Lately, I was facilitating a visual inquiry of a group of facilitators about the meaning of facilitation. The group uncovered a series of interesting metaphors. The visual results made me think. I love the plenary system of people with the facilitator reaching out to connect; or the big fluid of perspectives and ideas that get transformed into something new; or the flower platform where ideas get cross-pollinated (see the metaphors on the SDC Learning & Networking blog).

Finding a good metaphor

A good metaphor goes beyond the obvious and provides a new perspective. I realized that comparing the facilitator’s role with other professions like an architect, a juggler or a gardener (like I did in a previous blog post) is limiting.

By associating an unfamiliar idea with one that is commonplace, you can spark better understanding of complex ideas.

So, what is my personal metaphor representing what I do as facilitator? How do I explain to others my work in a visual and creative way?

Leaving for a boat trip

Facilitation is like going on a boat trip. Sailing a boat is a journey, so is sharing and learning.

  • The trip starts with defining the destination: Where are we heading to and why? What is the purpose of our journey?
  • Who are the passengers? What experience in sailing a boat do they have? How much luggage do they bring? What do they expect to see and experience? What do they want to bring home?
  • What is the best route to take? What’s our travelling time? How are the weather conditions? Are we prepared for rough sea and storm?


There is another important question to make the journey a success: What kind of vessel do we need for our adventure? Is a little rowing boat fine or do we need something stronger? What about a two-master clipper for a deep experience of sea and wind? Or do we need a cargo boat for all the luggage to take? Or an icebreaker?

The vessel is the space. And space matters a lot in workshops too. Framing the space and creating the right atmosphere is a crucial step in the preparation phase a facilitator is supporting.

What is your personal metaphor for the facilitator’s role(s)?

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