Facilitation: the invisible difference

24th October 2014

Last week I was facilitating a meeting in Paris. One of the participants who is an experienced facilitator gave me the following feedback:

I have learnt a great deal from working with you over the last three days. You are an incredibly skillful facilitator and yet you are almost invisible.’

I thought this was an interesting comment and therein lies the dilemma for many professional facilitators—facilitation is the invisible difference!

There are some facilitators that are heavy handed with their interventions. I personally don’t like this approach. Although I do have experience of being facilitated by someone like this. He irritated the group so much that we united against him. I guess that’s one way to get a team to work together!

As I continually seek to hone my facilitation skills, I am increasingly aware of all the subtle things that influence my facilitation of groups. Critical to this self-knowledge is my studied belief that the most powerful tool we have as facilitators is ourselves. Our thoughts, our feelings, our experience, and everything we bring into a group can help or hinder them. There are also subtle aspects of our interventions that make a big difference to a group if they are used thoughtfully and creatively. Things like room layout, materials to be used, tone of voice, body position and language—these can all be used to facilitate the group. These can be subtle and not always visible to the untrained eye. If we combine that with the fact that effective facilitation means supporting the group’s thinking and working hard on content, then it’s not surprising that facilitation can be invisible.

Invisibility implies facilitation is a passive role. This is not my view and my considerable experience is proof that passivity is not the case. I see myself as the joint leader of the meeting alongside the content leader and owner of the meeting. My role is to activelysupport the group process to achieve the outcomes without judging the group’s content. This is a very active leadership role. When done well it provokes thinking in the group and enables them to achieve much more than they could alone.

So back to our dilemma, ‘facilitation: the invisible difference’ – who’s going to pay for that! I had a colleague who told me the story about the cleaners at Disney. I don’t know if it’s true or not but it’s a good story. The story goes that Disney was getting complaints about cleaning and the cleanliness of their theme parks. They employed more cleaners and still they got complaints. So they tried a different tactic, they got the cleaners to wear high visibility jackets with ‘cleaners’ written on the back. Amazingly the number of complaints about the cleanliness of the parks reduced!

So, do we, as facilitators, need to wear our high visibility jackets? Do we need to signpost to clients the brilliance of our interventions? I’m not sure doing that sits well with me. My inclination is to leave clients to judge me by the results I achieve in the groups. But I’m also painfully aware that that might not be a good commercial stance.

I’m interested to hear views from those of you that have either worked with facilitators or those of you who are facilitators about your views on this dilemma.

How do you judge a job well done by a facilitator?

When you work with a facilitator – how much attention do you pay to how they are working?

As a facilitator – how comfortable are you signposting what you’re doing with a client?

My view is that there is a lack of group process awareness in most businesses, what’s your view on that?

And, why is this aspect of facilitation work not well understood and appreciated in day-to-day business?

Feel free to comment on this post. Or, if you want a private conversation about this topic or learn how we can help you with your facilitation skills contact us. Or call us at +44 (0) 1628 471 114. It’s a good question to be asking ourselves. But it is also one we need to consider respectfully with our clients.