Define Facilitator

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Original Message

From: Grunewald, posted on 2014/02/14

Hello all,

Am looking for a good definition of a facilitator (someone acting as a facilitator/ role). Any ideas, sources, etc.? Ideally something that folks in int. dev. Generally would recognise as such.

Thanks for your help.

Best wishes, Philipp


All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Le Borgne

Related Discussions

The following is a summary of the vibrant discussion that happened on the KM4Dev forum. In this discussion many contributors outlined their viewpoints on how best to define the role of the facilitator. The discussion did not only cover all of the facilitator and also various aspects of process facilitation. In the following the discussion will be outlined in a mix of chronological and logical order.

Disclaimer: In the discussion it was noted that definitions are, of course, abstract constructs. Thus, what to make of them depends, in practice, on the context.

The discussion was initiated by Philipp Grunewald who asked for a “good definition of a facilitator (someone acting as a facilitator/ role)”. The first response came from Lucy, who contributed Sam Kaner’s definition.

"The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding and cultivates shared responsibility. By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements".

Kaner, S. with Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S. and Berger, D. (2007) Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.

Arthur expanded upon this definition by adding that “a true facilitator is NEUTRAL. That is, they do not try to influence the outcome towards a specific PREDETERMINED goal it is about the quality of the conversation/interaction more than the (tangible) OUTPUTS”. He went on stating that the “facilitator creates a safe and inclusive environment. In doing this they ask questions and ensure everyone (as much as they are comfortable doing so) have the opportunity to have an equal voice”. At a later point Michelle Gumangan underlined this by saying that facilitators sometimes act as “guardians”. In this role facilitators try to strengthen capacity and ensure equal participation.

Categories of facilitators

In the discussion various categories of facilitators emerged. Christian Carrier, Krishan Bhennick, John David Smith, Nancy White and Lotta Adelstal proposed various sub-roles of the facilitator role. These included the Organisational process faciltiator, the workshop facilitator, conference/debate facilitator, the (online) community facilitator, facilitator as animator, technology steward, and consultant as facilitator.

Organisational process facilitator

The organisational process facilitator is a role usually associated with managers in organisations; however, when these lack the soft skills to facilitate (rather than manage) organisational processes than facilitators might become needed (Krishan Bhennick). The facilitator then “assists the project director / leader in the implementation of the project with a less authoritative role” (Christian Carrier). S/he facilitates relationship building across traditional organisational boundaries, such as teams, hierarchical levels, etc. Such an approach to managing institutional processes seems to become more relevant since “there is a management trend for several decades characterized by a flatter organizational structure of institutions” (Christian Carrier). Since facilitators “get results by ‘soft power’ through collective intelligence rather than coercive power through hierarchical position” their approach seems to become more relevant in the new institutional environments.

Consultant as facilitator

Lotta Adelstal outlined that consultants can act as facilitators when they come to the process rather than taking care of the particular issues at hand. This role is similar to the organisational process facilitator but a consultant might not be contracted to believe this particular role at the initial stages of consulting assignment.

Workshop facilitator

The workshop facilitator is a rather practically oriented type of facilitator that helps, in this particular setting, to “bring out the different forms of expressions of their [the participants] point[s] of view” (Krishan Bhennick). To do this the workshop facilitator taps “into the cognitive (knowing), affective (feeling) and psychomotor (doing) domains of the participants” (Krishan Bhennick) through the use of particular knowledge sharing tools and techniques that work in a workshop environment. An example of this could be an experience as described by Paul Corney: “I found myself having to facilitate a workshop recently with little prior notice with a group for whom English was a secondary language. One really useful asset was a worksheet (A3 size) that allowed the participants some neutral space and a 3rd object on which to focus”. Such tools are important but he also outlines that the “right environment is vital and I've often moved the furniture around like an arriving tourist if I thought it would create a negative feel. And visuals are hugely important as is movement”.

