Facilitation Perception to End the Misconception

Facilitation perception to end the misconception explores why misconception about what facilitation is persists from the perspective of a professional facilitator. This blog post was inspired by the Science of Success podcast show featuring an interview with Bill Shephard, creative problem solving expert and professional facilitator for the Creative Problem Solving Group (see science-of-success-podcast on iTunes). This post considers the why and what of misconceptions about facilitation, the truths about facilitation, and the benefits of facilitation.


First up, the why concerning misconceptions about facilitation. I believe there are misconceptions about facilitation for the same reasons there are misconceptions about climate change.

Climate change is an emotionally charged topic because it is a threat on many levels. Primarily it is a threat to our very existence. However, it is also a threat to the coal industry and oil industry just to name a few. We are built to experience strong emotion in response to threat as part of our survival instincts (see page 113 in Brain Rules by John Medina, ISBN 978-0-9832633-7-1). While emotional arousal helps the brain learn, the average attention span is only about 10 minutes (see page 124, Brain Rules by John Medina, ISBN 978-0-9832633-7-1). Not only is climate change too complex a topic to explain in 10 minutes, but few people have the motivation and discipline to do the deliberate learning needed to understand climate change. In addition, those threatened by climate change are motivated to downplay what climate change is and influence others that climate change is a myth. This, in turn, results in misconceptions about climate change.

Similarly, facilitation is a threat to leaders and managers who want to be in control and who define their role as telling other people what to do. Those threatened by facilitation are motivated to downplay facilitation. In downplaying facilitation, misconceptions about facilitation are created. There is social science to back up the profession of facilitation; however, it is complex to explain facilitation from a scientific basis. Furthermore, in the case of both climate change and facilitation, the pool of subject-matter experts is relatively small. This means there aren’t enough subject-matter experts to engage with people to dispel all the misconceptions. A misconception has been shown to happen when a person creates a mental model or picture to understand something but that mental model or picture has not been tested by a subject-matter expert (see Video on learning STEM concepts). In the case of climate change, there are an estimated 2000 climatologists in the United States (according to physical climatologist and science writer Michael Tobis at How-many-climatologists-in-the-world). In the case of facilitation, there are an estimated 130 Certified Professional Facilitators in the United States (according to the International Association of Facilitators at https://www.iaf-world.org/site/facilitators/directory). This means you would have to go through about one-hundred and twenty-three thousand people to find a climatologist and about 2 million people to find a professional facilitator in the United States (based on the 2014 United States population of people over 18 years old from http://quickfacts.census.gov).

Misconceptions occur when a person’s mental model to understand a topic has not been tested by a subject-matter expert.

Valerie Patrick

Second up, the what concerning misconceptions about facilitation. The Institute of Cultural Affairs in Belgium identified five common misconceptions about facilitation as follows (see http://www.icab.be/top/top_3.html):

  • Misconception 1: facilitation is another name for training (in training, information flows primarily from the trainer to the participants, while in facilitation, information flows primarily from the participants to each other and to the facilitator)
  • Misconception 2: facilitation is easy (like any professional skill, facilitation takes deliberate learning and time to understand, practice, and master)
  • Misconception 3: facilitation is getting inundated with a whirlwind of ideas (although idea generation is often a component needed in a facilitated session, facilitation is focused on delivering the outcomes necessary for a group to take informed action)
  • Misconception 4: facilitation is a new buzz word (facilitation began in 19th century France with an event called a charrette for group work focused on design and then became mainstream in 1994 with the formation of the International Association of Facilitators, see the-state-of-the-facilitation-profession)
  • Misconception 5: facilitation is tricks and gimmicks (the techniques of professional facilitation are grounded in science; for example read Creative Approaches to Problem Solving by Isaksen, Dorval, and Treffinger in 2000)


Certified Professional Facilitator Geoff Ball identifies some more misconceptions about facilitators to add to this list as follows (see ClientAwarenessGuide.pdf):

  • Misconception 6: a facilitator takes over the group (a facilitator complements the task leader who hires the facilitator as the process leader but it is the task leader that is in charge of the group and has responsibility for results; in fact, the facilitator does not have credibility without the task leader’s endorsement and support)
  • Misconception 7: it is a sign of weakness to let someone else facilitate your meeting (the facilitator and the task leader form a collaborative partnership in which the facilitator acts as a consultant and coach to help the task leader look good and achieve the group outcomes needed to support long-term goals)
  • Misconception 8: facilitation is “touchy-feely” like group therapy (creativity and the willingness to learn from others are important components to facilitation and science shows that emotion impacts both creativity and learning so awareness of emotions is part of what it takes for a facilitator to deliver agreed-to meeting outcomes)
  • Misconception 9: facilitators are only involved in what happens in the meeting (as Bill Shephard points out in the Science of Success podcast show, the work that the facilitator does before the meeting is the largest contributor to the success of the meeting)

Like any professional skill, facilitation takes deliberate learning and time to understand, practice, and master.

