What “Facilitation” Really Means and Why It’s Key to the Future of Work
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in a skill known as facilitation.
Employers are increasingly looking for employees with facilitation skills, and facilitation has even been touted as the key to the future of work.
As more workplaces abandon the traditional reliance on hierarchical structure and become more reliant on collaboration and problem solving, rather than just tactical execution, demand for facilitation skills will only keep increasing, and therefore, it is important to start developing this key skill early enough.
But what exactly does facilitation mean, and why is it so important to the future of work?
WHAT IS FACILITATION?
When you ask someone to be a facilitator, the first thing they will probably think about is chairing a meeting or making presentations. This is a total misconception.
Facilitation is about creating a structure and environment that makes it easy for people to collaborate.
Facilitation is about bringing diverse groups of people together and making it easy for them to work together to come up with a solution to a problem.
The term facilitate is derived from the Latin word “facilis”, which means “to render less difficult” or “to make easy.”
In the modern context, a number of definitions of facilitation have been put across.
According to Trevor Bentley, a facilitator, independent consultant and author of the book Facilitation: Providing Opportunities For Learning, facilitation can be defined as:
“the provision of opportunities, resources, encouragement and support for the group to succeed in achieving its objectives and to do this through enabling the group to take control and responsibility for the way they proceed.”
Facilitation is important in any process that requires people to work together to come up with a desired result without being bound by the constraints of hierarchical structure.
This includes processes such as brainstorming sessions, meetings, team building sessions, planning sessions, training and development sessions, conflict resolution, or any other activity that requires a group of people to collaborate to achieve specific predetermined results.
WHO IS A FACILITATOR?
According to Ingrid Bens, a certified public facilitator and author of several books on facilitation, a facilitator can be defined as:
“One who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high quality decisions. A helper and enabler whose goal is to support others as they achieve exceptional performance.”
As a facilitator, your role is to guide the different people participating in a process to ensure that they come up with the desired results together.
You provide the tools and structure needed to ensure that everyone plays a role in the process and that the process is constantly moving forward.
However, as a facilitator, you do not get to make decisions for the group. Instead, your role is to provide a framework to help the group make decisions by itself.
Some of your tasks as a facilitator include establishing an objective for the process, creating an environment that provides opportunities for contribution and discussion, making suggestions that will help the process run more smoothly, interrupting speakers who might be drifting from the objectives of the process, and generally steering the group towards constructive solutions.
One important thing to note is that anyone can be a facilitator. You don’t need to hold any titles or have certain levels of experience in order to play the role of a facilitator.
All you need is the ability to bring people together and create an atmosphere that makes it possible for them to collaborate towards a common objective.
This means that facilitation is not only reserved for managers and other business leaders.
Actually, there are some managers who are poor at facilitation.
On the other hand, having someone who is not in the group’s leadership as a facilitator helps break down the constraints of hierarchical structure, thus making everyone feel more comfortable with sharing their opinions and ideas.
THE FACILITATION ZONE
Facilitation is a somewhat delicate process that requires the facilitator to maintain a balance between encouraging the members to participate in the process and controlling the process.
If the facilitator focuses so much on encouraging participation, there is a high likelihood that the session will turn into an animated but unregulated discussion that will take so much time without achieving anything meaningful.
On the other hand, if the facilitator focuses so much on controlling the process, the participants might feel like their participation is stifled, thus making it harder to come up with the best solution.
Therefore, everything the facilitator does should be aimed at encouraging the participants to share their contributions, while at the same time ensuring that the session does not degenerate into a meaningless discussion.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FACILITATING AND CHAIRING A MEETING
Like I mentioned earlier, when most people come across the word facilitation, they confuse it with chairing a meeting, probably because both involve taking charge of the meeting or whatever activity is taking place.
However, there are some differences between facilitating and chairing.
Usually, someone chairing a meeting acts as the seat of wisdom and knowledge within the group.
Even though a chair may give the participants opportunities to contribute, his or her opinions carry more weight, and it is ultimately up to the chair to make the final decision for the group.
The role of the facilitator, on the other hand, is not to give opinions or make decisions for the group, but rather to draw out the opinions and ideas of the participants and provide them with a framework for making decisions wholesomely as a group.
In addition, a good facilitator does not take sides. He or she guides the process from a neutral point.
