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Facilitation...what is it exactly?

Updated: Jan 20

Today we are exploring what facilitation actually is.

It’s useful to define the work and get clear about what distinguishes it from the other forms our work takes.

Coaching is all about the individual and the coach designs the space, listens, and facilitates learning according to what works best for that one person.

Facilitation is about the room.  A facilitator takes note of the individuals and their preferences and responses but the focus is on the learning of the whole, not an individual.

In coaching we get to adjust and pivot to meet the needs of the one.

In facilitation, we have to know what matters most so that we know how to move the room forward in a particular direction.

The skills needed to coach certainly support the skills needed to facilitate but more is required.

Picture a candle inside of a small glass cup, like the one pictured below.  The glass container holds and reflects the light of the candle.  It keeps the flame safely contained while allowing the light to bounce and play off the sides.  

Imagine now what would happen if the container fully surrounded the candle, pushing in from all sides.  The flame would be extinguished.  

And a flame without a container, burns a destructive course.

Facilitation is a lot like the container this candle and flame resting in.

It’s the ability to provide the Goldilocks amount of structure and space.  Too much structure and the flame of creativity is put out and too little structure and the creative ideas take the form of overwhelm, indecision, and spinning.  

So how do we actually plan for the right amount of structure and the right amount of space?

Here are my three best tips for planning any meeting:

Get clear on your intention and how you want to use time stamps

Stop:  Time stamps should never face your audience.  I’ve been in plenty of meetings with time allotments in the agendas and there’s just something off-putting about seeing that the time for connection will be allowed two minutes.

Start:  Instead, put time stamps on your facilitator copy ONLY.  They should help you pace through the content and will help you when you are planning to consider how long each element will likely take.  However, timing is rarely the most important thing. The OUTCOME and IMPACT is what matters so you will want to keep yourself free to let things take longer or go shorter depending on what is happening in the room. 

Begin with connection

Stop:  Often I hear leaders who are frustrated with a “warm welcome” or starting with connection because they feel they have so much to get done in the meeting.  Even if they allow for connection, they finish the exercise with a comment like, “Okay, now let’s get to the important stuff.”  Don’t dismiss connection and try not to rush it.  

Start:  Think of connection as the foundation of the work the gathered team will do.  Nearly every person performs better when they feel seen and when they participate in seeing their colleagues.  It really does matter that someone has a sick parent and that another person’s sister just had a baby.  

Intentions matter

Stop:  Outcomes are useful but they often aren’t enough to pull a team together in a common direction.  While we want a team to identify their focus students for the next month or to internalize the newest literacy module, we can’t assume we know if they are enrolled in this outcome.

Start:  Break down what is happening and what needs to happen in the room.  The facilitator should have an intention.  There should be an intended outcome.  Also, it’s useful to ask participants to consider their intentions for the time.  We tend to learn and show up better when we are invested in the purpose of the work.


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