Brad Spangler

July 2003

What is Facilitation?

"Facilitation" is a term that means different things to different people. In the context of U.S. alternative dispute resolution (ADR), facilitation (or group facilitation) is generally considered to be a process in which a neutral person helps a group work together more effectively. Facilitators may work with small groups within an organization, or with representatives of different organizations who are working together in a collaborative or consensus-building process.

Additional insights into facilitation are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The facilitator, in this context, may be internal or external (that is, brought in from an outside organization). Either way, he or she must be acceptable to all members of the group. Such facilitators are process leaders only -- they have no decision-making authority, nor do they contribute to the substance of the discussion. The facilitator's job is to lead the group process; to help them improve the way they communicate, examine and solve problems, and make decisions.[1] Good facilitators can help groups stay on task, be more creative, efficient, and productive than they would be without such help.

Core Values of Facilitation

According to Roger Schwarz, there are three core values that guide the practice of facilitation: valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment to those choices.[3] Valid information means that everyone involved shares all information relevant to an issue. It also means that people understand the information and its implications. Free and informed choice means that participants have the ability to define their own goals and ways of achieving them. A facilitator can help the parties determine or alter their goals, and assess whether a particular option or decision meets those goals. But the ultimate decisions are up to the parties themselves. Internal commitment to the choice means that people feel personally responsible for the choices they make. This type of commitment results because people are happy with the decision and their involvement in it, not because there is any possibility of reward or punishment for supporting it -- other than the benefits inherent in the agreement itself.[4]

The United Nations uses the term "facilitation" slightly differently, however. The UN refers to itself as a "facilitator" when it provides any form of assistance--such as providing neutral facilities or transportation--in an effort to assist the parties to advance their conflict resolution efforts. Unlike the facilitator role described above, the United Nations takes a "behind the scenes" approach to assist the peacemaking efforts of the parties and other peacemaking actors. However, UN facilitation can sometimes entail the chairing of meetings or meeting the parties separately to help them move the issue forward. Based on the trust of the parties and requirements of the situation, a UN facilitator can have a broad range of responsibilities and can be quite active in a peace process. As peace processes are organic and fluid, the role of a UN facilitator can increase or decrease with time depending on the situation and needs of the parties.[2]

Put together, these core values reinforce each other. To make an informed choice, people must have valid information. When people make free and informed decisions, they become internally committed to them. When people are committed to a decision, they are likely to make sure that the decision is implemented effectively.[5]

Role of the Facilitator

It is the facilitator's role to help the group design its meetings in a way that is consistent with the core values of facilitation. One of the key ways a facilitator does this is by helping groups establish ground rules for an effective process.[6] Ground rules are the rules of conduct or behavioral guidelines that members of the group agree on before proceeding with their meeting.[7] They are based on an assumption of equality and fairness. The idea is that no individual is permitted to dominate a discussion or hold special privilege.

There are generally three kinds of ground rules. The first kind defines the behavior of participants; for example, "individuals will treat each other with respect." The second kind applies to procedures to be used by the group, such as "all decisions will be made by consensus." The last kind of ground rule may also define the boundaries of discussions on certain issues, for example, "discussion today will focus solely on the issue of water usage, and will not go into a discussion of mineral rights."[8]

Key Facilitation Skills and Methods

Facilitators must have a variety of skills and techniques to be effective. Strong verbal and analytical skills are essential. Facilitators must know what questions to ask, when to ask them, and how questions should be structured to get good answers without defensiveness. Facilitators must know how to probe for more information when the initial answers are not sufficient. They must also know how to rephrase or "reframe" statements to enhance understanding, and to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement as they develop. Other skills include redirecting questions and comments, giving positive reinforcement, encouraging contrasting views, including quieter members of the group, and dealing with domineering or hostile participants. Nonverbal techniques include things such as eye contact, attentiveness, facial expressions, body language, enthusiasm, and maintaining a positive outlook. A facilitator must also develop the ability to read and analyze group dynamics on the spot in order to guide the group in a productive way.[9]

There are also various recording techniques facilitators may employ, such as the use of large newsprint notepads. Taking notes everyone can see during meetings helps establish a common framework of understanding among the group and prevents people from repeating points. In addition to basic note taking, facilitators use a variety of other visual methods that help generate, organize, and evaluate data and ideas. Again, the main idea behind visual tools is that they allow material to be displayed so all members of a group can see and work with the same information at the same time.[10] This leads to greater efficiency and productivity for the group and leaves less space for misunderstandings and conflicting recollections of what was discussed.

What are the Benefits of Facilitation?

There are a number of common benefits to using facilitation skills in group settings:[11]

  • Group members are often more motivated to support the decisions made because of their investment in the process.
  • The best efforts of groups usually produce better results than individual efforts.
  • Increased participation within the group increases productivity.
  • It is possible for managers and leaders to draw more on their staffs as resources, which contributes to overall organizational success.
  • Everyone involved has a chance to contribute and feels they are an integral part of the team.
  • People realize and respect that responsibility for implementing decisions lies with everyone.
  • Innovation and problem-solving skills are built.
  • People are encouraged to think and act for the overall benefit of the group.
  • Higher-quality decisions normally result.
  • A forum for constructively resolving conflicts and clarifying misunderstandings is created.
  • Negative attitudes, low morale, low involvement, and withholding of information are less likely because everyone is involved in a joint process.

Why is Facilitation Important?

Facilitation is important because meetings of large groups of people can be very hard to organize as well as to control when they are in progress. First of all, a facilitator can help members of a group get to know each other and learn to cooperate. Having a skilled facilitator run or lead a meeting should also help focus the energy and thoughts of the various members on the task at hand. Ideally, the group facilitator is someone who is not interested in the outcome of the meeting (decision-making). Therefore he or she can fully concentrate on how members of the group are working together and help the group work toward their goals, without bias. As a result, facilitation can be extremely useful in helping groups develop consensus on issues.

Facilitation has become a more and more important communication skill in recent times. Many businesses and organizations have restructured, giving more power to a wider range of employees. Companies and organizations are relying more heavily on the input of individual employees in a broad variety of decisions. In addition, professionals in many areas are also increasingly being asked to work as members of groups. Facilitation is therefore becoming a critical skill for coordinating the ideas and contributions of diverse sets of people within organizations. In today's organizations, facilitators play an essential role in discussions, meetings, teamwork, and overall organizational effectiveness.[12]

[1] Schwarz, Roger M. The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002). <http://books.google.com/books?id=vVR6zOhdCbIC>.

[2] Nita Yawanarajah, Political Affairs Officer and Project Manager for the UN Department of Political Affairs Peacemaking Databank Project: UN Peacemaker ( www.un.org/peacemaker).UN Peacemaker is a publicly available website on the United Nations' experience in peacemaking and mediation.

[3] Schwarz, 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution. (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1997). <http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Conflict-Resolution-Heidi-Burgess/dp/0874368391>.

[8] Carpenter, Susan L. and W. J. D. Kennedy. Managing Public Disputes. (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001). <http://www.amazon.com/Managing-Public-Disputes-Professionals-Government/dp/0787957429>.

[9] The ideas in this paragraph were primarily drawn from: Rees, Fran. The Facilitator Excellence Handbook: Helping People Work Creatively and Productively Together, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005) <http://www.amazon.com/Facilitator-Excellence-Essential-Resources-Professionals/dp/0787970700>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The bullet points listed in this section are drawn from Fran Rees's list of facilitation's benefits.

[12] Fran, 3

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Facilitation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/facilitation>.

Additional Resources