Conference/debate facilitator

The conference/debate facilitator works in a more formalised setting than the workshop facilitator. S/he provides presenters “with the appropriate environment to enable them to deliver their presentations as requested by the … organizers …, inspire confidence and to catch and keep the attention of participants” (Christian Carrier). Presenters “are often selected for their expertise level and their personal experience on the field. They may lack teaching qualities since they are not professional teachers” (Christian Carrier). This might introduce the need for facilitator. He or she needs to have some expertise in the field, be respected by the audience and presenters, able to stimulate intellectual reflection on the topic, be neutral and be familiar with the culture of the space in which facilitation is supposed to occur.

(Online) Community Facilitator

The (online) community facilitator is often dealing with large and diverse groups and attempts to enable dialogue, cooperation and collaboration across organisational, cultural and ideological boundaries. If communications occur digitally (and/or not even in real time) then they “do not have the luxury of reacting to the physical presence of the audience” (Krishan Bhennick). The discussion showed that this must have particular implications, but these were not discussed in further detail and might need to be explored at another point.

Technology steward

The technology steward is mainly occupied with “facilitating the effective use of technology”. This might be particularly relevant with communities but is also applicable to any sort of ad hoc or temporary group that can benefit from “informal facilitation around selection and use of tools” (John David Smith). Another aspect of their work might be capacity enhancement; as in “community telecentres” the involvement of a facilitator might be motivated by a training aspect. The participants might be (at the extreme end of the scale) “digital illiterate; they need to be supported by somebody who is a gateway and a bridge with this strange world made of curious machines with alien languages” (Christian Carrier). Even though technology stewards focus on tools (as enablers) the keys to being successful are still people and dialogue as with all other facilitation roles.

Facilitator as animator

Facilitators sometimes have to play the role of the animator when the facilitation process is influenced by predefined objectives and expectations. With these expectations might come the necessity to ”maintain the attention of the audience” (Krishan Bhennick). Audiences are “generally heterogeneous and what is interesting for somebody is always boring for somebody else. This issue is worsening when attending a workshop or a seminar is considered as a reward, and we may have some participants who are very motivated to attend it without being motivated ... The challenge is then to have a bright animator to catch their attention” (Christian Carrier). This might lead to discussions and relationships having the facilitator at its centre. The discussion outlined that this is not the ideal picture of the facilitator who should “be modest enough to highlight other persons rather than himself” (Christian Carrier). However, as outlined above it must not be the mess style facilitation that needs to facilitation by animation but might be due to factors derived from the environment of facilitation process.

Dark side of facilitation

Nancy White outlined what she describes as the dark sides of the facilitator/the facilitation process in the list below and adds tips for how to deal with the issues from a facilitator’s perspective:

• called in after everything is really messed up (tip: build relationships before client lists)

• is not briefed on the deeper, real and often problemmatic issues ("Oh, this is a fantastic group." Right! Tip: develop a good set of questions to help discern the issues)

• runs into very interesting gender issues that are often unspoken, unrecognized (tip: pay attention to and make gender issues discussable)

• has to facilitate in really BAD rooms in large international organizations (chairs nailed to floor. tip: go outside.)

• sometimes is given great trust w/ sponsors and groups and all have a transformative experience. LIVES for these moments (tip: debrief: why was this so good? How can we do this again?)

• mistakes conflict as something that must be shut down (tip: conflict is often the flag that you hit a core issue. Use it generatively)

• sometimes crazy arrogant and drives to their own agenda (tip: self awareness is a facilitators best friend)

• does not build capacity in others (tip: co facilitate, mentor, give up control)

• actually facipulates (tip: be honest when your approach has any manipulative elements. Use that in your favor, transparently)

• leaves after the meeting so does not live the consequences (good, bad or otherwise) (tip: what about simple follow up... how are things going? What did we learn?)

• is not an integral part of the organization (tip: when hiring, hire at least SOME people with facilitation skills and talents. This should not always be an outside job! Let's co-source, not outsource)

• is serving the sponsor, not the group (tip: power is always in play. Discuss and use it generatively. It is OK to challenge your client, and essential as a consultant.)

