Some time ago I was having coffee with someone who said “I don’t understand why you put so much attention on 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.
Anyone who has been at an effective group facilitation at work knows there is much more involved than getting people to sit around and talk. Facilitation is much more 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 cross-overs, there are important differences between the role of a meeting chair, a moderator and a meeting facilitator, because their purpose is different. The terms are often used interchangeably, 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 the client to refer to me in this instance as the moderator not facilitator.
Sometimes as a facilitator I move into moderator role – but overall I’m there to do much more than lead a discussion. The groups I work with have been convened for a specific purpose, for example to:
• 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 implement that plan
• Decide and agree a course of action
They have a task to do and a timeframe to achieve it within and they seek the support of a skilled “process guide” to do that.
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 process specifically designed for the task or outcome 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. Pffft! How easy could it be? Well perhaps a little trickier than my coffee friend thinks. Check out the IAF’s Core Competencies for Process Facilitation It’s more than a bunch of people talking around in circles – although talking in a circle may be involved!
Sandy Schuman ups the ante and refers to group facilitation as a superlative task (Sandor Schuman, The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation, Jossey-Bass 2005).
I believe though that all leaders and managers need at least basic facilitation capabilities to support their staff as they collaborate to solve problems and make decisions. And the need grows as organisations become more complex and specialised. It is a useful ability for just about anyone working in group settings that require collaboration to achieve a task.
Increasingly large organisations are training staff in facilitation – they see it as a core skill for their leaders, managers and specialists. 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 an outcome.
Illuma Consulting conducts training workshops in Process Facilitation. Our Foundations of Facilitation workshop is conducted as a public program or can be run in-house.
Rhonda Tranks is a member of the International Association of Facilitators, the profession’s peak international body.
In January 2007 Rhonda Tranks became a Certified Professional Facilitator with the IAF. This meant she needed to demonstrate all of the IAF’s Core Competencies for process facilitation through: a rigorous application process, a series of interviews, demonstrations and an assessment by an international panel. CPF’s are required to be re-accredited every 3 years.
Rhonda has facilitated hundreds of meetings and off-sites ranging from board retreats to large stakeholder engagement events, planning meetings and team development events. She has trained hundreds of facilitators and has presented at IAF Conferences in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan, Korea, India and Switzerland and consistently receives very high levels of positive feedback. She regularly mentors experienced facilitators some of whom have attained CPF status. In addition she has over 30 years experience in training, experiential learning, instructional design and training facilitative trainers.
Rhonda has served in a leadership capacity with the IAF since 2008: firstly on the regional leadership team. She served on the global board as Regional Director, Oceania from June 2010 to December 2012 when she took over the post of Director Marketing and Partnerships. She resigned from this role in March because of professional and family pressures. She remains active at a local level and is currently helping establish an IAF Chapter in her home state. Rhonda was the convener of the successful IAF Melbourne Conference in March 2012.