The role of a good facilitator

In Presenting with Impact

By Maura Fay Learning

Have you ever been to the symphony or watched a snippet of an orchestra playing on TV? Can you visualise the conductor at the front of the orchestra? What exactly is the role of the conductor?Do they simply stand at the front waving their batons madly? Or is there a crucial role they play that if there is no conductor, the orchestra falls apart and the music crumbles?

It seems with the baton, the conductor speaks a subtle language to the orchestra to remind them during the performance of how to play the piece. It’s almost hypnotic to watch.

In fact, with the baton, it’s almost as if the conductor gives each instrument a chance to play and each musician an opportunity to speak. As if without the conductor, the audience might overlook the presence of an instrument or musician in the orchestra. And it’s almost as if without the conductor, the audience would miss pivotal moments in the symphonic piece.

So when we think about it, could we compare the role of a facilitator to that of an orchestra conductor? Why not?

Basic facilitation skills

It’s inevitable that to be a good facilitator, one needs facilitation skills as a fundamental. But if we were to break it down, what exactly are facilitation skills?

At the very least, facilitation skills in a meeting, conference, or any gathering, for that matter, encompass making it easy for everyone to have a chance to have a say; a moderator so to speak.

Like the conductor of an orchestra ensuring everyone plays a part or has a say. This makes sense, given that the word ‘facilitate’ comes from the Latin ‘facile’, which means to make easy or more convenient.

Good facilitation skills require preparation prior to the facilitation, which includes researching, assembling the necessary tools, the actual delivery and finally, guiding the group to achieve a decision.
But good facilitation skills aside, what are the elements that make up the role of a facilitator?

Aware and conscious listener

One of the most important skills that a good facilitator needs is as simple as being a good listener. Depending on the situation or the type of gathering, being able to take questions and suggestions then paraphrasing these so the rest of the group can receive the message, boils down to being able to actively listen to whoever is speaking. A good facilitator also needs have the capability to answer any questions posed.

Being an aware and conscious listener also means being able to listen to the cues of those who aren’t speaking but have something to say. This involves a little aid from the brother-sister team of emotional and social awareness. Experience, of course, helps, too.

Therefore, the key to being an active listener is to be aware and conscious of one’s surroundings. A good facilitator will need to tap into the energy of the group, juggle different speakers and allow them equal opportunity to present their case, in all fairness.

Articulate communicator

It’s important for a facilitator to be able to articulate clearly a number of things:

  • The agenda
  • The outcome to be achieved
  • The processes and requirements of the meeting or gathering
  • Summarise the thoughts, ideas and viewpoints of members of the group

The group will look to the facilitator to chaperon topics so that they remain contained within the overarching subject matter at hand and keep the integrity of the agenda. Sometimes, the group will also look to the facilitator for their expertise on the topic at hand.

Understand and manage group dynamics

It’s hard enough managing the different behaviours, let alone personalities, of a group of individuals who come together, even if for the same goal. It’s sometimes hard to predict the group dynamics of an event but a skilled facilitator understands and can manage even the toughest group dynamics. Granted, in any group, there will be a handful of differing views, values, cultural experiences, knowledge and perceptions, but with careful observation and awareness of self and others through emotional and social intelligence, it is not an unattainable goal.

Having a little tension in the group is healthy; a little conflict can open up doors for challenging ideas, therefore making them stronger.

Just like an orchestra conductor is in tune to the light and shade of the symphony and the sounds that each instrument contributes to the musical piece, so too, a good facilitator can nimbly tackle the delicate intricacies of a well-oiled facilitation.

The key is knowing what to look for and how to manage the interplay between individuals in the group so as to cut a fine balance.

Maintain a neutral perspective

During both World War I and World War II, Switzerland stood her ground and retained a neutral stance; thereby relieving her military of any involvement in the wars. Being a good facilitator is about being Switzerland.

Facilitating a meeting is more than just allowing each person a chance to speak their mind. It is also vital that the facilitator remain neutral throughout the process. Remember: the facilitator’s aim is to guide the attendees to a result, not influence the direction or consequence of the outcome.

The key to a good facilitation is to practise a sense of detachment from the content at heart, focus on the desired conclusion and allow the audience to find their path through robust discussion.

Be a meeting moderator

The facilitator acts as a meeting moderator who guides the group organically through cycles using collaborative processes and the group’s collective wisdom. The facilitator, as a moderator keeps the group focused on the purpose and, at any time the group shows a potential to veer off the beaten track, will steer the group back to the agenda at hand.

Therefore, a good facilitator is someone who helps to mediate the conversations and ideas created within the facilitation. It is about being able to pilot the audience to desired objectives.

The facilitative leader

So we’ve come to establish that the facilitator needs to wear many hats:

  • Be an active listener
  • Have clear communication skills
  • Manage the group dynamics
  • Have a neutral perspective
  • Be the group moderator

Above all else, for all of these to come together seamlessly, the facilitator needs to have a pre-determined outcome that the meeting or gathering needs to achieve.

American author and public speaker John Naisbitt once said:

“The new leader is a facilitator, not an order taker.”

Indeed, facilitation is the art of stimulating deeper understanding, fresh thinking and behavioural transformation. And much like a good leader or mentor who inspires, plants the seed and allows the protégé to discover their journey, a good facilitator is one who subtly provides the group with leadership without actually taking the reins.

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