The role of the facilitator is becoming more and more popular. Consultancies as well as big corporations see the need to create job profiles for people who help other people work better. But who are they? What exactly are they doing? How do they create their magic? This post describes the job and the character traits of a facilitator. If you see yourself as one, would like to become one, think about identifying the right people in your company or even hiring facilitators, this post is for you.
The term facilitation originates in the latin word “facilis” which means easy. Looking at it from the language angle the job of a facilitator is to make things easy. Taking an even closer look at the practice of professional facilitation and the daily tasks it is all about communication:
facilitators provide a platform for well structured group discussions, they ease the communication between different stakeholders and help them create a desired output.
Facilitators can be found in many areas. In the best case almost every job requires some kind of facilitation skill in order to be done successfully: politicians and diplomats fulfill the function of facilitators when they bring different political perspectives together. Mediators and lawyers enable the communication between opposing parties. Human resource experts translate between a company offering a position and a job seeker willing to apply. Designers and user researchers guide the discussion between producers and consumers of products and services. Managers facilitate the collaboration of their teams and the cooperation with other teams. The list could go on forever. The problem is: most of the time these “facilitators” are unaware of their role in the communication process. Sometimes they apply methods and tools consciously, most of the time they don’t.
Just like many other aspects of human life, collaboration can and should be consciously designed. In the field of innovation (eg. design thinking, creative problem solving etc.), corporate foresight (eg. scenario planning) or participatory strategy making (eg. capacity works) the need for facilitators is more obvious, but even in every day work life, facilitators can help their teams. Even short meetings can be improved, if someone takes on the task to identify the common goals, to ensure participation and shared responsibility amongst the participants and to moderate the conversation enabling everyone to have a say.
Facilitators are different as opposed to other roles in the process of professional collaboration.
Facilitators who are aware of their role in the communication process and who accept their role as such have one big advantage to other consultants, managers etc.: They don’t think they know the answer to the question at hand! Unlike traditional consultants who would be hired to provide an answer, facilitators focus on the process of knowledge creation and collaboration rather then on the content. Instead of taking a project brief, going back to their studio, working on the project and presenting the outcome, a facilitator guides teams through the process of solving their own problems. This is similar to the work of a coach or mediator, but very different to a typical advisor.
Based on the concept of not knowing the answer to the question a facilitator will help teams to learn for themselves. Managers who acknowledge their role as facilitators will help their teams to find their own solutions to the challenges they are working on. Teachers who see themselves as facilitators will enable the students to find new answers instead of memorizing other peoples’ answers. This is a much more sustainable approach since it usually inspires more. Something that you have learned by your own experience will stick much more to your memory. A challenge that you have solved on your own will motivate you much more.
A magician is only as good as his tricks. In order to be a great magician you therefore have to know great tricks. The same is true for facilitators. If you really want to inspire people to collaborate better, you have to read, learn, apply and experience as many different methods, tools and approaches as you can. Some facilitators feel that their tricks – just like magic – should not be copied. They keep them hidden. Personally I rather believe in sharing and I think only if you share your methods you can grow beyond them and create even better magic.
In order to facilitate a great workshop, a magical meeting or even an inspiring long-term collaboration (eg. as a manager) you have to be mindful of your own appearance, your own moods and your methods of dealing with them. Just like an entertainer the facilitator has to find a way to keep smiling. The show must always go on. This does not mean that the facilitator should be fake. It is important that facilitators contribute their own experience, but they should not make their problems the problems of the group they are working with.
What kind of personality is best suited to work as a facilitator?
Facilitators think of themselves as experts of problem solving processes rather then experts of individual topics. This is why you have to be a generalist to be a facilitator. As a facilitator it is your job to make sure that people from diverse backgrounds collaborate well. If the facilitator does not possess a natural curiosity towards the perspectives of other people, diverse topics and challenges, it will be difficult to connect to others.
Tip: Train your openness and curiosity by changing your perspective. Implement change into your life. Go to a movie you would normally never go to. Read new books. Eat strange food. Work on unknown topics. Travel to different countries and emerge yourself into other cultures.
The great curiosity goes along with a strong empathy and compassion for others. When working with so many different people from different backgrounds, facilitators learn that each individual perspective has its own limits and justifications. Most of the time the facilitator has to step into the shoes of his team in order to understand their challenges and to find the right words for them. Therefor compassion is a skill every facilitator has to master.
Tip: Practice compassion and empathy. Try to see the world from the perspective of the people around you: What does your husband think? Your friend? The colleague you had an argument with? Try to understand, why they see the world in their way. What makes them think the way they think about something? Where do you see similarities to your own thinking and where are the differences? What lies behind these differences?
Even though facilitators should always be prepared for their gigs, they have to be comfortable with improvisation. Just like jazz musicians facilitators know their tunes and their melodies by heart but they also know how to recompose and reorganize them in order to find the right sound for the moment.
Tip: At the d.school at Stanford university they have a class called “Creative Gym”. In this class the students seem to play the whole time. They do improv theatre and play kindergarten games. They work in diverse groups, sometimes big – sometimes small. To an outsider it might look a little bit strange, but the hypothesis behind this is that you can grow your creative muscle by doing these activities. Scientific research also indicates that it actually works. You can try it out by doing simple warm-ups every once in a while (with or without your colleagues). A great resource for creative games can be found at the improv encyclopedia. I often use it as inspiration for workshop warm-ups.
The ability to think from the perspective of the participants enables facilitators to find the right words in order to create a constructive atmosphere. Instead of insisting in their position, they try to find the common ground. Instead of pushing through their own opinion or any opinion of one individual, they manage to apply their collaboration methods in order to translate and mediate between different opinions in order to come to a new conclusion.
Tip: Next time you think you are right and the other person is wrong, make the effort to think the opposite: What changes, if your perspective is wrong and the other person is right? How does it make you feel? If you adopt the others’ perspective, do you still understand your own arguments? When you have done this exercise, how could you find an argument that mediates the two opposing perspectives? How can you find a new solution to the question by combining both perspectives?
This magazine is dedicated to facilitators and everyone interested in the field of creative collaboration. Please feel free to comment below, what your idea of a great facilitator is and let’s connect. I am always looking for inspiring people to meet, to learn from and to collaborate with.