Facilitation can be defined as the act of enabling groups function more efficiently and cooperatively. Facilitation is very important when people with different interests and likes, backgrounds, abilities have to work together as a group (Gaffney, 2000). In particular, it comes in handy when there’s a group meeting where the participants have diverse views yet have to come to a consensus in the end. In such cases, the leader or task manager of such a meeting has to look for facilitation services so that the meeting runs smoothly and a consensus is reached at the end. This paper looks at facilitation in group meetings and discussions; where and how it should be used, who should conduct it, techniques, specific cases where it is applied, and its advantages and drawbacks.
Characteristics of Facilitation in Group Discussions
Facilitation in group discussions and/or communication has the following features;
- The discussions are structured in such a way that anything can be said.
- Digression from the topic is frowned upon though new ideas are always noted.
- The participants focus their energies on a specific task or a designated issue.
- Equal participation opportunity is granted to all the participants.
- The facilitator always seeks consensus among the participants. (US Department of Transportation).
Facilitation is used in meetings where decisions have to be reached even though the stakeholders or participants have differing opinions. This diversity of viewpoints is encouraged so that the best possible solution is found. Facilitation may be used in meetings such as professional retreats, strategic planning meetings, debates, disputes and idea generation discussions (Mind Tools). Members of the community or stakeholders in these meetings may be having varying interests in the topic of discussion. Without facilitation, the meetings may turn out to be chaotic and a decision may not be reached. Therefore, for the best possible outcome, the organizers of these meetings should seek an unbiased facilitator to run them.
A facilitator is the person in charge with the facilitation process. He/she helps the participants in the meeting to interact amongst themselves and learn new things. The facilitator, as the guide, helps the participants reach a consensus on the issue of discussion. His role is not to provide a solution, rather to give his/her audience a platform for them to find their own solution based on their own views. He ensures that at the end of the meeting the best possible conclusion has been achieved. Some of the roles of the facilitator are;
- To ensure the continuous smooth flow of communication amongst the participants so that they freely share knowledge and reach a consensus.
- To promote group analysis as he/she asks relevant questions to the audience.
- To provoke the participants’ critical thinking while directing them towards a consensus.
- To always consent to the participants’ decisions.(EVAPLAN, 2004)
How to Facilitate a Group meeting
A good facilitator should always be sensitive to the diverse cultures, race and different language of the participants. Therefore, he/she should not suggest at any point that he deems other cultures as outdated or any race as being inferior. This will make the participants more comfortable with themselves and the rest of the participants. As a result, everyone will participate freely in the group meeting which would lead to the best solution being found. The facilitator should also be courteous when addressing the audience. This will foster respect and cooperation among the participants (Anderson, 2011).
The facilitator should first ask easy-to-respond questions to calm down the participants. This will get the debate or discussion going before asking technical questions on the topic. The audience by now would have been eased into the session. He/she should not direct questions at individuals, but the whole group. This ensures that everyone is involved in the session and that no particular person is put on focus. The facilitator has to give the participants time to think and respond. Thus, the consensus reached will be as a result of group effort (Anderson, 2011)
The facilitator should encourage all the participants to note down what is being discussed. He/she should designate one of the participants to be writing down all the important points down. The facilitator can also direct the audience to write its ideas down. This can be applied when the participants don’t feel free to speak out their views, when the session becomes stormy or when the time is running out. Designating someone else to write down the notes ensures that the facilitator is totally engaged with the audience and that he/she is not distracted.
A facilitator can also permit the participants to go in front of the audience to air their views. He/she should permit the audiences to present their findings on a flip chart. He can also try to incorporate humor during the discussion to keep the group interested. This will make the discussion more lively and engaging. The facilitator should also try to pay special attention to the chief contributors (Anderson, 2011).
If the group is deemed too large for effective discussion, a facilitator should break it into small manageable groups. These small groups are then designated to discuss among themselves in a specified time. The whole group can then reconvene where now the discussion will be among the erstwhile formed subgroups. This saves on time and prevents the discussion from going out of the topic. While the discussion should be friendly, the facilitator should not fear going into conflict. Discussions are about people bringing forth their ideas which most of the times are conflicting. Therefore, the facilitator should encourage all views being expressed, and disagreements. However, if the session becomes too stormy the facilitator should initiate a break (Anderson, 2011).
There are many facilitation techniques in use today while new ones are being invented. This paper will look at the techniques that are used often. These are; think and listen, go round, brainstorming, check in, mind maps, affinity grouping, multivoting, colored hats and world cafe (Gaia).
Think and Listen
This technique applies when there are two participants such that at any time, one person is the thinker while the other listens. The time is divided into half for thinking, and half for listening. The thinker is given sufficient time to come up and develop his/her thoughts in their own way and preferences. The listener is not allowed to interrupt although he/she should be attentive. In most cases, one is given around five minutes to think. Both sets of participants have to give each other the appropriate time, as allocated, so that they can come to a consensus (Gaia).
In this case, every participant is given a chance to speak. The time is always set for each, and it is equal for all and they speak in turns. The facilitator often guides the participants on the topics and what they need to say (Gaia).
This is the most common technique of facilitation. In this case, the facilitator reviews the topic for the participants and asks them to comment. This direction is for all the participants. The facilitator then lets whoever wants to contribute to do so, with no interruption and there are no discussions at this stage until all the ideas have been raised. These ideas are then built upon (Gaia).
