Facilitation and facilitate are not words that were much used thirty years ago. Even recent dictionaries treat them cursorily. The Collins English Dictionary (2005) has:
Facilitate (vb.): to make easier; assist the progress of
But the usage of the words is much richer now. Their rise has happened alongside and complemented the evolution of participatory methods. For although participation can occur spontaneously, in a development context it is usually induced, enabled, provoked, encouraged, catalysed or caused to happen by an actor. In short, it is usually facilitated by a facilitator.
So now we have books and courses on facilitation. Facilitators are trained. There are approaches, methods and exercises for facilitation, and attitudes, behaviours, relationships and ethics for facilitators to take into account.
The power of facilitation
On the surface it sometimes seems that facilitation is somehow neutral: surely all a facilitator does is bring people together and enable them to interact, with outcomes which emerge from the process and belong to the participants? This is theoretically possible, and may to a degree be desired and achieved, but more often a facilitator has an idea of where things should be going, and is far from neutral.
So we have a continuum of facilitation behaviours and relationships from
Facipulation is a word which still gets a laugh: a combination of facilitate and manipulate, it means to facilitate in a manipulative manner. It points to the pervasive reality that, to varying degrees, facilitators set agendas, steer processes, frame analysis, and summarise conclusions.
In short, facilitation entails the exercise of power – whether at one end of the spectrum the power to initiate a process, stand back and let a group process take its course, or at the other end, to manage the process so that it ‘remains on track’ towards a predetermined goal.
Facilitation and participatory methods
There are now a multitude of participatory methods (PMs). Many have distinct contexts, whether agriculture, health, natural resource management or transparency and accountability. Many have been named and have distinct identities – Popular Theatre, Reflect, Appreciative Inquiry, Most Significant Change, outcome mapping, participatory budgeting. More and more are linked with new technologies – Participatory Geographic Information Systems, crowdsourcing, and many applications of the Internet and mobile phones. All require facilitation. Someone has to make them happen and help them along.
And they need special skills, and more importantly, special attitudes and behaviours. As Ugandan teacher and facilitator Maria Nandago wrote in Springs of Participation in 2007, “training and facilitation are the key enablers of the spread and success of participatory methods… Asked who are the most important persons in the development, spread and evolution of high-quality PMs, without hesitating I will respond that it is the facilitators”.
A good facilitator of PMs and participatory approaches and processes will often be creative and, together with participants, improvise a process, drawing on a diversity of traditions and methods.
More on facilitation
Facilitation and the co-generation of knowledge
The best and most meaningful knowledge is usually created by people together. A range of perspectives, ideas, experiences, skills and thinking can create a rich pool of knowledge which can solidify into the basis of sound policy and action. A good facilitator helps this process to happen productively. They will ensure thorough and careful preparation, a well facilitated group process, and appropriate and prompt follow-up.
This is probably the most important aspect of facilitation. And, sadly, the one most often overlooked. Ideally, a facilitator models the behaviour and attitudes that they are promoting. This involves being empowering and flexible. It requires the facilitator to have active listening skills, patience, empathy, respect, creativity and the ability to be humble, to name a few. This is all put together to provide participants with opportunities to express and analyse their own realities and experience and come to their own conclusions.
Some things are critical. Facilitators should:
hand over the stick
watch, listen and learn
learn from their mistakes
be self-critical and self-aware
support and share
Being mindful of these approaches is critical to avoid the tendency to take charge of situations.