Facilitation is the act of engaging participants in creating, discovering, and applying learning insights. In contrast to presentation, which is typically characterized by a “sage on the stage” delivering content to an audience, facilitation usually involves a “guide on the side” who asks questions, moderates discussions, introduces activities, and helps participants learn. This necessary and evolving skill is particularly important for talent development professionals who conduct in-person or virtual training, but other professionals can also use it facilitate team projects, task forces, committees, and meetings of any type.
Facilitation is a technique used by trainers to help learners acquire, retain, and apply knowledge and skills. Participants are introduced to content and then ask questions while the trainer fosters the discussion, takes steps to enhance the experience for the learners, and gives suggestions. They do not, however, do the work for the group; instead, they guide learners toward a specific learning outcome.
The ASTD Handbook outlines five facilitation tactics to help keep learners engaged:
• Define success ahead of time, so activities can be designed to help learners achieve a specific goal.
• Prepare relentlessly, including self-preparation, preparing the learning environment, and preparing the content.
• Start with impact so that learners are excited, empowered, and involved from the beginning.
• Keep learners engaged throughout the session by including a variety of learning experiences, such as questions, role plays, practice exercises, and opportunities for learners to share their experiences and learn from one another.
• Manage disfunction that occurs when a learner, whether consciously or unconsciously, expresses displeasure with the training purpose, content, method, or outside factors.
Within talent development, facilitation most often refers to a technique used during in-person or virtual classroom learning; however, similar facilitation techniques can also be used in meetings or other group settings. In this context, facilitation can help a group improve how they work together, identify and solve problems, make decisions, and handle conflict. The facilitator’s role is to guide the group to work together more efficiently by creating synergy, generating new ideas, and arriving at consensus and agreement. Professional facilitators can be hired to play this role, but sometimes a senior leader, manager, consultant, coach, or another professional (whether internal or external to the organization) will be called upon to facilitate a meeting or discussion.
Whether in a classroom or a meeting, effective facilitators must focus on group dynamics and processes. They are ultimately accountable to the group and must earn the group’s trust.
Trainers help others improve their performance by teaching, instructing, or facilitating learning. As such, facilitation and presentation are both tools in a trainer’s toolkit. In most cases, effective and engaging trainers will spend less time presenting content through lectures or lecturettes and more time facilitating learning around that content.
The presenter delivers information, usually through a lecture.
The facilitator enhances learning for everyone, usually through discussion or activities such as role plays.
The presenter is the expert sharing their knowledge of the subject matter.
The facilitator provides opportunities for members of the group to share knowledge and learn from one another.
The presenter spends most of the time talking.
The facilitator spends most of the time asking questions, encouraging others to speak, and answering learners’ questions during activities
The presenter is usually on a stage or at the front of the room.
The facilitator is usually moving around the classroom to help address learners’ questions or monitor how activities are progressing
Facilitators can come from any background and a variety of experience levels. The best facilitators, however, demonstrate the following skills:
Listening. A facilitator needs to listen actively and hear what every learner or team member is saying.
Questioning. A facilitator should be skilled in asking questions that are open ended and stimulate discussion.
Problem solving. A facilitator should be skilled at applying group problem-solving techniques, including:
• defining the problem
• determining the cause
• considering a range of solutions
• weighing the advantages and disadvantages of solutions
• selecting the best solution
• implementing the solution
• evaluating the results.
Resolving conflict. A facilitator should recognize that conflict among group members is natural and, as long as it’s expressed politely, does not need to be suppressed. Conflict should be expected and dealt with constructively.
Using a participative style. A facilitator should encourage all learners or team members to actively engage and contribute in meetings, depending on their individual comfort levels. This includes creating a safe and comfortable atmosphere in which group members are willing to share their feelings and opinions.
Accepting others. A facilitator should maintain an open mind and not criticize ideas and suggestions offered by learners or group members.
Empathizing. A facilitator should be able to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” to understand the learners’ or team members’ feelings.
Leading. A facilitator must be able to keep the training or meeting focused toward achieving the outcome identified beforehand.
Trainers and presenters are also typically considered authorities on their subjects, but facilitators don’t need to have any special knowledge about the subject of the meeting. Effective facilitators also focus on the group dynamics and processes, and are accountable to the group; therefore, the facilitator must earn their trust.
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