Being an effective facilitator also involves developing a structure to ensure everyone’s ideas get heard and making sure every participant is comfortable sharing their ideas, and ensuring that the participants do not feel like their ideas and decisions are being influenced by their leader.
While there is a difference between facilitating and chairing a meeting, the best chairs also play the role of facilitators.
They give everyone equal opportunity to contribute, rather than hogging the mic at all times or acting like they have all the answers.
WHY FACILITATION IS KEY TO THE FUTURE OF WORK
Today, there is increasing demand for people with facilitation skills at the workplace, and as we march into the future, facilitation will become even more important.
There are a number of factors contributing to the increasing demand for facilitation.
First, the world is diversifying at a very rapid pace.
Technological advancement has turned the world into a global village.
Today, several companies have footprints spanning across different countries and continents.
Other companies – with the help of the internet and other communication technologies – depend on employees spread out across multiple geographical locations and time zones.
The result is that the modern workplace has become very diverse. In the coming future, the trend of workplace diversity will only increase.
The diversity of modern workplaces is a good thing.
When you bring together people from different backgrounds, with different experiences and different perspectives to work on a common problem, there is a high likelihood that creative and innovative solutions will emerge.
However, owing to their diversity, you can’t simply bring these people together and hope that they will work together on their own to come up with solutions.
This is where facilitation comes in. Facilitation makes it possible for businesses to harness this diversity and channel it productively.
Second, the business environment is becoming increasingly competitive.
Actually, the world has become hypercompetitive.
Business are increasingly finding it harder to sustain competitive advantage, and we can expect this trend to continue into the future.
With such high levels of competition, any business that wants to remain in business needs a high dose of creativity and innovation from its employees.
One of the best ways of fostering creativity and innovation at the workplace is to encourage employees to work in teams.
When employees work in teams, they are quicker and more effective in their work.
Having several minds exploring a problem is also more likely to uncover unconventional solutions that would not have come up otherwise.
This usually happens in brainstorming sessions where team members come together on a common platform to offer various perspectives that might lead to novel solutions, which in turn helps the business remain competitive.
In order for team work to be successful, however, there is need for effective facilitation.
This means that facilitation is critical for the success of the organization in the age of hyper competition.
Finally, the growing diversity of the modern workplace means that it is inevitable that there will be conflicts at the workplace.
Whenever people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse perspectives come together, conflict cannot really be avoided.
But here is the thing about conflict at the workplace – it can either be destructive, or it can be channelled creative to come up with innovative process, products and solutions.
The key is to manage conflict effectively so that it results in creativity rather than destruction.
In order to do this, there is need for effective facilitation.
Considering these factors, it is inevitable that the importance of facilitation at the workplace will only keep growing.
HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE FACILITATOR
Being a good facilitator is a skill, and like most other skills, it can be learnt. Below, we look at tips on how to improve this key skill.
Always Start by Setting Some Ground Rules and Objectives
Whenever you are called upon to facilitate a meeting, brainstorming session, or any other process, the first thing you should always do is to lay the ground rules and objectives of the process.
Give the participants an outline structure of how you intend the session to run.
Make it clear what you expect of the participants and what will not be tolerated, such as criticising others opinions or disrespect for other participants.
Help the participants to clarify what the desired outcome is, and make sure that this outcome can be reasonably achieved within the available time.
Ensure that there is consensus about the objectives of the session to avoid someone bringing up something new somewhere down the line.
Doing this also helps foster a sense of ownership among the participants.
You also need to make sure the participants understand that your role in the process is only to facilitate, not to push your own agenda.
The aim here is to foster an atmosphere of trust and openness.
While establishing the ground rules, you also need to determine how any potential disagreements will be dealt with.
The good thing about establishing boundaries is that you are in a better position to notice when the participants veer of the track and bring them back to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved within the available time.
You Have to be Good at Time Management
Whether you are facilitating a meeting, a team building session, or a conflict resolution, you probably don’t have the whole day.
Therefore, as a facilitator, it is up to you to decide how the objectives of the session can be met within the given time frame.
When planning the structure outline for the session, think about each activity and how much time it is supposed to take.
Considering that each participant needs to get heard, you should plan time allocations more efficiently than in a regular, run of the mill meeting.
Make sure it is clear to the group how much time is allocated for each activity.
Once you allocate the time for each activity, you also need to ensure that the time allocations are followed, else the time will run out before the objectives for the session have been achieved.
Keep track of the time and come up with a way of notifying people that time is running up when it seems like they will exceed their allocated time.
