What’s the facilitator’s responsibility?

April 12, 2011

How much responsibility does a facilitator take on for what happens in a room with a group with whom he or she is working? This is something I think about quite a bit depending on the kind of relationship, the longevity of it and what the task in hand is.
I am a believer in keeping the planning conversations about the process in the room and out loud. Any other approach infantilises clients and results in the facilitator having more control than s/he needs to. If the ultimate aim of the process is to generate action then this set up can stifle that before you even begin.
The “difficult” or “angry” person in a group is the place where this approach is really tested and I’ve worked with this in myriad ways over the course of my consulting career. Now if I’m working over an extended period of time then I can process what that hostility may be communicating on behalf of the group. You need a good working alliance and time and space to do that kind of work. If I am in a situation where I have a short amount of time and a clear piece of work the group needs to engage with then my approach is more direct.
If someone is “interrupting” the task of the group by complaining (usually about a deficit of some kind) then instead of dealing with them directly about it I put the following into the room.
I appreciate the fact that people feel comfortable speaking freely about what they wish to talk about
However, the context for the meeting is that we are here to discuss the following items – and then I refer to the invitation or agenda.
There are resources available to the group including my facilitating skill, time, physical resources etc and they need, as a group, to make a choice about how they want to do that. We can talk about what’s “not” happening or we can talk about what is….They can choose to change the agenda and focus on other items and I will willingly go with them there and facilitate that discussion. What I am not willing to do is make a decision for them and then find out that many people in the room are disappointed that we didn’t talk about the agenda which was agreed.
I generally find that putting that out into a group does several things

  1. It respects the diversion from the topic at hand, and the person who is brave enough to say out loud what some people may not be able to articulate.
  2. It puts responsibility for the content of the conversation where it belongs – with the group
  3. It puts responsibility for the context and boundary of the conversation where it belongs – with the facilitator
  4. It engages with the participants as adults, with choices about how they use the resources available to them
  5. It requires action on the part of the group, which if the outcomes of the meeting are to be successful will require the same kind of action.

The alternative is for the facilitator to take all the responsibility which in turn means that you prevent a group from learning how they choose to include and exclude. So far I’ve never encountered a group that hasn’t been able to engage with that task and make a decision about how to continue to work together.


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