This question came up recently when Ewen Le Borgne and I conducted an in-house online facilitation training with a global action network. As a sort of afterthought, we reflected the above and some more questions were asked during the online training.
Read also Ewen’s reflection: What it means to be a facilitator – The dawn of ‘Facilitators unplugged’ chats?
Personally, I find meta reflections on collaboration and learning extremely inspiring. I enjoy the kind of questions that invite for reflection and inquiry.
So, let’s dive into the question of what a facilitator manages.
If you already worked with me, you know that I talk often about the ‘Ps’ when it comes to the basics of facilitation. We must get the purpose clear, know about the people joining and what they bring along and finally design a process that is flowing. (There are more Ps evidently, for example preparation, practicalities, pitfalls, product, platform/ place, presence, …).
The P of people is dear to me. As facilitators it is my task and aspiration to connect people and invite them to interact.
But a facilitator certainly cannot manage people and should not even try.
In the facilitation classic ‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There. Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter’, Marvin Weisbord, and Sandra Janoff made it clear: “You can’t control people’s motives, behaviour, or attitudes. You can control the conditions under which people interact, and you can control your own reactions.”
So, what precisely does a facilitator manage then?
To Ewen it’s clear: “The facilitator manages the process and relationships.”
I admit I never phrased it like that. I played with the Ps. But I agree, facilitation is a relationship business. Fully.
When a facilitator manages a process, she/ he manages relationships. This goes hand in hand.
So, let’s have a closer look into this relational task.
‘Before’ is where the facilitator’s work starts, in the planning, designing, and communicating the workshop. Before any single ‘participant’ enters the (virtual) workshop room is also where the relationship management starts.
The facilitator supports the organizing team. Facilitation is not a one woman show, and no show at all. On the contrary. The first step is developing a partnership with the organizing team responsible for the workshop, clarifying important questions such as the purpose, needs, expectations and roles of everyone who will be involved.
Based on the guiding purpose, the facilitator supports the organizing team in developing a process and reaching out to participants to invite them in as actors, contributors, and players. Designing a process is all about relationships: Who will interact with whom, when and why. Different engaging participation formats will allow everyone to be connected, included, engaged and related to each other.
“The facilitator’s job is to help everyone to do their best thinking. The facilitator serves absolutely everyone, supporting everyone to feel helped, to feel supported, to feel encouraged to express their thoughts. There is no-one else who has that commitment.”Ewen Le Borgne
During the workshop, the facilitator is the one who simply ‘stands there’, fully present assisting the group, reading the room, and intervening if necessary to make sure everyone is heard.
So, it is time to tick the boxes: What do you manage as facilitator?
Time? Yes, that’s part of the process.
The process? Evidently yes, that’s the basic.
Room arrangements? Sure.
Expectations? Yes, that’s part of the preparation process.