• works hard to facilitates listening but sometimes fails (tip: learn how you listen and always work hard. There are lots of ways to improve)

• doesn't speak the local language and mistakes happen through interpretation (tip: first choice, hire facilitator who speaks the language. Second choice, have a more spacious agenda to really deal with meaning making across multiple languages.

• takes him/herself too seriously (tip: use fun. seriously!)

• has no repertoire or gets stuck in one approach/or is flip flopping all over the place (find the balance) (tip: always be learning. Invite your facilitees into that learning process. Build capacity all around)

As can be seen in the list there are many contextual conditions that can influence the quality of the facilitation. Riff Fullan states that “poor outcomes won’t always be because of the facilitator’s behaviour, they could also be due to some of the things already mentioned, such as underlying conflicts, or diametrically opposed worldviews”. This leads to the insight that “context is crucial, and so is timing (I don’t know how many times I’ve been brought in to meeting planning when the agenda has already been largely determined, and then had to fight to get some space for process instead of heavy doses of content!)” (Riff Fullan).

However, he relativises that when stating that he likes to “believe that if a facilitator is genuinely interested in helping to create conditions where (the most) people can have (the most) meaningful interactions, and get what they want (sometimes even what they did not imagine they might want), then chances are good that you’ll see positive outcomes.” According to Riff Fullan, part of this is to recognise that it is “it’s REALLY hard to let go when you think you have a winning approach, and to forget that a lot of very useful facilitation isn’t rocket science, it’s often a combination of a good method with the right attitude”.

Facilitation Process

As can be seen about the actual process and context of facilitation does not always allow for all ambitions regarding facilitation to be realised. “Facilitation is not all "good" nor "bad" -- like anything else!” (Nancy White). This moves attention from the role (associated with a particular actor and, thus, static) to the process. When looking at facilitation from this perspective it becomes clear that facilitation is not just a role, but “can be a way of being” (Nancy White). This introduces “the concept of self-facilitation by the community” (Christian Carrier). Potentially, everyone in the community can adopt the role of the facilitator (see Riff Follan’s comment above); when they are sufficient of these individuals in the community might “have the capacity to self facilitate” (Christian Carrier).

Fleshing out this idea further Nancy White states that she thinks it “is about a group sensing that there are different roles, functions and activities that need attending to in their group and people share that responsibility across the group rather than relying on a single, designated facilitator”. “It is important because it keeps a community from being a service that people expect, and focuses on it being something that is a shared creation of and by the community”. She thinks “this is important in a community context because taking on a role or a function builds a sense of belonging, ownership and identity as a valued/valuable member of the community. So it strengthens”. Also, “It is important because it gives us a chance to role model, follow others models and build capacities that we may not have a chance to build in our day to day lives. So shared leadership and facilitation is capacity building” (Nancy White).

Not only Nancy White observed that the capacity aspect becomes important when a community functions in the mode of self-facilitation. Christian Carrier raised this issue in some questions: “When there is a critical mass of ‘facilitators’ within the community who are able to read the signals, understand what the other facilitators are doing through their activities, and who can, without being cued, jump in and carry the ‘torch of facilitation’ … a few steps forward”? “If that is the case, should we thus be able to embed sufficient ‘facilitator skills’ into individuals from the community and offer them the environment and opportunities to ‘spontaneously facilitate’? Can we share examples of how some of us have achieved this?”

Doing facilitation – developing capacities

These questions were not answered in the community discussion but raise issues to be pursued in the future. Some clues towards how individuals acquire the skills to be facilitators might be derived when “we add the carreer plan of a facilitator in the definition? Where and how does he/she start? How does he/she evolve?” (Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré).

