What makes a good facilitator?

Posted on August 10, 2011 by Pam Truitt

A couple of blogs ago, I wrote about consultant training hosted by The Patterson Foundation (TPF) and conducted by Bob Harrington of La Piana Consulting. TPF’s goal is to build consultant capacity in Florida in the area of nonprofit and civic partnerships.

The first phase included a group of experienced and highly qualified consultants and was a phenomenal success. Now, I am moving into the advanced planning stages for the next phase of training.

I know that not all of the consultants who attended the earlier training are cut-out for this work and some have already said “thanks for the experience, but it’s not for me.”  I appreciate their honesty.  Now, I have the arduous task of determining who the best candidates for this work are.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself “what makes a good facilitator?”

Notice that I didn’t use the word consultant. Facilitators are probably pretty good consultants so that’s a no-brainer. But, not all consultants are good facilitators. I have some experience as a facilitator and a lot of experience as a consultant. As a consultant, I was well-paid for my experience and recommendations.  As a facilitator, clients expected openness, clarity, support, encouragement and objectivity. If they asked my opinion, I would turn the question back with phrases, such as ‘what do you think will work for you?’  This is the opposite of ‘I think you should……’

A good facilitator strives for consensus and knows the process is not about them. That said, I found it difficult to watch a client head down a forbidden path knowing they would need to come back the same way. The facilitator’s role includes caucuses, side and parking lot conversations—this is how you get folks to come back from the edge.

I’ll share what I now consider to be a comical story—although it wasn’t so funny at the time. I was in a process filled with confusion, turmoil and egos. I was not the primary facilitator, but I was charged with herding the cats in my camp—some of whom did not want to compromise for the greater good.  After the project ended, one of the clients gave me a plaque that reads “Bringing Order Out of Chaos” the Cat Juggler Award.  I love it!

Wiki’s definition of a facilitator mirrors mine—to figure out common objectives and help the groups achieve them without taking a particular position.  The last phrase “without taking a particular position” is the most critical.

What kind of skills do you think a good facilitator needs?  I’ll start the list if you’ll add to it:  good listener, patience, expects the unexpected, flexibility (can’t be checklist driven), ability to deal with conflict…..


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