Becoming a Great Facilitator

Last Updated Oct 4, 2007 6:20 PM EDT

Facilitation is an overlooked art in many organizations, but one that is crucial for excellent team work and great results. It fosters a sense of responsibility for, and commitment to, the outcome a group may reach. A facilitator's role is to serve as a catalyst, creating the conditions and motivation that will allow productive group dynamics to unfold, and helping participants shape and reach a consensus decision. Being a great facilitator requires:

  • careful observation
  • active listening skills
  • a good sense of timing
  • sensitivity to, and an understanding of, group dynamics
  • courage to allow the group to move into any area, regardless of personal comfort level
What You Need to KnowWhy does a group need a facilitator at all?

Group development is a natural process that has several distinct phases. If left to their own devices, groups often take a long time to form and suffer "casualties" along the way as people become disenchanted or disenfranchised. A good facilitator can strengthen this formation process by observing carefully and then intervening as necessary along the way. The facilitator's role here is to highlight what's going on and enable the group members to take action and learn more about themselves and their part in the overall process.

In broad terms, facilitation has three separate functions:

  • to enhance the learning experience of the group with timely interventions and to create a safe environment that promotes a beneficial exchange of ideas, opinions and reactions;
  • to enable the group to step back, observe itself, theorize, and experiment with new ways of doing things;
  • to give group members an understanding of their own learning processes.
When there is a clear objective to be reached, surely it's more effective for the facilitator to guide the group?

Keeping track of time and direction definitely are considerations in facilitating a group. However, if you don't allow group members to create a solution by themselves, they probably won't fully support the solution that does emerge. Balancing these two issues is a key part of any facilitator's job. A good one can carefully question and probe to help members ponder issues in a way that enables them to move through the process efficiently and cover all the points they need to address.

There are bound to be dissenters in any group. What's the best way of dealing them?

If you see someone being disruptive, it's almost certain the group will, too. If you can withhold your intervention long enough, you probably will find that the group fashions a way to deal with the problem itself. If the situation becomes heated and tense, however, it is usually a good idea to call a time out and then facilitate a discussion about the dynamics that have emerged. Reviewing the situation—without placing blame—and then dealing with it calmly will get things back on track.

There are many forms of facilitation, ranging from a totally unstructured approach unconfined by time to approaches that have clear boundaries in place around the activity. In this article, the term defines the art of accompanying a group as it reaches a consensus and conclusion.

What to DoUnderstand the Distinct Stages of Group Formation

It is helpful for the facilitator to understand the stages a group experiences before it can work honestly and constructively as a unit. Broadly speaking, there are four such stages, first put forth in 1965 by Dr. Bruce Tuckman, an Ohio State University professor and researcher.

  • Forming. During this first stage, members of the group test the waters to find out which behaviors are and aren't acceptable. Some may act in an overly cordial way to avoid conflict, while more dominant members are likely to show that they want things their way and in the process may drown out or intimidate quieter colleagues. At this stage each group member is circling about the others, learning about individual styles, thinking about the teams overall goal and figuring out how best to reach it. High levels of energy are often displayed during this process, but it is often misdirected.
  • Storming. This phase often becomes raucous and uncomfortable. Tempers fray over the difficulty of the task, any perceived lack of progress, and the lack of direction the group is receiving from a recognized authority within or outside the group. Members begin telling each other what to do and reject other's points of view, often for emotional reasons. Some people get aggressive, some become defensive, and the group may fragment as members create allegiances and embrace a particular stance.
  • Norming. Here, enthusiasm and focused, productive effort kicks in. Opposing views begin to be reconciled as team members begin to recognize and value each other's contributions. The rules of engagement become clear, and constructive criticism ensures that the group maintains focus on the task and functions effectively.
  • Performing. In this final phase, the group begins to operate as a cohesive unit and most work gets done. Individuals are prepared to learn about themselves, adjust their behaviors, and relinquish personal goals for the sake of the team. Typically, strong bonds are created when a group has survived these four stages, and some relationships may stay in place long after the purpose of forming the group has disappeared.

Dr. Tuckman updated his theory roughly ten years on, adding a fifth stage, adjourning. Because its chief focus was the feelings of group members after they bid each other adieu and ended the routine of meeting together, it's not considered an essential stage that a facilitator needs to grasp.

Intervene Carefully

To facilitate well, as well as understanding the group formation process outlined above, you need the courage to allow it to unfold and progress. Some facilitator interventions may accelerate group development, however, such as:

  • offering observations or perceptions to the group rather than providing answers outright;
  • asking pertinent questions that provoke thought;
  • listening actively to what is being said.

The ability to sense the ebb and flow of a group's energy, move with it, and influence its direction is a useful skill for a facilitator to have. This ability often develops from experience, plus a level of self-knowledge that enables a facilitator to distinguish reactions born out of his or her own fears and vulnerabilities from those that are relevant to the workings of the group.

Encourage Progress with Well-timed Review Sessions

If done adroitly, suspending the proceedings and leading a group review session can flag up (or flush out) difficulties or distractions and allow the group to figure out the best way forward. Timing is all here, however, so watch your step: strike a balance between moving the group through the four phases of development and accomplishing the task at hand.

Coach Difficult People

Many—if not most—groups include at least one difficult person. Very often a malcontent is confronted during the natural process of group development, but there may be occasions when taking him or her aside and conducting an impromptu coaching session works best. The facilitator can determine if coaching is necessary or whether it's better to leave any difficult persons in the group to enable them to learn more about their own styles and behaviors. The ideal way for people to gain self-knowledge is to experience themselves through others' reactions and comments and then arrive at their own conclusions—however prickly that process may be.

What to AvoidYou Lead, Not Guide

It's common to assume that facilitation is just another way of describing how someone leads or directs a group toward one desired end. But if the group hasn't committed itself fully to that particular end, its members are likely to disengage from the process. The most effective way of getting a team to buy into a common cause is to help them establish a consensus at the outset and then to check regularly along the way to confirm that everyone is still on board and satisfied with progress.

You Intervene Too Quickly

There's no way round it: group development can get messy, and new facilitators tend to jump in too soon to intervene in a bid to calm the situation. Ill-timed interventions can inhibit the group from moving through its necessary evolution and stop it resolving whatever issues have emerged. As a facilitator, you need to tread a fine line between intervening early and allowing matters to deteriorate to the point that the group collapses entirely.

You Let Feedback Get Out of Hand

Encouraging group members to give constructive feedback is important, for it paves the way to a high-performing team. It can become a destructive activity, though, if left unchecked too long. Make sure that feedback is based on observed behavior (rather than rumor, half-heard conversations, or misunderstandings) and that people take responsibility for their own comments. This means watching the use of "I" statements, balancing critical feedback with positive observations, and being open to offering different way forward.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Hogan, Christine. Facilitating Multicultural Groups: A Practical Guide. Kogan Page, 2007.

Web Sites:

Carter McNamara's "Facilitation (Face-to-Face and Online)":

Tuckman's teamwork questionnaire:

Tuckman's theory of forming, norming, storming, performing: