Facilitation is a process of enabling groups to work cooperatively and effectively together and which emphasises the involvement of all participants in a meaningful way.

The word ‘facilitator’ comes from the Latin –facilitas, which roughly means ‘easiness’. Thus a facilitator is someone who works to make meetings and group interactions easier. Another way of looking at it is the facilitator as a catalyst for better group interactions; the role isn’t about providing knowledge or ideas but helping participants make better use of the knowledge and ideas that they collectively possess.

The facilitator is neutral in terms of content – but not the process. He or she should act as a trusted third party and not skew the debate to favour any one side or group. An awareness of power differences is important.

The role of the facilitator is distinct from that of a chair or other more directive leadership roles in meetings. The table below is useful as a reference point:

Directive LeadershipFacilitative
Content focusProcess focus, allowing participants to focus on content
Leader as expertAcknowledging participants as experts
Participation is exceptionParticipation the rule
Few questions, predominantly leading and closed onesFrequently using open ended questions to probe issues
Make majority decisionsSeek win-win solutions/consensus

Facilitation is not always appropriate. It may be better not to use a facilitative approach if:

  • The decision-making timescales are very tight
  • A particular predetermined outcome from the meeting or event is required
  • There is a high level of conflict amongst your participants
  • Key decision makers refuse to give up power around the decision