There seems to be a definite need to address facilitation capacity in the mindset with which people enter facilitated processes. Pete Cranston outlines that there’s something that underlies several of the points you make …, which is that facilitation is often, too often, seen as a thing that we do rather than a process in which we are invited to take part, during a normally limited time. Workshops are often the focus but they never happen in isolation. They are part of a process which started, usually, a long time ago, and will continue long after facilitators external to that process have disappeared (even if they are in the same organisation). That tendency is reinforced because so often the organisers are horrendously busy and outsourcing a workshop/event/consultation gets it off the to-do list and organisers are resistant or unable to make time for the essential conversations pre and post an event“. Pete Cranston also suggests two ways of dealing with such issues. Firstly, as a facilitator “make clear the support time needed during contracting, whether internal or external”; and secondly, “Try and get access to the people to whom it is going to be ‘done’. Use a survey and/or email to learn more, to help design the event [or process] with those directly involved“.

These things are difficult to implement for professionals but often, people that are un-trained and inexperienced facilitators find themselves in the role of the facilitator. Developing facilitation capacity is thus not only important in communities that self-facilitate. Lotta Adelstal thinks of a particular group when asking: “How could we work with these ex 'technical advisers' to gain their understanding of and commitment towards this new role as 'facilitator'”? Lucie Lamoureux responds to the challenge of getting untypical actors to play the facilitation role by suggesting that maybe the “word ‘enabler’ would help your ex-technical advisers, or even if using the ever-colourful agriculture/horticultural metaphors (cultivate, nurture, nourish, seed, etc.). But perhaps using some narratives to illustrate how some of activities that promotes knowledge sharing, learning, networking, and collaboration CAN be useful, even if taken from other organisations or networks”.

Part of this process might also be picking people feel more comfortable with the idea of being a facilitator. Riff Fullan reminds us of something that counts for everyone, professional or not: “It’s also really important to remember we’re all human. Having a lot of experience is usually helpful, but it doesn’t mean facilitators don’t get tired, or don’t misread a situation, or don’t get stuck in a less productive groove”.

Proposed definitions:

• "The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding and cultivates shared responsibility. By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements". Sam Kaner (Kaner, S. with Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S. and Berger, D. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, (2007) Jossey-Bass; ISBN 0-7879-8266-0) Contributed by: Lucie Lamoureux

• Facilitator = “midwife” (symbolic). Contributed by: Tina Hetzel

• A person that is “using a range of skills to bring out the best in people as they try to work together to achieve a common result”. Contributed by: Michelle Gumangan-Longit

• “guardians”. Contributed by: Michelle Gumangan-Longit

• “The facilitator is the person who is responsible for creating and sustaining an environment that facilitates achieving successful projects or workshops by developing a collective intelligence and participative approach.” Contributed by: Christian Carrier

• “A facilitator is someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan to achieve them without taking a particular position in the discussion.” The Wikipedia article also presents different kinds of facilitators. ( Contributed by: Christian Carrier

• “Like most of us, i considered a facilitator like a ‘guide’, or even a ‘midwife’. [S/]He is the one who makes things easy by giving you proper tools. Most of the time, in my context, participants of workshops or any groups, considered the facilitator as an expert, or a trainer/teacher. But i think that the principle that should guide [her/]him, is this message: ‘Nobody knows everything, everyone knows something’.” Contributed by: B. M. Carole


• Blog:

• Taking stock: facilitation videos:

• What is the role of a facilitator (and of a moderator, MC, chair etc.):

• 3 things that facilitators do:

• Video on the role of action learning facilitator:

• And you might want to check the blog 'We learn something new every day' for a definition of a facilitator as it's one of the best blogs about the practice of a very experienced facilitator.

• Blogpost on facilitator(‘s) resilience:

• Blogpost reviewing some of the discussion:

• John David Smith, “Technology Stewardship for Distributed Project Teams” in K. L. Millhauser (ed)Distributed Team Collaboration in Organizations; emerging tools and practices (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2011

• Consulting roles (facilitator one of them):

• “Nick Eve runs The Facilitator's Development Programme which I found really useful.” Paul Corney