Valerie Patrick

Third up, the truths about facilitation. A facilitator is a process leader who partners with a task leader to design and execute a group event that meets agreed-to outcomes and deliverables. The following sources were used to identify the five key skills needed for facilitation described next:

The first key facilitation skill is effectively managing your own emotions to stay neutral and objective on content and stay energized in the facilitation role in order to guide the group towards agreed-to outcomes. Some call this first key skill emotional intelligence. This first key skill encompasses a wide range of capabilities such as having the self-confidence to speak in front of a large group of people, trusting the potential of a group to generate high quality content, and maintaining self-control in the face of criticism and other negative emotions from others.

The second key facilitation skill is demonstrating process leadership in preparation for an event/project which is both highly cognitive and highly collaborative in nature. This second key skill also encompasses a wide range of capabilities such as designing applications to meet client needs, preparing time and space to support the group process, and helping to clarify the purpose and outcomes for the event/project.

The third key facilitation skill is practicing process leadership to deliver agreed-to outcomes. This third key skill includes being able to think on your feet, displaying excellent interpersonal communication skills, being able to effectively manage dysfunctional behavior, and adaptability to make needed changes to the facilitation plan on the spur of the moment and in consultation with the client. This third key skill also involves a wide range of capabilities such as demonstrating effective participatory communication skills, ensuring inclusiveness, evoking group creativity, and guiding the group to consensus and desired outcomes.

The fourth key facilitation skill is forming an effective and complementary partnership with the event/project sponsor/leader which is also highly cognitive and highly collaborative in nature. This fourth key skill includes such capabilities as demonstrating collaborative values, clarifying mutual commitment, and developing consensus on task, deliverables, roles, and responsibilities for the event/project.

The fifth and final key facilitation skill is developing yourself as a facilitation professional. This fifth key skill includes maintaining a base of knowledge to support your facilitation work, mastering a range of facilitation methods, maintaining professional standing as a facilitator, acting with integrity, and practicing self-assessment and self-awareness to continually improve as a facilitation professional.

I believe there are so few professional facilitators relative to the overall population because many of these key skills are difficult because they are contradictory in nature. For example, practicing process leadership to prepare for an event means being credible by preparing for the preparation and being fully engaged cognitively but also being collaborative which means listening to understand and valuing the ideas of your collaborator(s) as much as your own and proceeding accordingly. So you have to create a plan for the preparation but you also have to be willing to abandon the plan as needed in response to the evolving collaboration and consensus that occurs during the preparation. This also applies to the facilitated event: you create a facilitation plan for the event but you need to be flexible and aware enough to adjust the plan as opportunities and challenges emerge during the course of the event.

Finally, the benefits of facilitation. These five key benefits of facilitation are based on the descriptions of facilitation services provided by the Hayes Group (see https://www.thehayesgroupintl.com/facilitation) and the Kinharvie Institute (see http://www.kinharvie.org.uk/facilitation). The first benefit of facilitation is improving meeting outcomes. Improving meeting outcomes is one way of increasing the return on investment for meetings. The meeting investment is the sum of the salary per unit time multiplied by the time for each individual in the meeting. The return on the investment is the monetary value that the results of the meeting enable relative to the meeting investment. Therefore, improving the meeting outcomes so that the results of the meeting enable action that leads to value for the organization is one way of improving the return on investment. The second benefit is the second way of improving the return on investment for meetings. The second benefit is to improve meeting efficiency. Improving meeting efficiency means taking less time to get to a given set of outcomes which reduces the size of the investment to get to a certain return. The third benefit of facilitation is managing dysfunctional group behavior professionally. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about who needs to be involved in a meeting and dysfunctional behavior by an individual in a group can drastically increase the time needed for a meeting. In addition, dysfunctional behavior by an individual in a meeting can thwart efforts to produce value from the meeting. In a nutshell, dysfunctional behavior in a meeting is the enemy of return on investment from that meeting. The fourth benefit of facilitation is it allows the leader to participate in the group work. Typically, leaders who hire facilitators not only understand the value of collaboration to innovation and needed change but are great collaborators themselves. Professional facilitators do not engage in group work because they need to stay focused on process leadership in order to achieve the agreed-to meeting outcomes. The fifth and final benefit of facilitation is driving the group to accountability. Professionally facilitated meetings are highly interactive with content generated by the participants. In addition, professionally facilitated meetings have established outcomes that drive informed action following the meeting. By generating content, participants have “skin in the game” and willingly sign up for next steps associated with the meeting outcomes.

Dysfunctional behavior in a meeting is the enemy of return on investment from that meeting.

Valerie Patrick

The next time you are stuck on a tough leadership challenge that could benefit from the input of others, consider hiring a professional facilitator to get the highest return on meeting investments. To learn more, contact Certified Professional Facilitator and collaboration expert Valerie Patrick to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

Fulcrum Connection LLC provides professional facilitation services to help groups and organizations solve collaboration problems. For example, Fulcrum helps organizations improve teamwork, social intelligence, creativity, learning, and innovation using structured processes and proven tools. Check out Fulcrum Connection’s new Science of Success podcast on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/science-of-success-podcast) and leave a review. Sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II newsletter to receive a free white paper on five ways to improve creativity for innovation (https://fulcrumconnection.com) and stay up-to-date on Fulcrum Connection’s blog posts and podcasts. To learn more, please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com). Also ask about our first-time client offer.