• Sherry P. Johnson

Eight Things Facilitators Do

So what do you do?
I'm a facilitator.
You're a what, now? A facilitator?
Yes. I help groups make better, more inclusive decisions.
Oh... That sounds nice. They move away to refresh their beverage.

I have this conversation a lot. I imagine the other person thinking they've heard that word somewhere. "Facilitation" was part of that job description they wrote or saw. It's something about leading groups. Everybody does that in people-facing work, right? And lots of people hate doing it, though they never say it out loud. And that's a whole profession?

I've seen facilitation do amazing things for group dynamics and organizational strategy. I've also seen facilitation do a lot of lasting damage... Though, to be fair, that variety is often public-relations, training, or outright manipulation disguised as facilitation.

So what do facilitators do? And how is it different from what a director, manager, trainer, coordinator, or event planner does? As I see it, here are the primary things a good facilitator does for a group:

  1. Facilitators work with a core team to tailor a process to the purpose and context.

  2. Facilitators draw upon a library of practiced methods to plan ahead--to skillfully design appropriate process--for any group, from assessment, through intervention, to implementation.

  3. Facilitators release time and energy of trainers, coordinators, and decision-makers so they can focus on content delivery, communications, and organizational mission.

  4. Facilitators provide a relatively neutral and welcoming presence that encourages meaningful dialogue, rather than positional monologues.

  5. Facilitators help prevent and respond to difficult behaviors by a single party or vocal minority with experience-informed interventions.

  6. Facilitators enable equitable participation from everyone--from new arrivals, to axe-grinders, to worker bees, to leaders and visionaries. Excellent facilitators also harness the special power of outliers.

  7. Great facilitators create clear, actionable documentation of events and help keep energy flowing through transparent, clear communications.

  8. Facilitators help groups stay curious and prevent premature decision-making. They provide just enough structure--enough enabling constraints--to help groups wrestle with uncertainty.

According to MIT's Sloan Review, the average employee spends six hours per week in meetings, with managers and leaders spending exponentially more. That's more than 300 hours per year spent in group process. In corporate settings, senior staff meetings are sometimes referred to as "expensive rooms." It's a meaningful meditation to calculate the cost of circular conversations, information delivery, personality conflicts, agenda hijacking, and jockeying for power.

Facilitation reduces waste and adds value. For regular meetings, training a core of internal facilitators increases productivity and improves culture. Moreover, when organizations need meetings to spur innovation, yield strategy, or foster culture-change, professional facilitation from an outside source has no parallel in making the time count.

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