Group facilitation is a generalist role. Often facilitators are called to help with a decision-making process or to moderate discussions at an event. Group facilitators need a varied skillset. Their job includes monitoring time, group process, emotions, and behaviors. Needs for extensive and specific group work might be better met by consultants with specific skillsets, such as mediators to help with conflict resolution. The following list describes how a group facilitator can benefit your group discussion. These descriptions can also be used to help a group that is using its own members as facilitators.
Value of External Facilitators
While it may seem that someone in your group could do an adequate job at facilitating, the following are some ways an external facilitator is helpful:
- The internal facilitator makes a trade off of not being able to focus on and contribute because they’re distracted thinking about how to manage time and keep the agenda moving.
- Trying to be the facilitator and a contributor at the same time introduces a power imbalance, where the facilitator might keep the group focused more on a topic they believe is most important, even if they intend to be fair about time allocation.
- External facilitators likely don’t have an emotional attachment to certain people or topics, so they can be more objective. They can create inclusive, equitable spaces.
- External facilitators can offer a fresh and unbiased perspective on challenging issues. This can help group members remain engaged, with the expectation that their current contribution and attitude will be more important than times in the past when they may have been unimpressive.
- As consultants, facilitators take a leadership role in a meeting without having a conflict of interest, without a personal stake or involvement in the issues discussed, and without decision-making power over the group members.
- Sets the pace by mentioning set timeframes for discussing specific topics, redirects if discussion gets more detailed than is useful
- Keeps track of time, such as by suggesting when to have a “bio break”
- Suggests break-out groups for a set amount of time
- Closes the group, which could take the form of an evaluation; the facilitator might name instances of desired group behaviors, in order to promote them, such as cooperation, mutual trust, constructive disagreement, and encouragement
- Ensures that all are clear about the meeting’s purpose and agenda items
- Re-focuses the group if it strays from the process agreed on for the meeting or if members are unfamiliar with the process
- Balances group input, ensuring that all viewpoints are heard, by drawing out less talkative members and making sure the most talkative don’t dominate
- Helps the group stay on topic by noticing tangents, suggesting a revisit of a topic later if it’s important, and redirecting to the agreed-on agenda or priorities
- Clarifies by inviting background information when needed, examining assumptions, rephrasing another’s potentially confusing statement, summarizing, checking for group’s level of agreement, asking for feedback on the facilitator’s statements
- Helps track the discussion by making notes, often as a large display such as whiteboard, about important points such as an agreement reached
- Points out when some are treating opinions as facts
- Reformulates the discussion by creating a list of areas of agreement and areas of disagreement, which can change throughout the meeting (Centre for Conflict Resolution, 1981).
- Leads a group to list its available resources to meet a defined need (and might inform the group about external resources)
- Notices if there is too little understanding of a problem, then suggests factfinding and possibly postponing a decision
- Makes sure that group members who have come to a decision have the same understanding then clarifies who will be responsible to carry out the task, what they will need from the group, when it will be done, and how the group will know it was done
- Asks any uncooperative or disruptive participant to correct their behavior, take a break away from the meeting, or leave (probably the most challenging, and infrequent)
Emotion and Behavior Monitoring
- Starts with introductions or an ice-breaker activity if many of the participants are not familiar with each other
- Monitors emotional responses and skillfully smooths over tense moments, ideally without a disruption of the meeting
- Points out when a there appears to be suppressed feelings or conflict, if that fits with the intent of the meeting
- Helps the group self-correct by pointing out unhelpful actions of group members, such as pressuring, scapegoating, exaggerating, or minimizing
- Identifies interpersonal communication problems that are getting in the way of discussion
- Brings up group member ideas anonymously if group has a bias about ideas depending on who they come from
- Encourages the group to persist by acknowledging a difficulty but pointing to progress made
The Centre for Conflict Resolution (1981) asserts that a group can learn to take on these facilitation roles themselves.
The issue of power is inherent in structuring. The positions of facilitator and recorder, of first speaker, presenter, and devil’s advocate all carry influence. Many groups rotate the instituted positions of facilitator and recorder to spread the influence fairly and to share and build skills. (p. 40)
It may be instructive to see these roles demonstrated by an experienced facilitator before asking group members to take on these roles. See the Consultants page for consensus facilitators, team recreation guides, and general group facilitators.
Centre for Conflict Resolution. (1981). A handbook for consensus decision-making: Building united judgment. Fellowship for Intentional Community.