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Global Flipchart



June 2017
| Issue #8

Discovering the definition of facilitation

By Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte

For this Global Flipchart edition on the Craft of Facilitation, we decided to go to the very core of it and explore the definition of facilitation. We facilitation practitioners may easily assume that we share a similar definition. And whilst the IAF competences, values and code of ethics provide a shared ground on how we see facilitation, we would all most probably give a slightly different elevator pitch on the topic.

Well, that’s pretty much what we found when we asked some well-known facilitation trainers and authors around the world for their definition of facilitation. Each of them highlighted a different aspect of facilitation, and yet all can be encased by the simple definition given by Martin Gilbraith: “group process leadership”.

Now, we’re not debating which definition is the right one here - we’re a diverse group of people who filter our practice through our own experiences and mental frames. I hope that, as you read these different definitions, you’ll reflect on your experience and clarify your own definition.

Facilitation as a session

Michael Wilkinson defines facilitation as a facilitated session: “a highly structured meeting in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of pre-defined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood and accepted by all participants."

Facilitation as an action

Rosanna Von Sacken, IAF Regional Director in Canada, defines facilitation as a set of four actions that the facilitator needs to complete to call it facilitation:

  • Plan, prepare and design a facilitated session, applying the appropriate methods and processes, and developing the session materials.
  • Optimise and maintain neutrality throughout engagement with the client and during a session, with the understanding that no-one is 100% neutral and without biases.
  • Guide processes to ensure participants are engaged and interacting with each other.
  • Help the group achieve their desired outcome(s).

Facilitation as complementary roles

Professor Sandy Schuman, writer and editor of the IAF Handbook, defines facilitation by describing the role of the facilitator in comparison to that of the group. According to him, the facilitator’s job is to focus on the process aspects of the work, while the participants’ job is to apply their knowledge of the issue and organisation to the purpose or task at hand. Sandy uses the metaphor of an imaginary line between the facilitator and the participants, in which the facilitator takes initiative on process issues and the participants address content related issues. Facilitators must not cross the line, but the participants are free to do that whenever they want.

Facilitation as an intervention

Two facilitators described facilitation as an intervention. Hector Villareal, IAF Regional Director in Latin America, defines group facilitation as a “process in which a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, who is substantially neutral (to the participants and the content), and who has no decision authority, diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve the way in which it identifies and solves problems, and makes decisions to improve its effectiveness."

According to Viv McWaters, a facilitation trainer based in Australia, “facilitation is not business as usual. It is disrupting and challenging the normal patterns of thinking and behaving so groups can discover something new or different about themselves and the way they work.”

Facilitation as a tool to enhance healthy group collaboration

Two facilitators emphasised the aspect of group collaboration. Chris Corrigan, a steward of the Art of Hosting practices, writes: "While facilitation traditionally means 'to make things easy' I think we need a new definition that means 'to host the struggle together.' Good facilitators help create a container for people to work with difference and diversity to make good things happen."

Gary Rush from Chicago adds “a facilitator is a content-neutral task leader, who forms a group of people into a collaborative team, supporting consensus and using a range of processes to enable the group to accomplish their task. The facilitator is responsible for the context.”

Facilitation as a Haiku

We’ll conclude with Viv McWaters’ definition of facilitation in the poetic form of a Haiku:

Let go of control
Step away from everyday
Discover the new

How do you define facilitation?