What makes a great facilitator?

In trying out my daughter’s technique of looking up synonyms to use in GCSE essays, I found lots of other words for facilitator - there were some real gems; including aider and abettor, catalyst and comforter, expeditor and encourager, promoter, reliever and supporter.

These terms sound ridiculous in a business environment, but they all convey something of the emotional intelligence and wit required to be a good facilitator, and go beyond the mechanistic disciplines of good preparation, time management and note taking. Some of these synonyms might conjure the picture of a wise guide, equipped with a compass and a map of the secret paths through the forest to reach the promised land. In a work context, a good understanding of human psychology, group dynamics and organisational politics are the tools of the facilitator’s trade.

As for any guide, the facilitator must have a clear idea of the desired destination for the group. The client will usually start with a vivid description of the problem they are trying to solve, or the intractable people issues that are complicating matters. Without straining the nature metaphor too far, they are often stuck in the proverbial ‘wood for the trees’ scenario.

A good facilitator resists the temptation to join the client in hacking at the briars in the forest, and helps them to focus on the end goal. Whether the group will spend a few hours or a few days together, the facilitator must help the client to articulate a clear purpose, so that the group’s time can be spent most effectively.

Sometimes this means breaking the news to the client that they are unlikely to solve all the problems between team members before lunchtime, with or without a facilitator. Keeping in mind the bigger picture, the good facilitator helps the client to focus on the priorities, so that if there really is only a morning session available, they use it to solve one simple problem, or take one step in solving a more complex problem.

The premise here of course is that there is a problem to solve. Many team away days or strategy planning sessions are intended to be positive experiences, not problem solving sessions. Even if there are no visible tensions in the team, and the directors have a very clear idea of their mission and vision, and it’s ‘just a matter of getting it all down on paper,’ the good facilitator anticipates and pro-actively manages conflict.

The facilitator spends time in advance understanding if there may be conflicting agendas - whether personal or organisational, between members of the group. A great facilitator will ask the client the right questions and read between the lines as well as hearing the obvious answers. A good facilitator will create exercises and discussion topics that are inclusive of all views, and if carefully managed, can keep everyone engaged and moving in the right direction. Sometimes, planning in a short diversion off the main path will accommodate the views of potential dissenters, and ultimately get the whole group to the destination in better shape than if they were dragged there kicking and screaming.

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers by Gray, Brown and Macanufo has some great tools for opening, exploring and closing group discussions.

Someone recently told me they had really enjoyed a three day leadership programme where there wasn’t a single Powerpoint slide. A deck of slides is certainly the most convenient map to keep everyone on track, but in the same way as our mythical guide doesn’t rely on Satnav, the great facilitator does not reveal to the group every detail of the session plan. This allows for flexibility, diversions, and improvisation in response to issues that arise, or group dynamics that evolve. The good facilitator builds in contingency time and alternative activities, to respond to the needs of the group, always keeping in mind the ultimate destination.

There is no doubt that these ‘soft skills’ are the differentiators between the mediocre and the great facilitators, but no amount of creativity, wit and flexibility will compensate for poor time management. The good facilitator will close a session at the agreed time, and even if the group haven't reached the original destination they have a clear idea of the actions and timing of next steps.