This happens when the facilitator wants to find out if the participants need to break or should continue with the session. The facilitator finds out the position of the audience by using explained gestures and gets their feedback. An appropriate conclusion is then reached (Gaia).
These are diagrams of circles which have extensions that give the participants a visual representation of the topic at hand. These diagrams enable them to identify the main points very easily and hence a smooth discussion session. Such circles are better than just plain text (Gaia).
In this technique, the facilitator writes down the topic for the participants on a flipchart or board. He/she then brainstorms the participants who come up with their ideas regarding the topic. All the participants’ ideas are noted down on a sticky note. This can be done either as a whole or in groups. The sticky notes, each with an idea, are then sorted into clusters according to the facilitator’s choice. After this is done, each cluster is given a title as per the group’s agreement (Gaia).
In this case, the facilitator brainstorms a list of the solutions or issues that are to be prioritized and writes the participants’ ideas on a flipchart. He/she then engages the group in discussion to eliminate any two identical ideas or explain some of the written statements. The facilitator then rewrites the ideas as per the discussion and labels them. He/she then allows the participants to vote or choose their preferred mode of rating the statements. The ideas with the highest votes are the one to be implemented. Lastly, the participants discuss the results of the votes (Gaia).
In this technique, the facilitator wears a blue hat which will be use as the controlling symbol. The facilitator then allocates the other colored hats as follows; a white hat symbolizes that this participant has to come up with facts and statistics and any other objective information, a red hat means that this participant his/her subjective opinions, a black hat implies that this participant should bring forth their criticism of the topic, a yellow hat symbolizes that this participant can come up with new ideas about the topic as well as suggestions, and the green hat implies that the participant can say anything he/she wishes. The facilitator has to rotate the hats as so he deems fit (Gaia).
The group in this case is divided into four or five participant per group, each group given a table. These small groups are then each given a specific topic by the facilitator. Additionally, each group is allocated a leader who will be the host. After about half an hour, the facilitator directs the participants to change tables, except the hosts. The hosts will explain to the guests what his group discussed and settled upon. After three exchanges, the whole group will reconvene and then share the main points and suggestions for action planning (Gaia).
Facilitation has found prominence in debates, strategic planning meetings and stakeholders meetings. Facilitation has also been used in informal judicial proceedings where a facilitator is used to arbitrate on a dispute.
Facilitation in Conflict Resolution
Facilitation is used in resolving disputes such as environmental conflicts between conservationists and governments, at the workplaces, agencies and groups with conflicting interests. When the two parties cannot reach a resolution, they seek the services of a facilitator who will draw up a pathway to enable the two parties reach a consensus that is beneficial to both of them. The facilitator chosen should be neutral, impartial and capable of resolving the conflict. He/she will also be held accountable to both groups. In most cases, the facilitated sessions are confidential with the general understanding between the warring parties that cannot use proceedings in the sessions in a court of law. Since both the parties agreed upon on the facilitator, the resolutions reached in most cases are always fair to both parties (Queensland Govt).
Facilitation in Education
Facilitation has also been adapted in the education sector, especially the technical courses like Engineering and Aviation. The facilitator in this case helps the trainees analyze issues, learn by observation and encourages them to work as a group when drawing up their conclusions. Unlike the conventional learning, facilitation aims at helping the trainees to experience and learn through observation and their own inquiry. It has been necessitated after studies concluded that many people don’t like lectures and tent to learn most from discussion. Students get more involved in the learning process. Facilitation also emphasizes on developing the knowledge and skills of the students rather than just giving them information, improves their analytical, exploration and evaluation capabilities. Discussions make the students more engaged in the learning process (Dismukes, et al).
The next section of the paper outlines some of the benefits that may be accrued from facilitation services.
Advantages of Facilitation
Facilitation has the following advantages;
- Facilitation offers the participants the platform to think critically and develop their knowledge.
- It creates a learning friendly environment to all, especially students.
- The organization of ideas and information becomes flexible.
- Due to the open nature of facilitation, a wide range of experiences and interactions among the participants are achieved.
- Adapting presentations becomes more flexible due to the wide ranging feedback from the participants.
- The participants take charge of their own learning
- Since the decisions reached are from the participants, they feel more at ease with the outcome and the action settled upon.
- The participants decide the topics to be covered and to what extent it is to be discussed.
- The best possible solution is found at the end of the session (Confessore).
Facilitation has the following disadvantages;
- Making a point takes a long time due to the free discussion space given to the participants. The whole group meeting becomes lengthy.
- Facilitating group meetings require a lot of knowledge and expertise on a wide range of topics. Finding such a person is not easy.
- Sometimes, facilitation may turn out to be expensive for an institution. This is because facilitators charge for their services among other expenses.
- Different seminars may come up with different outcomes on the same topic which may bring about conflicts.
- Engaging facilitation services does not always guarantee successful results or the best decisions reached (Confessore).
Facilitation, in any meeting, is very necessary and any meeting planner should always seek the services of a facilitator. It is especially important in large and important gatherings where each participant may have vested interest about a topic. Additionally, rather than going straight to the courts of law, conflicting parties can opt for facilitation. This will offer them an opportunity to express themselves properly which would lead to a compromise for both. Colleges and technical institutions should also incorporate facilitation in their programs which will provide a friendly learning environment for the students, especially the hands on courses. This makes the students use their own intuition in the learning process as they participate actively alongside their instructor, and their peers.