Effective facilitation isn’t simply a matter of getting people together in a room. The facilitator needs to demonstrate some core competencies – subtly, but authentically. Participants should feel the presence of these competencies even if they aren’t fully aware of them. Here are some that I consider indispensable.
Empathy: the empathic facilitator starts not simply from the premise that no one individual has all the answers, but from the premise that the best answers may yet need to be created through conversation. For this kind of group creativity to emerge, participants need to have background faith that the facilitator is not only neutral, refusing to take sides, but also warm and empathic. If they can leave the meeting able to comment on the facilitator’s warmth and ability to reach out to those who seem hesitant in making a contribution, empathy has done its job (they should, of course, be baffled when asked to say whose side the facilitator was on).
Collaboration: Decision-making is no longer by a managerial elite – something that can take place behind closed doors – handing down their decisions like tablets of stone to their staff. It’s best when it’s a collaborative process, when people feel free to bounce ideas off one another and play with them. Given the fact that no one person can encompass all the expertise involved in running a complex organisation, such sharing and playing is vital if blind-spots and oversights are to be avoided. Facilitators don’t have to be experts on all subjects – that would be well nigh impossible – but they do need to draw each of the experts into mutual conversation. Conversation is more than interaction: an interaction can occur but leave the participants unaltered. When real conversations take place, people find themselves being changed by them.
In Part Two, I’ll explore the need for experimentalism (essentially, the art of getting experts to share their thinking in words understandable to all) and integrative thinking (pulling together multiple perspectives into a new unity) for effective facilitation.