Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators

Any domain attracts attention, interest and following in its ascendency. Facilitation or ‘process facilitation’ is entering that phase now. This interest fueled by some reflection prompts me to write about the characteristics that I have observed in facilitators from around the world who continue to inspire me. It was a random reflective scrawl that morphed into “Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators”.

As the world continues to get fragmented by narrow walls and as existing modes of engineering change creak more than normal, facilitation is more than merely ‘sought after’. Over the last few years, I have seen this in action in the first person. Conferences and events like the International Association of Facilitators‘ recently concluded Asia and India conferences are freshly minted in memory. Both conferences were well crafted with meticulous care and depth. Both organising teams deserved the heaps of praise and applause they got. What couldn’t be missed, was the enormous interest and attention that facilitation as a domain is drawing. I met people from diverse industries, geographies, professions, interest groups etc, all seeking to know and learn more.

Even as I experienced top quality facilitation, I recalled some of the best facilitators in action. When I was amongst those being facilitated. Post the conferences, I was scribbling some notes about what stood out in the best of my experience. ( I continue to hear first-person accounts of great facilitation from the world over. Facilitators whose mastery I hope to experience someday). This post holds together seven aspects that are common in facilitators who I have experienced and admire.  Of course, this is my list filled with my biases and notions of what construes to be the best.  If you are a facilitator, I would encourage you to reflect, have a conversation and evolve your own list as well. For now, this is my list: Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators.

1. Self Awareness:

Top notch facilitators realise that the journey within them is the real journey. They are well aware of their own mental models, preferences. and biases. They are keenly aware of where their true self-worth comes from. Often times, it comes from who they are and not from being a recipient of an award, certification, the position they hold in a hierarchy or even the kind of work they do. They are in the perpetual beta mode!

This is invaluable in my opinion, for they approach the position of a ‘facilitator’  with a degree of respect and an inclusive embrace. They are simple people with no airs. Not for them any ‘super manesque’ infallibility and Midas touches that sprinkle magic solutions.  They don’t hanker for power and have any need to holler into a microphone. Wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve, they walk amongst the rest of us. Like the rest of us! This makes them endearing. There is something in them that draws people seeking out a conversation.


2. It is never about themselves:

That is a straight one, isn’t it? To be able to keep the light shining on the group that entrusts itself with a facilitator is an important ask. Great facilitators do this with effortless ease. An important distinction that I became aware of is the temptation to take the stage, in the garb of ‘shining the light on others’!  Great facilitators ensure that the whole space belongs to the group and the community. They are part of the milieu.

‘Holding the space’ is a phrase that permeates several facilitator conversations. This piece has some good insights and it lists eight important tips to hold space for others. Amongst them, are “Don’t take their power away”, “Keep your own ego out of it”, “Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness”.

Those are potholes that I catch myself falling often into. These jarred edges have sticky spikes.

3. Here and Now:

Presence and complete immersion with the group in front of them get great facilitators in a flow. Close your eyes and imagine an ‘ego-less’ state, where it’s not about showcasing oneself or the tools or the competence. A state where the sole focus of the group moving forward. It is a powerful idea that escapes capturing in its full essence here.

Just being present to the stated and unstated needs of the people in front can mean on the spot improvisation of well laid out plans. Sometimes, junking plans and taking different routes.  It didn’t matter if hours of preparation went into the design of a process. I have seen great facilitators drop it as though they had never thought about it because the ‘group has a different need’. To hold oneself at the service of the group is a mindset that switches on presence, in my opinion.

4. Tools are tools:

This is amongst my favourites. The best amongst us treat tools as mere tools. There is a respect for what the tools can help accomplish and a consequent need to be acquainted with these. But true mastery is not in replicating tools and processes. True mastery is in combining, shaping, mixing, axing of tools, processes, and ideas with imagination. Tools must always bow at the altar of outcomes that a group needs.

Heres a tip that I learned some time ago: Learning up a tool is good.  But true learning is when you have learned to go beyond the tool or the process. The quest for the new and shiny tools have sent several of us scurrying to far corners & writing down every word that an expert says. My experience of having practiced it in my early years gets me to wish I had realised how pointless an exercise it is. Unless accompanied by adaptation and reflection lead practice, it is a big house with no residents.

5. Curiosity:

The benefits that curiosity laden inquiry brings are often missed. Genuine curiosity and a spirit of exploration can lead to results that alter horizons.  It is in the nature of what Edgar Shein describes in Humble Inquiry. It helps unravel what groups are confronted with and the issues beneath the surface.

I have been in groups where some ace facilitators tease groups with a curious inquiry. To go beyond what is stated, to ask how to seek why to question if a broader ‘what’ is possible all means to challenge status quo. It is in such challenges that groups move forward beyond their immediate stated needs. Curiosity is a superb lubricant to move a conversation into areas that it hasn’t been to.

