Facilitation, like the word leadership, is overused. It’s also confusing. People often use the term to refer to running a meeting, hosting a town hall, presenting information, clicking through a PowerPoint and many things in between. Facilitation is fashionable so everything is now seemingly facilitated. Like leadership, the practise of facilitation can mean something quite specific. In this piece we step out what we mean when we say, ‘we are facilitators’. We’ve spent a good deal of time in the last eight years thinking about how teaching, training and facilitation are complementary but distinct learning modes. 

These distinctions were first offered to us by a mentor and colleague Simon Nette. We decided it was time to share our interpretation on the art of facilitation. We want to honour its history, distinguish its current use and consider how improving the standards of facilitation might make a difference in the ways groups of people can work together to tackle tough challenges and thrive. 

We reckon the skills involved to be a facilitator are very similar to the ones needed to practise leadership in rapidly changing social, economic and ecological contexts. 

Distinguishing Teaching, Training & Facilitation

Facilitation is the practice of enabling individuals or groups of people to (a) make decisions, (b) share their perspectives, and, (c) derive their own insights. We see facilitation as a distinct learning or engagement mode from teaching or training in that the knowledge/perspectives sits with the participants, not with the facilitator (or teacher or trainer). It is the role of the facilitator to create an environment where participants can make the necessary decisions, share their relevant perspectives and derive their own insights.

Teaching, on the other hand, is the transfer of knowledge from an expert to a learner. The knowledge resides with the teacher whose role it is to impart that knowledge onto the students; the ultimate goal being gaining understanding of the content. Training, is the transfer of skills from trainer to novice; the aim being that the novice reaches a new level of applied competence. Importantly, as we shift along the learning mode spectrum from teaching, training and facilitation the input from the facilitator (or the person in front of the room) decreases and the input from the participants/stakeholders increases. In a facilitated moment, the participant is the expert and owner of their opinion, perspective or insight – not the facilitator.

This distinction is artificially clean. An engaging teacher can be facilitative and a training session will likely have teaching moments. Quality educators focussed on developing human potential deploy all three modes. In our experience, having the distinctions in play allows for a finer appreciation for when authority/expertise is needed to guide a group and when the group needs to ‘take the work back’ and hold itself to account. Groups that rely on a facilitator breed a reliance on authority figures. Facilitators who act as experts risk robbing groups and individuals of their own insights, perspectives and choices.

The History of Facilitation

Facilitation in the sense that we’re talking about has deep roots in person centred therapy, psychodynamics and the work of the Tavistock Institute. Practitioners from these schools emphasise that people need to be in charge of their own learning, skill acquisition and, ultimately, development. Much of this work emerged in a post-war era looking for new ways of understanding group psychology that did not rely on second-hand insights or the dictatorship of singular truth. Glen Ochre, the late founder of Melbourne’s Groupwork Institute, distilled the essence of facilitation as, “drawing out the wisdom of the group”. This, together with Carl Rogers’ maxim, “everything you need is in the room” guides our work. It reminds us to trust people (given the right processes) to uncover, share and choose what’s relevant to them.

Placing calculated faith in people and facilitated processes enables us to observe and interpret group dynamics in a way that serves their needs, not ours. Facilitating like this in a leadership development context means participants have the space and support to investigate themes like trust, expertise, identities, power, creativity, influence and dominance. Trusting the ‘room’ means that decisions, perspectives and insights emerge from the people instead of being imposed onto them. A group of people in a room is all you need to explore the way in which human systems fall apart and come together. We acknowledge our mentors Simon Nette, Maxime Fern, Michael Johnstone who taught, trained and enabled us to come to our own understanding of facilitation.

How we apply facilitation

Polykala has focussed on facilitating insights in three broad domains: leadership development, organisational culture and the exploration of demographic and cognitive diversity. We’ve been blending pedagogical modes with a wide palette of creative and artistic forms to bring this work to life. We’ll teach a concept in its simplest form and guide groups through a sequence of exercises designed to inculcate particular skills. This might involve people tasting an obscure blend of juices to learn how to communicate collaboratively or playing improv games to explore agency, risk and initiative. We then step back and offer participants a process to unpack their own experiences to throw light on default behaviours or symptoms of the system. Stepping back, suspending our judgments and answers places the onus onto individuals operating within a culture to discover what is true and relevant for them.

Alert facilitators are sensitive to the dynamics of each group. They create and maintain a holding environment that maximises people’s participation, protects dissenting voices and exposes the relevant fault lines and convergences. Facilitation is the art of enabling groups of people to share perspectives, make decisions and arrive at insights that make a difference to their lives in their contexts.