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The Art of Facilitating (Hint, it’s not “talking enthusiastically”)

Posted on July 12, 2014 by: Lisa Koss

“I’m going to tell you all about this topic…It’s really a great idea!  And then you will end up fascinated too!”

This is the message I hear – either explicitly or implicitly – from would-be facilitators.  In fact, there are many people who confuse the concepts of “talking enthusiastically” and “facilitating”.

This topic has been on my mind because we, at Ontos, have been watching and training a number of people lately who are aspiring facilitators.  What these individuals have in common is their expertise, high enthusiasm, and energy for their topic.  Energy and enthusiasm are critical elements because often the energy of a group leader is infectious and  allows the group gain interest in the topic. However, what is not universal among facilitators is the extent to which a group leader is able to engage others meaningfully on the topic.

We can all feel the difference between the following kinds of statements:  “This information will change your life” and “How do you think this information can help you?”  The first is a perspective about how the information has impacted the speaker.  The second asks the audience to think for themselves and translate or personalize the information.

Or consider this example:  A group leader talks for a period of time and then simply asks the group, “Are there any questions?” before moving on.  Instead, the leader can ask something such as “What part of what I’ve just described got your attention, and why?”

Often we don’t engage with the audience because we’re afraid of what we might hear.  We actually don’t want feedback because we feel unsure about how the ideas are being received or we feel unsure about what we are saying.   I’ve had this feeling myself at times. Ironically, the audience will actually experience more insight and value when they are asked to connect the message delivered with their own experience.  The way we engage others is by asking compelling questions and supporting the members of the group to have important conversations with each other.  If we are not hitting the mark with the message, it’s better to know it and pivot.

So what is the difference really between talking and facilitating?  A facilitator (and also a good trainer*) has the ability to interact in such a way that the value of the topic or material are personalized and self-evident.  By this I mean the person comes to the insights on their own that the leader is trying to impart. To achieve this requires is a combination of many factors, including:

  1. A deep familiarity with the context and experience of the group versus having only expertise in the subject
  2. An ability to structure the learning environment appropriately through a design that ensures safety, engages the group, and allows them to discover learning for themselves
  3. An ability to change the group’s direction or even the entire design based on what actually happens in the moment.  This requires great listening skills, a flexible approach, experience with many different facilitation techniques, and great process skills.  It is this element where an excellent facilitator makes the difference in the session outcome.

Teaching others the art and science of facilitating is difficult because it involves significant practice, reflection, and lots of feedback.  I have spent dozens of hours tracking what great facilitators do, how they create ideal learning environments and subsequently attempting to incorporate those techniques into my own style.  In fact, for many years, while I would listen to speakers I would keep a paper in front of me with a line down the middle.  To the left of the line, I would track the content of the presentation that I wanted to remember.  To the right side of the line, I would write down process points and facilitation techniques I wanted to use myself.   This is a focused way to learn on two levels: content and process.

I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic of facilitation, of course.  But a good litmus test is to know how engaged your audience is and how many of the group (not just the facilitator) are talking enthusiastically.


*Some ask us about the difference between training and facilitating.  To that question I respond that for facilitation there is a general, pre-defined outcome around which the session is designed, but that the group determines the content of the session in the moment.  For training, the content and outcome is primarily determined by the trainer who engages the group while driving the agenda.  Of course, these are not hard and fast distinctions.  The best trainers are also great facilitators understanding when to teach and when to let the group drive.


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