Re-establishing facilitation as an effective activity: 1. The current state

The big questions

I feel I need to start this blog by addressing the central issue: what exactly is facilitation?

I am writing a book on the subject, so have recently been researching what others think. One frequent lament of facilitators is: “What do you say when people ask you: ‘What exactly do you DO?’”

And the next most frequent question is: “How can I convince senior managers of the benefits of facilitation?”

The current state

I agree that it may be difficult to explain what facilitation is and how to sell it. But, it seems to me, those asking these questions, do not themselves understand what facilitation really means. No wonder they fail to convince other people.

For example, many books and articles on facilitation start in identical fashion – by going to the dictionary. Dictionaries do have a purpose – they can help when learning a foreign language. But trying to establish the meaning of a concept from a dictionary is like claiming to understand a person’s life and character by reading their tombstone.

So, what does the dictionary say? The definition you will generally find is “to make it easy, possible or less difficult.”

Not only is this unhelpful, but it is misleading, if not palpably wrong. In no way does this explain facilitation. You might as well say “I’m good at making tea.” Focusing on “making it easy”, appears to me to place the emphasis too much on support and not enough emphasis on challenge: avoiding disagreement and providing comfortable chairs, good pens, still and fizzy bottled water, mints, soft music….

You think I’m joking?

One facilitation blog I contribute to, asked a question about what a facilitator should look for when selecting a venue. After a string of suggestions, one person responded with:

Hey everyone, I am surprised no one mentioned anything about toilets! Have spacious, clean and well ventilated toilets does make a difference, and significantly add to the comfort of the atmosphere.

Great posts up there, can’t wait to read more.

And this is how the word is used:

“Next week I am facilitating a time management course”
“I have to facilitate a coaching session with someone tomorrow”
“I am thinking of facilitating a career move.”

Books on the topic refer to “learners” and “trainees”; to “training” and “presentations.” Using participatory techniques does not make your intervention facilitation.

These references are to a process that does not focus on the work itself – not the organisation’s services, staff, clients, suppliers, nor its procedures. I am going to be blunt: this process remains superficial. It is pretend, not real. It misrepresents the role of facilitation.

So, this is where I find facilitation positioned: spread so thinly over any human activity involving communication and decisions, that it has lost all meaning. No wonder people struggle to explain what they do; no wonder they fail to sell the benefits to managers.

Before presenting my ideas to a wider audience in a book, I want to explore them here, on this blog and with your help.

My aim is to re-establish the central purpose and reputation of this effective and powerful activity, to distinguish it from other processes such as training, coaching, running a meeting or acting as an MC at a darts competition.

One thought on “Re-establishing facilitation as an effective activity: 1. The current state”

  1. Hi Mike,

    This is a very interesting article – having known you for a while, I finally feel like I have an idea of what you do! Personally I feel that in today’s complex and interconnected world, it is more important than ever that we work together collaboratively. Facilitation plays an important role in engaging group members in that process. I have worked for many organisations that have not understood this, and would benefit from your methods.

    I will be back to read more of your articles, and I’ve subsribed to your site.


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