Learning to be a facilitator—training or upbringing?

23rd October 2014

This is international facilitation week. I have been asked to write a piece about facilitation skill development. As I approached this topic, I started to wonder: are facilitators trained or bred? Here’s what I mean….

We run an advanced facilitation training programme. This attracts both clients and consultants with a passion for facilitation and learning. When we get started on our two-day journey each person is asked to introduce themselves by sharing how they got into facilitation. There is a theme that usually emerges in this conversation.

Most of us started facilitating before we knew what it was! And most of the participants, whilst skilled in facilitation, have had no prior training in facilitation. For those of us for whom this is true, facilitation started as an intuitive way to work with people, which we later came to know as facilitation and develop as a skill. What’s interesting us is that, without trained skills, it was our mindset and intuition that guided our work.

There is a basic level of facilitation skill that is trainable in any manager. Unfortunately, most managers don’t get this training. But that’s another article!! When people come to me looking to join Meeting Magic I am looking for people that I can be proud to work alongside—exceptional facilitators. There are personal qualities I look for that, in my opinion, are the ‘make or break’ of someone being just a good facilitator or a great facilitator. I’m not sure that these qualities can be trained, except through life experience. Take a look at these key facilitation skills and see what you think—training or upbringing?

The ability to put others needs before their own. One of my acid tests for facilitators is ‘are they there for the group?’ I have experienced facilitators that have their own agendas and are therefore not able to support the group working effectively. Whilst facilitation is an active leadership role, it requires a degree of humility, compassion and empathy. Two great books on this topic are Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling and Helping: How to offer, give and receive help by Edgar Schein.

Possessing a passion for learning. Now, lots of people say they want to learn. But what I mean here is an inner thirst to learn, from all that life throws at you—not just going on courses! When someone has this inner desire to learn they will naturally learn from each group they work with, thus being flexible and agile. The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know, so I strive to put my views alongside others without being wedded to them ‘strong ideas loosely held’. There is a huge connection between this passion for learning and the previous quality of putting others needs before ones own.

Self-awareness. I guess this is the first step to learning anything—knowing where you are now. Learning about yourself makes you aware of what you bring into a group and, therefore, enabling a distinction between what’s theirs and yours. This attention, as we call it (with thanks to David Sibbet at The Grove Consultants International), is critical to successful facilitation in that it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage a group unless you are aware of what you are bringing at any moment in relation to what the group is bringing.

The courage to work with the truth—a willingness and skill to create a safe place for the truth to be explored. The key here is care for the group and the individuals within it when doing this work. I have experienced facilitation that ‘pushes people out of the box’. The result is shaming people, leaving them damaged by the experience. My approach is to care for a group when they are vulnerable and working on tough issues. My aim is that the experience is restorative. And, that my facilitation serves the group, rather than my idea of what the group needs.

A genuine embracing of diversity. There is much depth and breadth to what I mean by diversity. It is more than just ethnicity. However, growing up in a mixed race family did enable me to experience diversity of culture and the prejudice that comes from a lack of appreciation of difference. I am sure our values about difference come from our upbringing.

Big picture systems thinking. This is the ability of someone to move their thinking, from the detail of a moment in a meeting, to the wider connection with the organizational strategy. It’s like a helicopter moving into the blades of grass and then up beyond the clouds. Great facilitators have the ability to move between these levels with ease, and support groups in these transitions. This quality of thinking is also what makes a facilitator more than just a facilitator, but a thinking partner with a client, someone who has the intellectual horsepower to work alongside leaders, in support of their leadership.

Humour. When I say humour I don’t mean making fun of others. I mean the ability to laugh at oneself and to see the humour in situations. When I was a junior manager I used to say of myself that a key strength I have is ‘laughing in the face of doom!’ Life has tested this view of myself and I have come through with my humour intact.

There was a great line by Billy Connolly in the film ‘What we did on our holidays’. He says, ‘Every human being is ridiculous in our own way’ – this makes me laugh – I think it’s so true.

So, on one level I know there are foundational facilitation skills that can be trained. These include things like:

  • Purpose, goal and outcome clarification
  • Group process design
  • Framing
  • Improvisation
  • Information management
  • Understanding group dynamics
  • Managing conflict creatively

And, I question whether great facilitation can be achieved without significant work by the individual on themselves. The willingness and ability of someone to do the necessary work requires some of the mindsets I have described above. So, it’s a bit like chicken and egg – you need a certain mindset to enable the learning to develop the mindset to be a great facilitator. Does that make any sense, or am I just writing nonsense – please comment and tell me your views. I am keen to hear what you think.

You are welcome to engage in a conversation about learning to be a facilitator by callings us at +44 (0)1628 471 114 or by completing the contact form.