The collective information generated by a group of people can be an incredibly powerful thing. The idea that “two heads are better than one” holds true in many situations and results often far more dynamic and interesting when information is discussed and shared. A group of people all bring different things to the table; knowledge and information to share, thoughts, wishes, feelings, ideas, questions, objections and comments to name a few. If harnessed in the right way these cumulative inputs can mean that problems can be solved, ideas developed, plans made, work evaluated and world peace achieved (well, almost).

Getting the most out of a group of people working together though is not always easy and there is a risk that the potential of the group is just never realised. Time pressure for one thing means that meetings and other formal ‘gatherings’ are not always as well planned as they might be or not attended by the right people. Most people have been to a bad meeting at some point in their life, where discussions go on for too long, or go round in circles, the same people do all the talking, the meeting runs over time and it feels like very few results are achieved.

If the meeting were facilitated by a professional facilitator though, it might be a different story.

It might also no longer be a ‘meeting’ in the typical sense of the word but become more of a session or workshop where the facilitator employs a range of tools and techniques to create a defined structure and process. A facilitator would guide participants through the meeting to achieve a certain goal (for example creating a strategic plan or analysing a team’s needs) and quite importantly remain neutral. A facilitator does not provide any new information or give an opinion on a situation but focuses on enabling the meeting to succeed. Critically they make sure that the communication is flowing smoothly and that the group moves along towards the pre-defined goal and does not drift off topic.

If you have a picture of someone working with reams of flip chart paper and coloured card, chunky marker pens and sticky notes then you are probably getting the idea! Facilitators though are often confused with trainers (and many professionals do both). The crucial difference is that a facilitator’s job is really to draw out information that is held by the participants, whereas a trainer is there to impart new learning.

A good facilitator can work in a multitude of ways and can adapt their skills to just about any group or goal, and work across many sectors. Commonly facilitators may work in areas such as strategic planning, problem solving, goal setting, leading discussion and feedback sessions, conducting reviews and evaluations, needs analysis or team building. It is in situations where there is a lot of information to be discussed in a group, in an in depth way and requiring a specific output that bringing in an external facilitator is very often the way to achieve the best results.

About the author:

Helene Jewell is an experienced facilitator with a passion for improving and enhancing communication. She comes from a background of Speech and Language Therapy which took her overseas as a VSO volunteer where she developed her love of training, participation and facilitation. She has worked for a number of organisations using her communication skills as an advocate, research consultant, project manager and interpreter. She now runs her own business offering facilitation services to a wide range of clients from local community groups to large water companies. Participants in her workshops have included young people, teachers, community workers, health care professionals, engineers, archaeologists and project managers.
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