The Facilitator as Conscious Sailor

I’m working on a Facilitation Skills course for leaders and thinking hard about how to distill 30 years of experience into a day. My definition of an effective facilitator is “Someone who makes the work of the group easier, through planned and spontaneous interventions.”  I think it captures the aspect of being of service to the group, and the facilitator’s responsibility to bring something important to the table.

A good metaphor comes to mind:  The way of the Conscious Sailor. I imagine that when heading out for a day on Lake Ontario I’d want calm waters and balmy skies. I’m most happy when I can skillfully relax, unfurling sails and letting the wind move the boat in the desired direction. Before setting out, I’d have checked the boat for safety and proactively loaded supplies. I’m prepared and I’m eagerly anticipating the fun and challenge of sailing. Of course, I have a motor onboard, and I’m trained for unplanned storms. When the sails aren’t enough, I start the engine and assertively steer the boat to safer waters.

In plain language, what’s most important for good facilitation?

  1. Set an agenda and a process that will fulfill the group’s objective. If you have several objectives, make choices and be realistic in your plan. Take advantage of the chance to dialogue and remove work best done another way. Clarify expectations about member’s contributions and give everyone time to prepare to fully participate. Especially be clear how decisions will be made.
  2. In the moment, hold the space for the group to achieve its best. This means your presence should lessen personal anxiety for people, especially when you expect the topic or dynamics to necessarily be tense. Model the highest degree of active listening, respectful inquiry, and make time to summarize and acknowledge what is given. Provide effective (and sometimes fun) ways for people to work together – pairs, triads, small groups. Use clear and written instructions to align activity (especially in large groups) so everyone feels they are in-the-same-boat.
  3. Serve the group in a way that empowers them. Remove distractions and irritants. Be the time-keeper and the scribe if it frees up the group to concentrate on the work. Observe the dynamics and interactions, and if you have permission to do so, coach them on better ways to get where they want to go. When the group is stuck, determine if they need a helping hand, or if the struggle is part of the group’s development trajectory. (aka the storming phase). Be prepared to step in to stop bad behaviour or assist the natural leader to do so.

Good facilitation looks easier than it is. For more about these skills, I recommend The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz as your handbook.

Leaders ask me if they should facilitate their own meetings, or bring me in. It depends on the topic, the group and the leader. Most leaders facilitate regular team meetings and use a facilitator for special occasions – strategic planning, complex discussions or those with diverse stakeholders. I’d say: Facilitate yourself when you are willing to be influenced by the group, you are able to create a safe space AND you feel confident you can skillfully attend to both the work and the group dynamics.

Lao Tzu said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”  It’s the same with facilitation. At the end of the day, the group should say, “We did it ourselves.”

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