For instance, you could hold up your fingers to let them know how much time they have remaining, or you could simply say it loud.
If someone goes beyond their allocated time, don’t be afraid to interrupt them and ask them to wind up.
As a facilitator, this is one of your most important jobs.
If someone feels like their contributions and ideas are being stifled, they will refrain from making further contributions, which means that the session will not effectively serve its purpose.
As a facilitator, it is up to you to find ways to make the environment inclusive, so that the participants not only feel comfortable sharing their ideas, but are actually encouraged to contribute.
If you notice that some of the participants have not contributed, reach out to them and encourage them to speak out.
You should also design structures and activities that encourage contribution.
For instance, you could divide the group into smaller discussion groups, since people are more likely to share their ideas and opinions when dealing with a smaller group of people.
This is another important thing to keep in mind when playing the role of a facilitator.
As a facilitator, your main task is to draw out the contributions of the participants and guide the group to make a decision on their own, without in any way influencing the outcome yourself.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
Remaining impartial means that you should suppress your opinions and ideas while moderating the ideas and opinions of others.
Whatever you do, you should help the group reach consensus without imposing your opinions on them. At the end of the session, the group should feel that they have achieved the outcome by themselves.
Always Be Ready to Intervene
While you are not actually chairing the meeting or brainstorming session, you are still in charge of the session, and it is up to you to make sure it ends successfully.
This means that you should constantly monitor what is going on and determining whether it is taking the group closer to its objectives.
If something happens that you feel is taking away from the objectives of the group, you should be ready to intervene and get the group back on track.
For instance, if someone is taking more time than they are allocated, you should intervene and let them know that they have to give time to other participants.
Similarly, if someone says or does something that is disrespectful to another participant, you should step in and let them know that disrespect will not be tolerated.
The point here is that you should always be ready to step in and stop anything that might make it harder to achieve the objectives of the group.
Be Sensitive to Individual and Group Feelings
I already mentioned earlier that facilitation is all about fostering an atmosphere of trust, openness and respect.
In order to do this, you need to be able to use your senses, your instincts and your intuition to pick up the atmosphere and gauge how the participants are individually responding to the topic being discussed and the opinions of other participants.
When some of the participants feel uncomfortable, angry, or even hurt by something that was said, most of them will not speak up about their discomfort.
Instead, they will silently pull out from the discussion.
As a facilitator, it is up to you to read the body language and emotional temperature of the participants and gauge whether everyone is feeling comfortable with the discussion.
Take note of those who are talking and those who are not and try to get them involved.
Aside from being sensitive to the feelings of the individual participants, you should also be sensitive to the group chemistry.
How does the entire group feel?
Are they eager, bored, angry, restless, enthusiastic, or suspicious?
Once you perceive the group chemistry, you should then try to influence it in a way that promotes participation and engagement.
For instance, if the group is bored, try to bring in some engaging activities or humour to bring up group energy.
Probe the Participants
Sometimes, there will be participants who will remain clammed up despite your best efforts of creating an atmosphere of trust and openness.
Still, it is important to hear what they have to say. Probing is a great way of getting such participants to express themselves.
For instance, if you notice someone has not spoken, you can nudge them with questions such as “What are your thoughts on this, Suzie?”
Probing is also a great way of ensuring that everyone’s contribution is clear.
When a participant shares ideas or opinions that are not very clear, probe them with more questions to get them to elaborate their ideas till everyone in the room has understood what they are saying.
When a diverse group of people is sharing their individual ideas, it sometimes becomes difficult for some of the participants to make sense of what is being said or to understand how it ties to the bigger picture.
As a facilitator, it is up to you to take the different ideas from different people and express them in a succinct manner that allows everyone to understand how the ideas are connected to the whole.
Once someone has finished making their contribution, give a summary of what they said and confirm if that is what they actually meant.
This minimizes the chances of some participants’ contributions getting misinterpreted.
Facilitation is an important skill, and as the modern workplace continues becoming more diverse and more competitive, the importance of this skill will only keep increasing.
Therefore it is important to start developing your facilitation skills.
Remember, facilitation is all about bringing diverse groups of people together and making it easy for them to work together to come up with a solution to a problem.
With the tips shared in this article, you can start slowly improving your facilitation skills.
Considering that facilitation requires lots of skill in reading other people’s body language and behaviour, you need to practice a lot.
The more you practice, the better you will get.
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