When Being A Facilitator DOESN'T Help


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I talked with a group of internal consultants last week - they felt they had to wear too many hats in their work. They had to be consultants, facilitators, coaches and trainers - sometimes in the same one-hour session. They weren't always sure what role to be in and they felt that all this role-switching was draining them and was decreasing their credibility and effectiveness.

After learning a bit more, I suggested two things to them:

1) At times they were trying to serve as facilitators when another role would have been more helpful to their clients; and

2) It wasn't switching roles that was causing them trouble - it was how they were doing it.

I'm suggesting the same may apply to you.

First, let's look at when you and your client group are better off if you don't serve as a facilitator. My colleagues and I have identified five different facilitative roles you might fill as you work with a group - facilitator, facilitative consultant, facilitative coach, facilitative trainer, and facilitative leader. All of the roles enable you to use the same core values and ground rules to help a group improve the way it works together, but only the facilitator role requires that you withhold your content information or expertise from the group (what we call being “substantively neutral").

If the group is discussing how to improve sales and you have expertise on the topic or unique information because of your position in the organization, you don't share any of it. If you don't need to share any content information with the group and if you're not a group member, you can be a facilitator.

But you lose credibility and reduce your effectiveness if you call yourself a facilitator and then start sharing content information, begin offering expertise on the content, or have a stake in the outcome of the conversation. Some group members will feel you are trying to meddle in their work and some will feel you are favoring others’ points of view. In short, you are no longer neutral and you've overstepped your bounds.

But there are times when you need to be involved in the content of the group conversation at the same time you are helping improve its process. There are also times when you have relevant expertise. That's when you use the other roles. All of these other roles allow you to be involved in the content and still use your facilitative skills.

-If you're a member of the group, you are a facilitative leader. In my definition, you're a facilitative leader as long as you are using the Skilled Facilitator core values and skills while working in your group - even if you're simply a team member.

-If you're not a member of the group and you're helping them solve a problem or address and opportunity, you are a facilitative consultant. This role is ideal if you're an OD consultant. It's also great if you're an HR manager and need to share your HR perspective on the group's topic.

-If you need to formally teach the group some knowledge or skills, you are a facilitative trainer - you use your facilitative skills to help improve the learning process.

-If you are working one-on-one, you are a facilitative coach.

In my experience, it's fine - often best - to switch roles to help a group get results; how you do this greatly affects the results you can get for your clients. Here are some guidelines for establishing and switching roles:

1. Select the appropriate role(s) given what the situation calls for.

2. Reach agreement with your client about the role(s) you will fill to help them, and how you'll switch between them. Give them some examples so they know exactly what this will look like.

3. Before you switch roles, tell the group so they understand what you are doing and explain why you're making the shift.

4. If you need to switch to a facilitative role that you haven't obtained agreement on, re-contract on the spot before you fill that role.

If you select the appropriate facilitative roles and explicitly switch among them with permission, you'll bring all of your expertise - content and process - to your clients’ challenges.

What do you think? If you'd like to share your thoughts, please email me.

© 2005 Roger Schwarz

Roger Schwarz, Ph. D. , is author of the international bestseller “The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers and Coaches" and co-author of the recent “Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools, and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches, " both available on Amazon.com and via other quality booksellers.

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