Facilitators have to keep the interests of both client and participants in play together, all the time, if they want their process to succeed.

One of the little known secrets of facilitation is that the facilitator is the servant of the two masters. They are, to use a different metaphor, riding two horses, and if they don’t keep both in hand, and in head, they will get torn apart.

I don’t often write about facilitation, although I do quite a lot of it. But I was reminded of this inherent truth at an event earlier this month. We were in a punctuation session, a quick plenary as we transitioned from one part of the process before we moved on to something else. It was going slowly, and we were getting close to time when someone reframed, elegantly, the issue that the event had been convened to discuss. Suddenly, four or five hands shot up. You could feel the change in the energy in the room, which many facilitators would be pleased about.

Instead, the facilitator chose to follow the clock:

I’ve got time to take one point before we move on.

There were reasons for this. We were in a borrowed room, and it wasn’t clear how quickly it would be needed by others. But all the same, this is a classic facilitation trap – for good facilitation requires that you serve the process (you represent the client’s interest) while also, simultaneously, serving the room (representing the interests of the dialogue between the participants in the room).

This is not always a straightforward task, and when these interests diverge too far, perhaps because one has been privileged over the other, the workshop process starts to break down.

My most difficult facilitation experiences

Looking back, I can see that some of my most difficult experiences as a facilitator was when these two interests have stretched too far apart. Sometimes this can be inadvertent. Doing some facilitation about new ways of thinking about customers for a multinational company, for example, one group of people in the room concluded that an unstated purpose of the workshop was to dissolve their business unit into another one. There was no such agenda, as it happened, but unsurprisingly they started to act out. On another occasion, the group which was being consulted had had poor consultation experiences with the workshop organisers in the past, and disbelieved me when I said that this was an open process. They thought that I was there to get them to approve some pre-agreed outcomes for the client.

So how to stop this happening? Some of it comes down to the conditions of engagement, simply making sure that the client plans to have an open process, rather than herd people through to their preferred conclusions (I once heard this called “facipulation”). After all, you don’t have to take the work. Some of it is down to the “conditions of engagement” that good facilitators propose to the room at the start of the workshop, where you spell out what the session is designed to achieve, and how.

Reflecting the process

But more usually, as in the present case, it is because the facilitator is not fully in the moment in the room, and they’ve stopped concentrating, for a moment, on their duty to the quality of the conversation between the participants.  The answer is for the facilitator to step back for a moment, and to reflect the process – all of it – back to the room. In this case, this reflection might have gone like this:

[Jane] has just raised a really good question, and I can see that there a lot of people who want to respond to it. I’m sure that we’ve got time to take some of these points, though we’ll have to juggle the schedule a little bit to catch up later on.  But I’m concerned that we may be about to run out of time in this room. So while I take some of your comments, I’m going to ask one of the organisers to check on how much longer we have in here.

The point is this. A competent facilitator can (almost) always drive a group through a process, as agreed with a client, and drive out a set of outcomes. But if they do this in a way which doesn’t respect the interests and desires of the participants – who have made time to attend – they might as well not have bothered. Both you, and the client, will have burnt reputation and credibility through forgetting your role. Yes, you’ll have some outcomes. But you won’t have consent or commitment.

The picture is from triangle.com, and is used here with thanks.