6. Working on themselves:

Perhaps the biggest learning that I have had from expert facilitators is their investment in themselves.  It is this aspect that gives them renewal. Investment in areas of skills and processes is eclipsed often by a conscious commitment to discover and work on the self.

The meticulous commitment to reflect, dialogue, debate and learn as a collective is a not so secret weapon in the arsenal of true champions. But it is something that can so easily missed in the quest for business or in the comfort of easy ‘success’. Lasting long term comes from the commitment a facilitator makes to the craft of facilitation.

7. Givers:

I kept this for the last because it is special.  It is when you truly give, that you are worth receiving.  I have approached members of the community with so much ease that it has made my inhibitions melt. Irrespective of their schedules and stature, people who inspire have gone beyond their brief to help.

People give their time to bounce off ideas, talk,  debate, often times for little or no consideration at all. This lack of seeking ‘whats in it for me’, sets them apart. To them, ‘to give’ is consideration enough.

So those are my seven from a long list I drew up thinking of the people who I have experienced first-hand several times. Thiagi, Kimberly BainBarbara Mackay, Martin FarellNoel Tan, Martin Galbraith,, Tom Schwartz, Rhonda Tranks, Lawrence Philbrook amongst international facilitators.

I hesitate to list my colleagues from India. For the well of knowledge that I have drawn from far exceeds the small bucket of my memory and experience. Let’s leave it at that. Many of them feature in some of the pictures of the Asia and India conferences, courtesy the wonderful organisers from the Chennai and Seoul. (Please give it 2-3 minutes for the pictures to load. You may get a message that “This slideshow requires javascript” before the images load)

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So those are the items that make the Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators. Facilitators who I have seen a few times in action and who have left an imprint on me. I am curious to know about your list. Perhaps we should talk about it soon.

Building a Story Ecosystem

Post By Stephen Berkeley

In 2011 I had the fortune of spending three days with Peter Senge, the Author of “The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation” and “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization” identified in 1997 by the Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The event was the Society of Organisation Learning‘s “Fundamentals of Leadership” workshop in Boston. It brought alive for me the importance of active listening in the building a story ecosystem.

Peter has a very Zen style, so when he spoke his words seemed to go deeper into the cerebral cortex than any speaker I have ever heard. One of his pearls that has shaped my work as an Organsiation Development Practitioner was “What we say and don’t say and what we do and don’t do creates culture”. From my experience of working at a leadership level in healthcare over the last thirty years in Australia, UK and India, I would rephrase this to, “what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do, creates stories, in our minds and the minds of others, and it is these stories that create culture”. And of course, as Peter Drucker famously said: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

One of the hypotheses we are testing with the “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” workshops is that “When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents”. The exact opposite is also true, when we do not engage in deep listening to each other, new realities will still emerge and can be infectious for all the wrong reasons, because the untold stories live on in our behaviours.  The grapevine is stories that have not been listened to. So it can also be said that untold stories can have a “lasting impact on the system and its constituents”.

In healthcare, a reputation that has taken years to be built can be destroyed in a flash, whether it be an individual or an entire organisation, because lives are at stake. However, a system does not break down overnight. There generally is a steady stream of stories that would have been symptoms that the system is about to implode. But as leaders, we are often caught up in getting things done that we do not pay attention to the emerging stories within our organisations. Stories not tended to, have the capability of derailing everything from our overall vision to a new product launch, to a project or just everyday productivity. Not to mention destroying relationships. Stories like stones can be used to build a bridge or a wall. How we tend to stories determines whether we build a bridge or a wall.

I took the above picture at Haines Falls in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York shortly before my workshop with Peter Senge in Boston. I had just finished co-facilitating a 4 day Dialogue with 60 healthcare leaders from 7 countries who gathered to explore the intersection of spirituality with healthcare. It was a vibrant but intense experience as I was the graphic recorder, my first attempt. But I needed a bit of a release so I decided to go for a walk in the woods and discovered this epic bridge.

After four days of listening to stories and synthesising them into a graphic, this bridge represented our journey. We started the four-day dialogue with our own individual stories, but through a well crafted facilitative process involving Open Space Technology, World Cafe and Appreciative Inquiry we identified our commonality and the areas we could individually provide more leadership on. Each story was like a stone, we could have used them to build a bridge or a wall. We chose the bridge.

Trust plays a central role. To draw out the stories that are shaping your culture needs a facilitator skilled in creating a safe environment for conversations that count. Currently, there is a trend towards “storytelling”, but it is only part of the picture. There is, in fact, a Story Ecosystem. We need to pay equal attention to the component parts of this story ecosystem.  The art of story work requires you to be a story detective, a three-dimensional listener, a harvester, a curator, a synthesiser, a sense-maker and a facilitator. You need a systematic way of hearing all the perspectives and understanding the narratives.

Our workshops on “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a Time” and the online conversation we hope to create, will dive deep into the StoryWork Ecosystem. Do hope you can join us at #IAFAsia17 in Seoul on the 18th August. You can also follow our journey on our FB page