Thursday, 24 February 2011

How do you explain 'Facilitation' to anyone in this country of ours (United Kingdom)? I have been conducting an experiment - when people ask me "What do you do?", I reply, "I'm a Facilitator". Then the fun begins! They scrunch up their face and a look of pure bewilderment appears. Some bravely try and respond: "Oh so you......, oh do you.....? is that ..........? No I don't know what that means", others just look vacant, whilst others admit straight off that they have no idea what a 'facilitator' is. 
This is happened because we all use word based on its origin. The name "Facilitator" comes from the Latin word Facilis, which means to do or make easy. However, we can also use the word as an adjective and a verb: to facilitate and as an adjective, a facilitated event. This means that all kinds of things can be 'facilitated', all kinds of people can be 'facilitators' and we can facilitate all kinds of things.  

So, obviously facilitation needs a context in order for it to make sense. If I was a trainer or a consultant or a coach the context would say everything I needed it to: "I'm a business/executive coach'; "I train people to use IT systems" or "I provide consultancy in overseas trade". However, even when I try to give a context people look baffled - so is it me? Is it that I can't explain what I do or is it that we don't have an understanding of the context in which I can explain what I mean by facilitate?
So let me try this: "I am a process facilitator". Still no good - I've introduced another bit of jargon!
How about this: "I facilitate meetings". Still little response.
What about: "I facilitate change programmes and projects". Even less understanding!

So in desperation the other day, at a seminar for overseas trade after the usual blank look I said, "Well imagine a meeting and the Chairperson/MD says, 'Why need to analyse the budget, so that we can decide our priorities for next year'. If I was facilitating that meeting I would filter out all the 'red' words: 'budget', 'next year' - and simply focus on the 'green' words: 'analyse', 'prioritise' and think of tools or techniques that would help them do just that, because most people only hear the 'red' words and dive in and add more. The Facilitator trains themselves to hear the 'green' words and thinks of ways to help the group achieve the 'red' outcomes by using 'green' process." Suddenly it was if a light had gone on and she said, "Oh I understand, so you facilitate them by helping provide a way to tackle issues?" "Yes, I said and pressed home my advantage by saying, "And in change, everyone gives their attention to the 'what' has to be achieved/changed. A facilitator, the 'change agent' provides the process to achieve the desired outcomes. It's just on a larger scale to a meeting." 

Suddenly it was as if we were long lost buddies and she could see the need for this in so many contexts! Yet she wasn't thinking about facilitating the building of roads, or facilitating the lunch we were having, she recognised that it had an arena, a place that it fitted.

Sadly, the other day I also went to a seminar where a speaker told us about the change. After the usual questions the host asked us to, 'Share your experiences with each other'. Suddenly an event that had order and structure, disintegrated. Why? Because the host didn't give us a 'format' or any process to do the sharing. Some people broke off into twos, others into threes but as we were all seated in rows it was difficult to have real dialogue. So where was the: facilitation, facilitator or facilitated activity! The feedback from that was dominated by a couple of vocal people who were intend on being seen and heard - so sad and disappointing!

So, my friends, if someone tells you that they ARE a Facilitator, stroke their arm gently, talk in a soft tone and listen to their plight. Befriend a Facilitator today - ask them what they do!

How time goes by!

It struck me how important it is to manage time when facilitating a group. I don't mean the time the (sub) group take when they are tackling the tasks - rather the time that guest speaker take in plenary sessions when they indulge themselves with their topic.
No amount of good planning can overcome a speaker who takes more time than was allotted to them, no matter how good they are (or think they are)!
I thought that I had leant my lesson many years ago when someone hijacked a workshop by taking forever to make the presentation that they thought the participants MUST hear. However, it's happened again and I think the lesson is: never, never leave it to someone else to brief the speaker. Instead, make yourself known and go through what they are going to say, encourage them to make it relevant and make it clear to them how important it is to stick to time.
On the other hand, recently I was facilitating a five day workshop and we had decided to keep people's feedback down to two minutes. At a break point one participant walked up to me and asked my advise - they were thinking of leaving the workshop. The reason: they felt that their English wasn't good enough. How did they come to that conclusion? They hadn't been able to think about what they wanted to say, translate it into English and say it within the allotted two minutes!
The moral: be aware of individual's needs and in the same way as the formal speaker, encourage people to share what they want to say BEFORE they have to speak out in the group. For me this goes back to 'format' - making sure that the group is working in the best way (one to all, everyone, group or all to one). The experience of the guest speaker and the feedback reinforce my feeling that 'one to all' format is to be used with extreme caution.
If anyone wants more information about 'formats' and other useful information about Facilitation, they can get my book: "Facilitation - an art, science, skill or all three?" from