The Invisible Facilitator

Two weeks ago someone dropped in to our office to interview for the role of facilitator. The interview itself went off quite well and the candidate seemed to have checked off most of the boxes we were looking for. As a final courtesy I asked him, “Is there anything else you would like to share?”

An imperceptible smile spread across his face and he said, “I have a confession to make. I have been a trainer for a long while now, but I think there is a showman inside me. I love being in the spotlight. I love being the center of attention, and that is what attracted me to this job really.” I don’t know if he noticed, but in my mind, that was the mother of all faux pas that a candidate could have made with us!

cartoon of Facilitator as center of attentionFacilitation is a seemingly glamorous profession. The facilitator is after all person who orchestrates a complete workshop. From start to finish, s/he seemingly is the “center of attention,” but that view of facilitation is only for the novice.

Sometime back I wrote a blog where I expanded on the writing of one of our senior facilitators from Singapore, Leonard Kok, on what it means to be Facilitating with Excellence. While that article written a couple of years back is just as relevant, in retrospect there is one more point that I would add to that article. This is a critical piece of advice for all new facilitators:  It is not about you. It is about them.

The ultimate facilitator in my eyes is not one who wows the participants so much that they come out of the workshop in awe of his/her prowess and capabilities. Rather it is the other way round, with a subtle difference. If participants come out of your workshop with a feeling that they have done a lot of talking themselves, have arrived upon unexpected insights, engaged with each other in a completely engrossing manner, and hey the time just flew, then take a bow facilitator, you have done an awesome job! Just notice that in that last line there is no mention whatsoever about how awesome the facilitation per se was. And yet, we in facilitation know that to inject and manage that kind of energy in a group takes a skillful facilitator indeed.

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The best compliment I have ever received as a facilitator was after a 2 day engagement using MBTI, Lego Serious Play, and Process Facilitation techniques where, at the end of the session, the leader actually articulated it by saying, “We felt as if we ran this workshop all by ourselves. We have had such intense discussions and such personal disclosures amongst ourselves without ever feeling the presence of an external facilitator. And yet we know who the puppeteer was.”

I repeat once again, “It’s not about you. It’s about them.” So, how do we as facilitators become invisible? Part of that is the attitude we, as facilitators bring in to a workshop, which is stated in the start of this paragraph. A significant part of it though is in the preparation.

So a few questions that a facilitator needs to answer for himself/herself before getting into the workshop are:

  • How much do you know about them – the group and the company?
  • Where are they in their journey as a team?
  • Are they really a team or are they just a group of individuals reporting to the same boss?
  • Do you have any insights about the leader in the group and his style?
  • What do they really want to take out of this session?
  • What are their stated objectives?
  • Are their any group dynamics that you should be aware of?
  • What are they doing before coming to your workshop? What are they doing after?
  • What is their mental state coming into the session?
  • Are they cynical, expectant, or enthusiastic?
  • Is their safety completely taken care of by you?
  • Are there examples, stories, anecdotes that could add value to them in their context?
  • How do you ensure that they have a very meaningful experience today?

Regardless of what kind of workshop you are doing – a Team Experience, a Team Building workshop, a Leadership workshop, an Innovation workshop, an Induction workshop, or any other, all these questions are still relevant in varying degrees.

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To stay invisible as a facilitator calls for an attitude of humility in life. It is not about coming out looking like a super hero at the end of the workshop. It is not about feeling bloated when some participants walk up to you and say you did an awesome job. Rather, it is about working really hard to help the participants have a meaningful workshop. It is about always remembering, in good times and bad times, to ask yourself, “So What?” It is about staying grounded at all times. It is about wanting to be invisible as a facilitator and always telling yourself, “It’s not about me. It’s about them.”

As for that candidate who made that confession, we did spend a good hour after that disclosure trying to help him see the way we see things here at Focus!

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