Professional Facilitation Through the Lenses of Economics & Literature

We could tell you all about professional facilitation in a very straightforward and succinct description… Or, you could follow us on a short journey that’ll highlight the significance and function of a professional facilitator in much more depth than we could lay out in a traditional paragraph. We made an executive decision to go with the latter.

The year is 2032, the reign of terror that was Covid-19 is over and as an early Christmas gift, you’ve been given tickets to see your favorite band live. That’s right, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) is back on the road, and the combination of profuse TSO proselytizing to your loved ones and their continual support of your borderline obsessive habits have led you to this moment. With a lukewarm cinnamon-sugar soft pretzel in one hand and an astronomically expensive piece of merch in the other, all feels right with the world. You take your seat, and as the audience begins to settle in over the course of a few minutes you take in your surroundings and gather that something is amiss. Eyes around the venue begin to scan the stage, the players and the orchestra pit, and the masses realize that the conductor is nowhere to be seen. The instrumentalists realize they can’t stall any longer, and slowly stop fiddling with their brass as the crowd appears to grow more and more restless. The players look at each other in confusion, apprehension heavy in their eyes. The show must go on, and with no leader to cue-in the Christmas Eve/Sarajevo, the lone electric guitarist timidly starts his part. The cellist and the flute scramble to ready themselves, eyes still hopefully fixed on the conductor’s empty rostrum as they anxiously play a desynced harmony with the guitarist. The entire company is now in disarray, as the Carol of the Bells is forcefully interposed with a jarring, dissonant melody that is now beyond saving. The crowd is inconsolable, their cacophonous wails for refunds echo in your mind as you silently grieve the experience that could have been, had a deft hand been present to give form to the chaos.

If you skipped our impressively vivid and realistic walkthrough describing the hypothetical disintegration of unity and order, we’re sure you’ll still agree that someone who sifts through the chaos and unknown on behalf of those around them is indispensable. Whether it’s a translator, sailor, conductor, coach or army general, the impact of these positions is felt by those they lead and work with. In our modern society, we refer to beings with the prowess to smooth the wrinkles in plans and dynamics alike as “facilitators”. These figures arise across cultures, eras, professions, and personalities with a unifying common denominator in their uncanny ability to shape and mold circumstances to their will. It sounds a bit dramatic, but there’s practicality woven throughout the sentiment.

At Voltage Control, we think of the facilitator as a team’s personal Invisible Hand and Silver Tongue. The concept of an invisible hand is tied to economics and characterizes the forces that influence the outcomes of supply and demand, while the concept of a silver tongue is tied to literature and describes the direct application of persuasive speech and action. 

Though we haven’t yet covered what particular qualities a great facilitator embodies, we’d be remiss to deny that our rapidly evolving professional environments could use an inside man to positively influence our cultures, relationships, and efficiency. Before jumping into the application of the Invisible Hand and the Silver Tongue, we’d like to clarify that knowing your team and understanding the people that work alongside you is quintessential for determining exactly how you proceed to facilitate the situation in front of you. 

Below, We characterize, consolidate and package the traits of a professional facilitator, and offer them as tools for you to use in your own professional facilitation. These tools will equip you with the knowledge to best lead your team based on their unique needs and composition. Let’s take a look at some of the responsibilities and functions a professional facilitator undertakes in their pursuit of what the dictionary describes as “making a process/action smoother and more efficient”.  

The Invisible Hand

When looking to define professional facilitation, it’s expected you’ll need to answer several questions that are layered within the original question. Industry experts call it: Questionception. Even though we don’t exist in the Christopher Nolan Cinematic Universe, we still see that an Architect-type figure who charts a path through tasks and projects is indispensable for any high functioning team. Most organizations might not be in need of a conductor like the example we gave earlier, but we’ve all experienced a turbulent meeting or discordant exchange that could’ve benefitted from some assistance. If a facilitator’s role is to make a team’s life uncluttered and free of obstruction, then questions like “who are the members that make up my team?” and “what are my team’s obstructions?” start to surface. Keep in mind that the solution you synthesize will be unique, as the answers to these questions are different for every group. While there isn’t an easy response for all of the queries, some can be answered by using the Invisible Hand as a framework for discerning what responsibilities might belong to a good facilitator in a professional environment.

The concept of the Invisible Hand conveys the idea that there are forces beyond the perception of individuals involved in the events taking place, that influence the cadence and outcome. In professional facilitation, there are countless ways a facilitator can passively, subtly, and almost imperceptibly set the course for a team’s trajectory long before a meeting or the need for adjustment is ever fully recognized. Small implementations such as creating an agenda, establishing firm boundaries for meeting times, and making recurring culture events that include all members are just a few examples of proactive efforts. As exciting as these formative pushes are, they come with a slight drawback: They take time and intention to integrate and even more diligence to honor them consistently. A good facilitator will need the foresight to anticipate dates, significant events, and plausible objections, in addition to the insight of their team member’s chemistry, needs, personalities, and desires. When insight and foresight are joined together to form the Invisible Hand, the facilitator can begin to create passive, seemingly routine cycles that propagate growth and propel the team onward.

The Silver Tongue

Our interpretation of a Silver Tongue is an intelligent, confident individual who can move quickly in times of stress while choosing a response that addresses a specific need. If the Invisible Hand includes proactive and passive measures that open up the team to take advantage of their fullest potential, The Silver Tongue can be seen as the direct enforcement of beneficial practices and boundaries that keep team members focused, engaged and satisfied.

Similarly with the Invisible Hand, the application of the Silver Tongue is predicated on knowing your team and understanding what dysfunctions and obstructions they might be prone to. Understanding this could lead a great professional facilitator down a path of asking questions that we discussed previously, but the responses will be different. Is your team easily sidetracked during meetings? Knowing the make-up of your members will allow you to identify any rogue conversation starters and head them off before they happen, or allow you to anticipate gently nudging the trajectory where it needs to be. Do you have a particular project no one seems to be too excited for? Describing the details and vision in a way that excites and empowers your team might just be the answer. If the drawback to the Invisible Hand was the amount of preparation and planning it takes to proactively help your team be the best they can be, the drawback of the Silver Tongue is the confidence it takes to assume control of a situation, and the awareness necessary to keep a vigilant eye for pitfalls that arise in the moment.

We’ve talked a lot about appendages, colors and mental pathways for thinking through professional facilitation. At the end of the day, a professional facilitator is one who utilizes foresight, diligence and courage to propel their team forward through hindrances, but an underlying trait is foundational for reaching even these noble virtues. You have to care about what you’re doing and the people around you in order to invest extra thought and strategy into the work ahead of you; it’s hard to plan, dream and guide if your mind and heart aren’t connected to the people you’re surrounded by. Here at Voltage Control, we encourage all facilitators to engage with their team and press into the hard work of becoming great leaders. 

Want to learn more about how to make your meetings magical?

We are passionate about educating fellow facilitators to be the best they can be. Take our online Magical Meetings Course and join our annual Control the Room Facilitator Summit