Facilitators have an unseen role. 

While careful, considerate facilitation is crucial for team health, productivity, and growth, facilitators may not always be recognized for their efforts. The effect of a facilitator is like the temperature of the room: it alters the mood and experience of everyone involved, but in a hidden manner. 

A study done on the way facilitators interact with participants says that the “facilitator is a leader who needs to be present enough to navigate discussions, yet invisible enough to not get in the way of participant learning.” Therefore, we see this tension in facilitation: hosting with a heavy hand while also taking attention away from yourself and moving it toward the purpose. 

What About Chill Hosts?

Many of you have read Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering,” which examines the idea of having a heavy hand to host well, protecting your guests from themselves, from each other, and from boredom or confusion. She directly opposes “chill” hosting, claiming that “…pulling back, far from purging a gathering of power, creates a vacuum that others can fill.” 

While this is true, and a chill host with the aim of being noninvasive creates a space for others to take hold of the gathering, being “unseen” as a facilitator does not mean being “chill.” Our goal is to facilitate with a heavy hand, to guide the group toward purpose, but ultimately it is to influence participants into a new way of thinking through their interactions, not to make it about you as the facilitator. You could call it, “invisible involvement.” 

Invisible Involvement

As facilitators, we want

  1. Our methods to be present and working without us standing out;
  2. Our team moved toward a more sustainable way of engaging with one another without the need of our constant help;
  3. A realm that our team feels is comfortable without them having to say it;
  4. To be a catalyst without getting the praise.

Nate Hughes, a Voltage Control Facilitation Certification alum, describes his perspective shift surrounding facilitation similarly: “It wasn’t just about leading or directing; it was about creating spaces for ideas to flourish, for collective wisdom to emerge.”

This lends to the concept that facilitation is more about crafting culture and environments than it is about one-off meeting methodologies. The long-term effects of what a facilitator brings to the table can be seen in how companies and teams engage with each other as time moves on. One of our Certification Alums, Julie Baeb, says it like this: “This isn’t just about new techniques; it’s about fostering a culture of innovation and empathy.” 

Job Title, or Not!

Nate Hughes, mentioned earlier, also describes facilitation as a sort of hidden, secret skill: “​​It wasn’t labeled as such at the time, but in retrospect, every team meeting and strategy session was a step towards understanding the art of facilitation. The realization that facilitation was not merely a skill but a critical component of leadership was becoming clear.”

To this point, many successful facilitators don’t even have “facilitator” in their job description, but they use facilitation to guide discussions and navigate conflict. Successful COOs, project managers, teachers, and event planners are great examples. SessionLab’s State of Facilitation 2023 mentions, 

“It is also important to recognize that facilitation is a fundamental skill for leaders, though many masterful facilitators don’t consider themselves as such… facilitation need not be a job title or identity to have value, as it is essential to almost any role….”

This all implies that facilitation may not be something your team knows you do, and it may not be in your job description; but as a broken AC unit makes everyone uncomfortable and sweaty, so does a lack of good facilitation methods. Good facilitation often goes unnoticed, but its absence is strongly felt. 

“… the primary work of the facilitator is done in silence, and to the untrained eye it may look as if the facilitator is not doing anything at all.” – Dale Hunter, Author of “The Art of Facilitation.”

Absence of Facilitation

Examples of such situations, where guests may feel that absence, include:

  1. When a group must attend a meeting but are confused on its purpose, leading to an unproductive flow 
  2. When nobody will speak up and be honest, leading to a stalled, awkward stage in decision-making 
  3. When it feels like “team-bonding” is just something to check off a list
  4. When a participant wants to share ideas but hesitates to avoid conflict or embarrassment 
  5. When the team needs a break or food, but nobody thought of it ahead of time

Obviously, there are so many more situations in which our lack of invisible involvement can create less-than-ideal situations. But when things do go right, and facilitation is creatively employed, we see that participants walk out knowing that they just had a productive meeting, and that they aren’t as drained as they expected (perhaps without even knowing why).

John Rabasa, one of our Facilitation Certification alums, describes his first facilitation meeting like this: 

“But the reason this session sticks in my mind is how the group felt after the meeting. They had the same energetic skip in their step I had felt myself coming from the offsite. Although I may not have used the term then, the fact that I had facilitated the brainstorming made us a better team, and I had an undeniable sense of pride from it.”

Practical Tips and Techniques

It takes a special, practice-driven, mindful approach to drive your team to success without detracting from their chemistry and claiming attention accidentally. Often, this takes nuance depending on the circumstance. Listed below are some ideas for managing your facilitation while keeping the team’s interaction at the forefront.  

Consider these techniques:

  1. Consider using open-ended questions to encourage discussion. This provides teams with the opportunity to look to one another for problem-solving and ideation, instead of looking toward the facilitator alone.
  2. In moments of silence, don’t push for an answer. This gives people a chance to think without your voice being the focal point.
  3. Establish clear objectives at the start of each meeting. Creating ground rules allows for the team to get aligned quickly at the beginning, so that they feel empowered & ready to take ownership in the purpose at hand.
  4. Utilize visual aids to clarify complex ideas. This equips guests with the necessary tools to comprehend information on their own. 

Try out a technique listed above, or take some time to reflect on where your methods fall on a spectrum from overt to subtle. Are you accidentally diverting your teams’ eyes to the front of the room when they could be looking inward or at each other? Consider what it would look like if you walked away in the middle of a session; would there be a lasting change in the way those participants engaged?

In Conclusion…

For years my professional identity was a software engineer and software executive. While facilitation and the ability to lead with curiosity and collaboration were critical elements to my style and why I was successful in my role, I never thought of myself as a facilitator. One day, almost 20 years into my career, I had the profound realization of how essential these skills and abilities really were for me. 

The secret and unseen role of being a facilitator is a wonderful, encouraging, and life-changing role, although it is sometimes thankless. Although the art of facilitation may go partially unnoticed in the eyes of our team, let’s be like an air-conditioned room and provide a space for our teams to thrive for meetings to come!

Take a moment to reflect on how often and to what degree your work is impacted by getting the best out of folks that you gather. Notice what surfaces for you, what it means to you, and what actions you might take as a result.

If you’re wanting to shed more light on your role as facilitator and grow your skills as an effective facilitator, we recommend that you check out our Certification Program! This program provides you with a 3-month long, immersive experience that will shape your skills and equip you with the confidence to lead as a facilitator.