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Facilitator: Neutral Party or Expert Guide?

This guest blog post is by Lindsay Gross, director of facilitation services for Event Garde.

Traditional school of thought about facilitators is that they should be a neutral party with no stake in the game. They are merely a vessel that processes information and captures the thoughts and ideas of a group. Many believe this is what allows facilitators to be effective. They are not personally invested in the outcome so they are able to facilitate conversations without bias or opinion.

I would challenge that thinking to offer a different perspective. Facilitators should actually be expert guides. They bring to the table content expertise. Their understanding of the subject matter allows them to have a deeper understanding of the goals of the group and how to assist them in achieving those goals.

A facilitator who is an expert guide plays many varying roles with a group. They at times serve as a leader who directs and drives the content and has “the answer.” Typically, for facilitators, this is displayed in their articulation of why the client hired them and asked them to convene a group. At other times the expert guide facilitator acts as a consultant who makes recommendations based on best practice. They also can serve as a trainer that imparts knowledge to the group. And of course, a facilitator is neutral at times, assisting in processing group thought and building group consensus. Each one of these roles has its time and place with a group. An expert guide facilitator knows when to lead with what skill in order to move a group towards completing its desired outcomes.

Expert guide facilitators also have an understanding of the playing field that allows the facilitator to know where the landmines exist. When a group appears to be making decisions that the facilitator ultimately knows will not be beneficial or will derail the group’s progress, the facilitator can steer the group around the potential pitfall. This can only be achieved if the facilitator brings subject matter understanding to the table.

The final, and I believe the most crucial component that an expert guide facilitator possesses, is the ability to build trust with a group. Many groups have lofty or ambitious goals that require them to take a bit of a leap of faith to achieve them. In order to take that leap they need to put their fate in the hands of the facilitator. This requires trust. Trust is often gained by participants seeing your credibility in the field. They are willing to enter into a journey with you towards achieving their goals because they know you understand the journey that lies ahead.

A facilitator’s job is not merely to help the group arrive at an answer; it is to help them arrive at the “best” answer – the answer that takes into account the potential pitfalls, the opportunities that exist and the current climate in the particular field. An expert guide facilitator understands all of these factors and is able to skillfully pilot a group to success.  

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