What on earth actually IS a facilitator?

When I tell people I am a facilitator, more often than not I have to follow it up with some examples. This is because the term, a bit like being a “consultant,” can mean lots of different things!
In the field of education, trainers and teachers are often called facilitators. In the field of management consulting, people implementing organisational change may be referred to as a facilitator.
And then there are the resource facilitators, programme facilitators and project facilitators operating within many fields…
Whilst these roles will typically require facilitation skills, they differ to those of a process facilitator, which is what I believe best sums up the evolving profession that I belong to.

So what IS different?

Those involved in education often have knowledge they need to impart, or learning outcomes to meet. The effective trainers, of course, will do their role in a facilitative way: drawing first on trainees’ knowledge, and actively engaging trainees in finding their own answers.

Those involved in management consulting may have a pre-determined organisational structure to implement: again, the best of those will use facilitation skills to fully engage affected staff in that process.

Likewise the resource or programme facilitator is ‘making it easy’ for others to access or implement something. Those of you old enough to have done Latin at school will, of course, recognise that ‘facile’ the root of the word comes from the Latin facilis, meaning ‘easy.’

OK then. Process Facilitator? What’s that?

A definition of a Process Facilitator that I like best, was developed by the three Kiwi’s behind the establishment of Zenergy one of Aotearoa – New Zealand’s first facilitation focused organisations.

In their seminal book The Zen of Groups, Dale Hunter, Anne Bailey and Bill Taylor say:

“Group facilitation is the art of guiding the group towards agreed objectives.

A facilitator guides the process and does not get involved in the content.

A facilitator intervenes to protect the group process and keep the group on track to fulfil its task.” (Hunter et al, 1992)

With this year being the 30th anniversary of my working life as a professional facilitator, I’ve come to appreciate just how significant the dimension of ‘process’ that this definition describes actually is.

When we talk about ‘process’ it’s what the facilitator does to help the group explore the topic it needs to talk about.
Compare a chaotic meeting where people in the room aren’t even sure what they are there for, compared to one where ideas and options are clearly set out and explored.

In the latter there is a ‘process’ helping the group ‘map the territory’ of its discussion. Ensuring any information or materials are ‘on point’ in relation to the discussion purpose – not too much and not too little.

The mark of a truly effective process facilitator doesn’t stop there: the effective facilitator will be guiding the group through its discussion in a way that that is inclusive and participatory. The last important attribute of the effective process facilitator to highlight is their attention to ensuring the group completes its session with a useful, useable result. That has the buy-in of everyone in the group.