How do you know that a facilitator is good? Apart from observing them personally, you can look at the International Association of Facilitators’ Competency Framework. As a IAF Certified™ Professional Facilitator, I am required to show how these competencies are developing in my work and recertify my skills every three years. One part of that process is an essay about lessons learned in the past years.
You can find a copy of that essay below (lightly edited). What are you learning about facilitation?
In this essay, I plan to reflect on lessons learned since my original certification in 2012, consider changes to my facilitation style and behaviour and explore what growth I have experienced as a facilitator during the the time since my last recertification in 2016. I will follow the IAF Core Competencies as a framework for this reflection, closing with some general remarks.
Competency A: Creating Collaborative Client Relationships
This competency covers the ability to develop working partnerships, design and customize applications to meet client needs and manage multi-session events effectively. It also includes working in collaboration, such as co-facilitation. Two aspects of my work have particularly relied on this skill: Engaging in longer strategic change processes and working in collaboration with other facilitators.
In the past years, I had the privilege to accompany a number of organisations in longer strategic change processes – either through explicit contracts for that purpose, or through regular engagements for annual meetings with a strategic component. This resulted in a slight shift of the facilitator role (in the run-up and follow-up of sessions) towards coaching (with the senior executives that were my direct partners) and consulting (in the process of identifying the most important needs and best framework for interventions). Next to improved interviewing skills, a key element was to ensure involvement from all relevant parts of the organisation in the preparation of each event (or process). Without sufficient input, the danger is that the facilitator risks becoming a tool for the management team and loses their neutral, outcome-oriented stance.
As events have grown in size, I have increasingly worked in collaboration with other facilitators, graphic recorders and process designers. In this context, I have been able to co-host participatory processes and meetings with up to 500 people in the room, resulting in joint declarations and clear decisions. In addition, I have joined the partnership CoCreativeFlow – currently seven women with a diverse set of skills – that collaborates on projects, invests in collective professional development and provides a space for reflection and growth. As a result of this, I have become more aware of the particular skills I bring to the groups I work with (clarity, structure, strategic questions) and have picked up tips and ideas to improve my practice from others (use of templates, graphics, space). One core lesson for me was the importance to build a hosting team around each event and to invest in the process behind the scenes, especially as events get bigger and/or more complex. Even if I am officially facilitating on my own, I often involve people from my client system in a co-hosting role.
Competency B: Planning Appropriate Group Processes
This competency covers the ability to select clear methods and approaches and to prepare time and space to support the group process. For me, this skill has shown up in two ways: going back to basics and exploring the digital realm.
When selecting group processes for a specific purpose, my focus in the past years has been on less on expanding my repertoire of methods, and more on deepening within individual approaches and methods by sharpening the questions asked, focusing on experiential and rational objectives and sensing into the needs of the group. In this process, I’ve learned through co-hosting with senior practitioners of Open Space technology, Circle, World Café and the Art of Hosting. In addition, I’ve both invested in better materials to support facilitated sessions and in building systems and templates for delivery (including a facilitation plan template published in the IAF Global Flipchart).
When preparing time and space, supporting people participating digitally has become of increasing importance. This included sessions with occasional online participants or speakers, dedicated online workshops and specifically designed blended online-onsite hybrid meetings. Considering the additional needs of online participants for inclusion and voice might require carrying extra equipment (like a mobile loudspeaker/microphone or a tripod to mount an internet-enabled camera), expanding the hosting team with a dedicated online host or knowing the ins and outs of software used (mostly: Zoom + online documents). At the same time, a well-hosted online meeting can enable conversations that would otherwise not be possible and involve people more easily for shorter parts of the process.
Competency C: Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Environment
This competency covers the ability to effectively communicate in participatory ways, honour and recognise diversity and inclusion, manage group conflict and evoke creativity.
One of my key learning edges in the past years has been around diversity and inclusion. As facilitators, we play a special role in creating a climate of safety and trust, and inviting all voices independent of power and privilege. While I work in mostly educated white spaces across Europe, I’ve made an effort to widen my perspectives on race, (dis-)ability and gender. Still: one of the most challenging situations in my facilitation practice in the past years was when powerful people in one of my session openly made discriminatory remarks in a conversation on inclusion. In these moments, facilitators (and organisers) have a responsibility to step in and actively protect marginalised groups. Neutrality in the face of discrimination is harmful.
In addition, I have widened my range of skills and tools in evoking group creativity, both to envisage desired futures and to imagine possible solutions. Depending on the group, this might include visualisation exercises, collaborative drawing or storytelling.
Competency D: Guiding the Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes
This competency covers the ability to guide the group to consensus and desired outcomes and facilitate group awareness about its task.
One of the specific challenges for the organizations I work with lies in clear and committed decision-making, especially when a) there is a general assumption that decisions are taken together in consensus and b) delaying a decision is not an option. In these situations, I have increasingly worked with proposal-based decision-making, a structured process that leads a group towards consent by first clarifying the issue to be addressed, then generating possible solutions and options and asking a small group to develop a proposal for decision.
In addition, especially when working in smaller groups and with less structured processes, I am usually focusing on capturing important points and questions from the discussion to guide the group to useful outcomes. In order to facilitate group self-awareness, I’ve also integrated review and retrospective practices into my process.
Competency E: Building and Maintaining Professional Knowledge
This competency covers the maintenance of professional standing and knowledge about a range of facilitation methods.
A particular focus of my professional development work in the past years was deepening my understanding of non-profit strategy, campaign planning and participatory decision-making. In addition, I made an effort to deepen my understanding of classic facilitation methods such as Technology of Participation and Circle. This was complemented by reading on embodiment, improvisation and nimble facilitation skills.
I’ve also participated in workshops exploring liberating structures, project management and planning, storytelling and wider approaches in transformational consulting. My blog on onsubject.eu has seen posts ranging from hybrid workshops and retrospectives to principles behind my work. Additional posts are planned on decision-making, complexity and prioritisation.
Competency F: Modelling Positive Professional Attitude
This competency covers a practice of self-assessment and self-awareness, acting with integrity and modelling neutrality and trust.
Working in partnership with others gave me a rich source of feedback and improved my awareness of my facilitation style and strengths. A more formalised debriefing and feedback process after the completion of client engagements was also helpful. I have learned that one source of my strength is my ability to hold my clients accountable to the best possible version of themselves – and challenge them to step up to their potential as a group. This does sometimes involve taking a position (to protect vulnerable participants, as discussed above, or to check whether the intermediate group outcomes match the self-set goals and principles. I also know that every format or process I propose influences the group outcomes, and thus aim for a deep understanding of the group’s needs and intentions as I design a process.
Even more than in 2016, facilitation has arrived as the core practice and identity in my work. This has resulted in a widening of my client portfolio – from exclusively mission-oriented projects to the occasional straight-up corporate job. The Certified Professional Facilitator designation has proven itself worthwhile both as a mark of quality for interested organisations and as a way for new clients to find me through the facilitator database.