The Art and Science of Facilitation

The Art and Science of Facilitation

This article was written on 2017-04-10 in Chinese and translated by Facilitators Network Singapore
Author: Annie Zhang, keyTalk, Chengdu, China

According to the definition of the International Institute of Facilitation (INIFAC), “facilitation is an art, and a science, it can help groups to discuss, examine and make decisions more effectively.” The tools and processes used in facilitation encourage everyone to leverage their different backgrounds, values, interests and the abilities to make higher quality decisions, raise productivity, and improve group dynamics. In a nutshell, facilitation can enhance interactions among people and groups, and leading to more focus on the results.

Over these years as a team coach helping business teams improve their performances, I have deployed a number of teamwork facilitation techniques, and I could really feel the charm of this work. It has been a very interesting, valuable yet challenging process, just like a Master has ever said that this work is not suitable for the timid ones, because the challenge faced is not about the external factors, but the facilitator himself/herself. By chance, I could closely follow the two founders of SPOT facilitation tools and techniques, Prabu Naidu and Janice Lua, to learn and work together, thereby having the opportunity to deeply observe the international-level masters and obtained various insights.

As SPOT facilitation techniques have a lot of excellent tools and processes, many tend to focus on the variety of tools and process steps. Beginners often focus on how to complete the process within the time. Of course, the process itself does effectively contribute to the outputs and outcomes of the meeting, but it is not so simple in bringing a group together and to inspire one another to generate high-quality outputs. It is a misconception that many have on facilitation, in that it only needs some tools and processes, so reading up to know a few tools and their steps will suffice. However, the brainstorming we typically know of, has yet to play out its real benefits. This became evident after we have done a number of courses and forums.

SPOT facilitation techniques is effective because it emphasizes on the wealth of content besides the processes, such as the facilitator’s core competencies on “neutrality”. How many can really achieve “neutrality”? “Active listening” , “effective questioning” and “surfacing assumptions” — to be able to listen attentively is already very challenging, there are situations when team members question the facilitator, when the team is in a dispute, and when the team remains silent for prolonged period of time. Then how can the facilitator face up to the pressure of such scenarios and their emotions, and “believe that the team has the resources to solve their own problems”? Based on my experience, the tools and processes are necessary, but if the facilitator’s core competencies are absent, the potential of the tools and processes will be limited. Emphasizing on the core competencies of a facilitator is a very important feature of SPOT facilitation tools and techniques. When I am facing of a team, I really do not know what will happen. Even with much preparation, the actual scenario still cannot be predicted, therefore the facilitator’s response is often on the spot, This tests the typical core skills. SPOT facilitator’s training is about being able to do it, not just about knowing.

I recalled when I just started out working with the two mentors. My mind was occupied with prescribed time, my processes, my tools. I felt the pressure of being observed and perhaps being judged, as well as the anxiety to manage time . My focus was on myself. When the participants were sharing endlessly beyond the time limit, my inner anxiety drove me to interrupt her. This intervention clearly affected the state of the room, the entire group energy dropped. The process continued, but it became “the elephant in the room”. No one said anything, but the energy to speak up was reduced. My mentor, Prabu, brought us to face this problem in a timely manner. The neutrality he projected was memorable to me. He let everyone observe how a master facilitator deals with hidden conflict, shows empathy while being neutral, surfaces assumptions and let everyone understand the challenges faced by a facilitator and learn methods that can be used. This led me to learn a very important point — the balance of time and safe emotional space, and also let me see that he really believes that the team can solve the problem. There is no need to avoid the problem.

In another course, I observed that Janice, in face of an anxious participant who was in a strong emotional state, asking questions. She exhibited neutrality without judgement, patience, active listening, and emotional management, which left me in awe. During typical moments, I have observed them and noticed that they were always in a state of calmness. I have never seen Janice flare up, or shown impatience, she has always been humble and listening attentively to others. I believe those who know her would have a deep impression of her bright smile. Today, my team facilitation has become increasingly savvy, and I must say that I have learned a lot from them.

During a dynamic facilitation, Janice once said that a good facilitator is about using self as the tool and following the energy of the team for facilitative intervention. A good facilitator would even lead people think that he did not exist, such that the team felt that everything was created by them. Some says to keep “an empty cup mentality” during learning. During facilitation, the facilitator is in “an empty state”, meaning not taking any position nor pass judgement, it is in a state “without me”. I understand that this is like what the Taoist says as “inaction”, the facilitator is seemingly there but not, and with an appropriate balance of action and inaction, just like the Tai Chi’s Yin and Yang balance. When “no tactics” surpasses “the presence of tactics”, this is probably the highest state of the facilitation. At this moment, facilitation is an art rather than about techniques. To which level can one attain? This is determined by the growth of a facilitator’s core competencies. Our ancestors had long said to “use art to drive science”. Art and science in facilitation combined, could be the way to become a good facilitator (includes learning some facilitation techniques). This path, in my view, is a journey of practice, and it is a growth path, so the benefits of learning SPOT for teams is not only to guide teams towards goals more effectively, but also a personal growth process. It is a learning process of melding knowing and doing.


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