branch within the organisation. This branch was not functioning well and animosity between management and the union was growing. Problems were escalating and my brief included exploring some of these problems with the whole group. If I recall about 20-25 staff attended the residential retreat.

Things started off OK. As agreed, senior management opened the event and gave short presentations on future directions then left. I moved everyone into small groups to discuss the issues raised. In the plenary discussion the spokesman for one group (the union representative – let’s call him Steve) took the opportunity to wrest control by criticising management and suggesting an alternate purpose and agenda for the retreat. He then asked for a show of hands on who supported his proposed agenda.

Things quickly started to unravel. When middle managers attempted to speak Steve accused them of railroading staff. When I suggested we were here for a different purpose and a different type of meeting Steve then proposed a motion of no confidence in me as the facilitator. A few others joined him. However most people, including the middle managers in attendance, seemed afraid of Steve and his tactics.

In the end I played the role of a discussion moderator and (unqualified) mediator. We didn’t address most of the issues on the agenda and certainly didn’t get to do much planning on Day 2. Steve ended up alienating himself from all but a few of his diehard supporters.

It was awful. I was out of my depth, but I somehow I survived and lived to tell the tale.

When I got home and after I recovered I looked up the old Pfeiffer and Jones Handbooks for Group Facilitators. That was my aha moment! I realised that my role wasn’t to be chair of a procedural type of meeting where Robert’s / Renton’s Rules were appropriate. I wasn’t supposed to be a moderator or a trainer or a mediator or even a therapist. I was supposed to be there as a Process Facilitator. I realised that my meeting design wasn’t structured with the appropriate processes to manage the dynamic that emerged. That was when I first came across the term Process Facilitator. Ever since I have been interested in this special leadership role that works on a premise of collaboration rather than the adversarial approaches so common in many meeting situations.

This all happened way before the International Association of Facilitators was formed. I started to train others in meeting / process facilitation in 1994, using my own experience and limited readings and resources available at the time. I placed emphasis on understanding one’s role as a facilitator – knowing how it differs from a chairman or trainer or mediator and what elements of the roles are similar. This is still a core tenet of my facilitator training and mentoring today.

If only …. way back then … I had access to the body of knowledge, core competencies. professional development, community and support I found and joined the IAF in 2006. I wonder how I would have handled that situation with Steve? What would you have done? What would I do now? I am older and wiser but I’m still learning.

How to Get More Movement into Your Force Field Analysis

Participants on Illuma’s Foundations of Facilitation training workshop working up their dynamic version of a Force Field Analysis is a practise session (2014)

Participants on Illuma’s Foundations of Facilitation training workshop working up their dynamic version of a Force Field Analysis is a practise session (2014)

You’ve probably experienced a Force Field Analysis activity in a meeting. Someone draws a line down the whiteboard or flipchart and scribes as the group thinks through the issue. People sit and call out ideas while the scribe frantically tries to capture everything. After a little while the whiteboard looks like a dog’s breakfast – there’s no room for any more information, there are lines all over the place and people can’t make sense of it. As the diagram becomes messier participants start to disengage and before long even the scribe loses the plot … I’m actually describing an earlier version of myself here :-/

Force field analysis is a key process tool for many disciplines including project management, organisational development and change consulting. For years I struggled with a way to facilitate a group through the process so that it was engaging and people could visualise and understand the changing dynamic as we worked through the framework.

This is the model I hand out or show on a slide as a means of explanation.

This is the model I hand out or show on a slide as a means of explanation.

Over the years I’ve developed my own way of working with this essential tool for change. Often I start with a physical demonstration of how a Force Field Analysis is essentially about movement. Group members become the driving and restraining forces trying to budge the person representing the current state. This can be a bit of fun before we get down to the real work. Firstly we define the present /status quo (represented by the centre line), then define the desired state or success – what we want in the future. The next step is to identify restraining forces and driving forces and sometimes I include a ranking activity. Then we develop actions to remove or reduce the restraining forces, increase the driving forces or convert a restrainer into a driver (thus getting maximum acceleration for minimum effort).

But it was still me doing the scribing – and I found it difficult to maintain an overall sense when working up close and personal with the whiteboard or flipchart. As the facilitator I needed to be able to maintain the bigger picture.

When training facilitators I always include a Force Field Analysis as a process for a practise session. And when training facilitators I always have one or two sticky walls ready for a range of activities.
One day I started to use a sticky wall that allowed the group members themselves to create, move, rank, delete etc. They became much more engaged, the Force Field Analysis process became much more dynamic and I could stand back and better facilitate the process rather than being locked into scribe role.

Group members’ work during strategy development event I facilitated January 2015 (part way through the process)

Group members’ work during strategy development event I facilitated January 2015 (part way through the process)

I started to notice how much more creative and engaged people were. One day in one of my facilitator workshops a participant decided to make different sized arrows to represent different “strengths” of a force. The colour of the paper took on a new meaning. Scheduled action plan started to be built on an adjacent sticky wall. The act of removing a restraining force (aka written on A5 paper) was not just visual but physical and in some way this was more symbolic and satisfying.

So why not try getting a bit more real action next time you facilitate a group using Force Field Analysis. Contact us for more information about Illuma Consulting’s Foundations of Facilitation Training Workshops. Click here for flyer and dates of next programs.

Foundations of Facilitation

  • Canberra 11 & 12 May 2015
  • Melbourne 19 & 20 October 2015

Note: Kurt Lewin developed the principle of Force Field Analysis in the early half of the 20th Century. There’s a wealth of information on the net including scholarly articles on Lewin’s work and a myriad of images for different ways people use the model.

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