What is facilitation?

In short, facilitation is a way to improve team performance that benefits organisations and is applicable in multiple contexts. Facilitation operates on a deep level, allowing participants to explore beliefs and values, rather than merely being able to communicate more effectively.

Ask someone to define facilitation though, whether they’re a facilitator or a client of facilitation, and you’ll be met with a wide range of answers.

Some interpretations will be nebulous and unclear. Others will be concise but may be centred on the most relevant aspect(s). It’s also not uncommon for facilitation to be equated or conceptually linked with other disciplines like coaching, mediation, moderation, and even teaching.

In this blog post, we’ll look to clarify what facilitation is and how it is used. Here’s what we’ll cover:

To jump straight to the benefits of facilitation, click here. Or, to learn how to improve your facilitation skills, check out our facilitator hints & tips or our facilitator masterclasses.

What does a facilitator do?

A facilitator is an external, neutral, process expert who helps a team to work together. Neutrality here means that no opinion is given on content being discussed.

Facilitators make interventions within processes with the intent of improving them.

While consultants, trainers and other roles may be referred to as facilitators and may use facilitation skills, in a technical sense of the word they are not.

If knowledge is brought in (i.e. teaching team skills) with facilitation skills, you’re jumping between one role and the other.

Because facilitation is a broad construct and there exists a relative lack of unifying language and frameworks, compound language is often useful in narrowing down the role. 

When an aspect of the definition given above changes – i.e. when a facilitator is no longer external or neutral – a facilitator’s role shifts slightly. 

Our framework below, adapted from the work of Schwarz (see further reading) shows how this shift can play out:

The MTa facilitation roles framework

What’s the difference between facilitation and teaching?

The clearer boundaries above are helpful in understanding the variations on facilitation, but there remains confusion about how facilitation intersects with other distinct disciplines.

As a general overview, facilitators listen, ask questions, encourage thinking, and go with the flow of the group, whereas teachers might speak, do the thinking themselves and teach the right answer, structure for the group, then answer any questions before setting the group a timetable and objectives.

Our model includes facilitative-trainers: those who blend their facilitation with the skills of a trainer or teacher.

Where can facilitation be used?

Facilitation happens – intentionally or otherwise – in a wide range of settings, from meetings to training sessions. When done intentionally by a trained facilitator, potential benefits are both greater and more likely to be achieved.

Facilitation can occur in many settings, from classrooms to university society meetings to corporate boardrooms, and many of the facilitators who use our tools work in these settings. On our sector solutions page, you can see how and where facilitators employ our training materials.

What are the benefits of facilitation?

There are many potential benefits to effective facilitation, some of which are included in the list below:

  • Secure buy-in for decisions
  • Encourage people to build their own ideas
  • Build consensus
  • Get people to take more responsibility
  • Build a culture of responsibility
  • Engage people cognitively so that learning sticks
  • Give people a voice
  • Give a sense of importance and self-affirmation
  • It’s a lighter day at the office for the facilitator! You no longer need to be presenting all the time

From these emerge four powerful benefits which can become embedded in an organisation’s culture:

  • Empowered employees 
  • Decentralised decision making
  • Organisational change and development
  • Improved team performance

What is facilitation in experiential learning?

In the context of experiential learning, facilitation is especially powerful. Experiential learning is the process through which lasting behavioural change is achieved through completing, reflecting on, and repeating a task or activity.

We’ve written a lot more about experiential learning here if you’d like to learn more.

The process of facilitation is crucial in steering participants towards lasting behavioural change, by helping them to refine and develop their ideas, and then to repeat the task or activity with this refined knowledge. 

Unlike classroom learning which is prescriptive, and where participants are expected to reach a pre-defined outcome, experiential learning places emphasis on lasting behavioural change, the development of skills and behaviours to respond to different situations, and the ability to apply this knowledge: all of which arise from participants’ own thoughts and theories through the process of facilitation.

What are facilitation skills?

While the skills involved in facilitation have existed for millennia, the role of a facilitator is not formally referred to in academic literature until the 1940s.

Various methodologies, constructs and taxonomies of facilitation exist which attempt to crystallize the skills involved, some of which are explored briefly in the next section.

The skills below are broadly acknowledged to be those of a facilitator, although as we said much earlier, there is no unanimous definition of the concept or of the required skillset:

  • Active listening
  • Advanced preparation 
  • Asking questions
  • Clear communication
  • Conflict management
  • Consensus building
  • Creating focus
  • Empathy
  • Inclusivity
  • Neutrality
  • Organisation and management
  • Process expertise
  • Timekeeping
  • Using silence

Studies like those by Dogherty et al (2012), Lessard et al (2015) and others have proposed many more skills and roles of facilitators – sometimes upward of 70, depending on the study – so bear in mind that the list above is not exhaustive.

Models of facilitation

Here is a sample of theoretical models of facilitation. These contributions are held in high regard academically, but again, this list is not exhaustive:

  • Blake and Mouton’s five-category intervention analysis (1974): an attempt to categorise intervention styles.
  • Heron’s six category facilitator dimensions (1976): an attempt to expand upon Blake and Mouton’s model which involved categorising intervention styles as either facilitative or authoritative.
  • Heron’s six dimensions of facilitating (1977): refinement of his 1976 model into a specific facilitation context; later refined again (1989) to include cooperative interventions.
  • Schwarz’s Facilitative Roles (2002): builds on Heron’s theories by considering facilitation from a wider range of contexts, and by exploring its intersection with other disciplines.

How to become a facilitator

While it is possible to learn some aspects of facilitation through observation, and while many practising facilitators have not received formal facilitator training, it is highly recommended to do so.

Observing experienced facilitators in a structured environment, learning the underlying theory, and receiving feedback on your facilitation skills as they develop leads to a much firmer grasp of the discipline. This translates to 

Towards a better understanding of facilitation

Facilitation plays a powerful role in empowering teams and is increasing in popularity as interest in experiential education and participatory research grows.

While facilitation offers many benefits, confusion around the term muddies the water. When a facilitator’s role is unclear and there is a lack of agreement or understanding of when facilitation can and should be used within an organisation, it becomes difficult for an organisation to reap the full benefits.

Clarity gives facilitators a clear understanding of their role, while also providing a more formal overview of contexts where facilitation can be used. A clear and consistent definition also  provides a framework for discussion

It’s our hope that this blog post has offered you some clarity in the concept and role of facilitation. To learn more, take a look at our facilitator masterclasses: these are designed to explore the art of facilitation, deepen your understanding of practical facilitation, and improve your skills and performance.

Further reading

Blake, R. R., & Mouton, J. S. (1974). Designing change for educational institutions through the D/D matrix. Education and Urban Society, 6(2), p 179-204.

Cameron, E. (2005). Facilitation made easy: practical tips to improve meetings and workshops. Kogan Page Publishers.

Heron, J. (1976). A six-category intervention analysis. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 4(2), 143-155.

Heron, J. (1977). Dimensions of Facilitator Style. University of Guildford, Surrey

Heron, J. (1999). The complete facilitator’s handbook. Kogan Page.

Schwarz, R. (2002). The skilled facilitator: A comprehensive resource for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers, and coaches. John Wiley & Sons.