Developing the Group’s Facilitation Skills While We Facilitate

The exciting role of a developmental facilitator is to inspire, lead, and structure the group and at the same time help participants learn to facilitate their own process. Serving as a guide and catalyst, the facilitator with heart helps people focus their energy while fostering learning, creativity, productivity, and ownership.

In traditional facilitation, the facilitator helps a group solve a problem by using process skills. This is a short-term fix where the group depends on the facilitator. By contrast, a developmental facilitation process helps groups function more effectively, now and in the future. The facilitator not only helps the group work on a specific issue, but also uses the opportunity to improve their process, enhancing their own facilitation skills as they go, which reduces dependence on the facilitator.

Desired Outcomes of the Facilitation Process

The first step of facilitating any group is to determine the desired outcomes. My hopes and dreams for the group are not nearly as important as the hopes and dreams they have for themselves. Some outcomes that our clients repeatedly ask for include:

  • improve communication skills
  • resolve conflicts
  • enhance working relationships
  • improve quality of decisions
  • develop leadership skills
  • improve facilitation skills
  • build on team spirit
  • deal with resistance to change

Each group is unique and has its own desired outcomes. Many times, people just want a sense of progress. Paula Kellogg retired from teaching, but kept her hunger for learning and developing people when she shifted her profession to coaching and facilitating. With a reputation for bringing people together, she wasn’t surprised when the State Department of Education asked her to facilitate a contentious meeting between the six largest school districts, some wealthy, some poor. Their goal was to complete a project that had stalled. Here’s how she describes her experience:

I never knew why I chose to become a teacher – I thought of it as a quick way to get through school and get summers off. Much later I learned that working with children was a way for me to heal my sadness as a child. Likewise, I didn’t really know why I chose coaching and facilitating as a second career. I thought, “I can work from home, set my own hours,” and only afterwards realized I want connection and deep reflection. As a result, I am more careful about the work I accept, which allows me more time for reflection. I’ve kept a journal since I was 17, but I’ve started using my journal very differently. Every night I ask myself, what am I learning? Each morning I ask, what are my opportunities? My learning and my opportunities have exploded.

When clients call, I wonder what exciting things they will put at my feet. Right by my phone, I have criteria for saying yes. Does my gut say “whoa!”? If there is a compelling outside-the-box reason to say yes, I’ll find time on my calendar. Training myself not to say yes, just because someone wants me, leads me to balance. Reflection, really noticing what I say yes to, is a fairly new phenomenon in my life.

Right away I wanted to work with the Department of Education because I knew we’d all learn something. They came with a lot of baggage – the people representing the poor districts were on guard and people from the rich districts seemed to want others to know how much they could do with all their resources. So I started with an Appreciative Inquiry question, “Describe a time when you knew you had picked a career that made you come alive.” They were shocked, but all started sharing. The whole room started softening. They were a room full of suits, but they became a room of people. Talking about aliveness brought some commonality.

Another shift occurred when I pulled an empty chair to the table and said, “This chair represents the students. I would like to have them be part of the conversation.” I usually like to sit in the center of the long side of the table, not on the end. Even with me in that position, they were talking to me and not to each other. As we started through the preliminary agenda, I took my pad and sat away from the table. They began speaking to each other, identifying problems, which I translated into questions we needed to answer. They began to answer them randomly, so I stood behind the chair of the student, brought the attention there, to point them toward the answers.

After I invited the non-talkers to share, from here they continued on their own. Occasionally I’d steer them back to questions that hadn’t been answered, until all were answered. They worked together and felt a sense of accomplishment and were surprised when I asked, “So what? What does that mean? Now what shall we do?”

After some dialogue, they set up a think tank to meet regularly to discuss how they were alike and how they could work together to support the children. They got some dates on the calendar (which is usually next to impossible) to develop and organize think tanks.

They seemed complete, but I asked permission to process the work. They talked about what they learned from the Appreciative Inquiry questions, changing the geographical position in the facilitator, and the power of the empty chair. At the end of the meeting, as I reflected, I thought, “Whoa. They got along, stepped into new relationships, and they also learned about facilitating a meeting.” Not that bells went off, but people experienced true transformation.

I hold a deep belief in the brilliance of children. They’re born that way. As a teacher it’s second nature for me to look for brilliance in adults. The facilitation process affirms my belief that people are brilliant and that I don’t have to be the fixer. All I did was help set the atmosphere, turn their problems into questions, and got the hell out of the way. I brought attention to the true purpose of the meeting: the children, and I noticed who wasn’t sharing. I gained confidence in my ability to set the stage to move groups. My belief in myself takes away some fear which allows people to breathe. I love my job because I contribute to people’s growth. They deepen their connection to themselves, and it’s not about me.

Another piece of learning is that I don’t have to be such a planner. I didn’t need to know much about the issue. If I listen, particularly to what’s unsaid, I can do it. People want to get along. They don’t want to be territorial. Given the opportunity, they choose harmony.

Paula’s willingness to get out of the way comes from confidence in the group process and years of experience. What I admire most about her experience is her commitment to developing the facilitation skills of her clients. Instead of doing all the work for them, she transfers her skills to the group, despite limited time. Some facilitators would see this as making themselves obsolete, but Paula sees it as giving added value.

Written by Martha Lasley, Originally published in Facilitating with Heart

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