Tips on Facilitation

Planning Institute of Australia (NSW) - Toolbox Series

Dr Danny Wiggins, July 2012


In these days of increased stakeholder involvement in the DA process and integration/coordination of government activities, it is important to know when facilitation can be useful. In my view, basic facilitation skills should be a part of the planner’s skills base. Alternatively, in appointing independent facilitators (sometimes called for in contentious situations), planners should be equipped to manage the process.

1. What is facilitation?

The dictionary defines facilitation in a number of ways – to make easy or less difficult; to promote or to help forward action, result or process. While the term has broad application, this paper discusses facilitation in a specific sense, as organising and running one or a number of discrete ‘sessions’. As an ongoing process it becomes project (or organisational) management!

As such, facilitation as a skill rests somewhere between chairing meetings and formal mediation. As the name implies, it is the process, usually convened by an individual person, of engaging participants in an interactive journey to an agreed outcome – exploring a key issue, identifying positions, discussing options or potential solutions.

Other related words speak of the some fundamental aspects of facilitation:

face - “face the music”
- meet confidently
- stand fronting

facet - speaks of breaking things down; into “bite size
factor chunks”; promoting small group work

fact - let’s confirm them; isolate points of contention

facetious - trying to be amusing; careful cornball

factions - often opposing parties

facile - tone; of easy temper; flexible; yielding

2. When is facilitation useful?

I suggest that facilitation is useful in a range of administrative, strategic and operational situations:

(i) Setting future agenda:
• exploratory
• identifying key issues
• agreement on the way to proceed (with a proposed series or program of working sessions, for instance)
• use of ‘thinking machines’ such as SWOT analysis, PMI (plusses, minuses and interesting) and W5H (who, where, when, why, what and how)
• useful for community participation, inter-agency coordination etc.

(ii) Developing strategic planning documents:
• to be clear on expected outcomes
• mud-maps of key issues and elements
• detailing the ‘strategic planning tree’: visioning, objectives and strategies
• setting performance criteria (in a policy and future monitoring sense).

(iii) Operationalising plans:
• action planning
• fleshing out the details
• exciting – making things happen.

(iv) Test running plans/policies:
• role play
• scenario building.

(v) For detailed discussions on DAs:
• in advance, with stakeholders, prior to lodgement
• upon application, as an enhanced form of consultation.

(vi) Combinations:
• all of the above, in varying combinations.

An Independent facilitator is useful in the following circumstances:

• Where there are disparate views, or
• Dominant personalities
• When the job seems too big
• For politically sensitive matters – an outsider.

3. Gearing up for a facilitation session

As you may expect, preparation is most important. The participants don’t see this – they only see what happens on the day; but it does show. I suggest the following actions in gearing up for the session:

Step 1 Be clear on objectives and anticipated outcomes. I would always confirm this with the client. The same applies for in-house sessions.

Step 2 Backgrounding
• substantive information
• audience

Step 3 Draft program to client: key elements. For instance:
• introduction
• full group task
• small group work and report back
• general discussion
• where to from here (WTFH)?

Step 4 Check the venue; order your equipment and seat layout

Step 5 Prepare a detailed script – dot point summary

Step 6 On the day
• run it

4. On the day – rules for running sessions

Firstly, you should arrive early and check the seating arrangements – no barriers and an appropriate layout (depending on numbers and program). Also check the equipment.

In running the sessions, the following rules apply. A facilitator’s responsibilities in guiding discussion are:

• Explaining clearly the topics for consideration

• Ensuring everybody has an opportunity to speak

• Seeing that only one person speaks at once

• Keeping people to the point, but never giving the impression of being in a hurry

• Giving full and courteous attention to each contribution, striving to understand rather than evaluate it in terms of your own opinions

• Helping to interpret each contribution, sometimes by re-statement, so that nobody misunderstands anybody else – ‘could you put that in other words’

• Judging a contribution, when evaluation is called for, by its content and not the persuasiveness of its delivery

• Relieving tension when two members are in danger of falling out e.g. by some humour, or drawing attention to areas on which they agree

• Deciding when discussion of an item has gone on long enough: eye on the program

• Stating what has or has not been agreed before moving to the next item

• Ensuring that any resolution is clear and worded so as to secure best chance of agreement. No voting (unless an up-front requirement)

• Considering the practical application of the group view

• Indicating what action, if any, is to be taken (WTFH?).

It is possible to be a participating facilitator whereby, with the agreement (and perhaps desire) of the client, your expert input can also be provided along the way. This should be made clear to the audience at commencement.

I also believe that having a background in the realm/topic area is preferable. While, in theory, an independent facilitator can run a session on any topic, close familiarity with the issue can help with the subtle points etc. If not, more time is required in preparation.

Conclusion – the golden rules

In summary, I suggest the following five golden rules:

1. Think about your audience in advance
2. Be clear about objectives and anticipated outcomes
3. Have a plan ….. and stick to it
4. Follow the ‘rules for running sessions’.
5. Engage your audience. The eyes have it.