Frequently Asked Questions

Facilitation Basics

What is the definition of facilitation?

The word “facilitation” is derived from the French word “facile,” which means to make easy. So, simply, facilitation is a process of making it easier for the group to accomplish its tasks.

With this said, there are some important factors to note. Facilitation is a neutral process. It is guided by a neutral person, the facilitator.

Facilitation has two components — structure and processes. Facilitation is, therefore, the design and management of structures and processes that help groups work together successfully, identify and minimize problems, and increase effectiveness.

What’s the difference between working agreements and ground rules?

It seems that many groups use these words interchangeably. Some people use the words “working agreements” because they do not like the feeling that some people have about “rules.”

General definitions reveal the differences between the two:

Ground rules: pre-defined rules that the group agrees to abide by to increase group effectiveness.

Working agreements: guidelines that the group agrees to abide by that establish how everyone will work together and what is needed for everyone to feel safe and free to learn, explore, and discover in the group.

Both working agreements and ground rules are valuable to the facilitator and the group because they allow the responsibility of “enforcing” behavior, procedure or structure to the group.

Note: As you sit in the wide variety of community groups, operating guidelines is another term used to describe documented agreements among meeting participants about how they will interact and conduct business.


What is consensus?

This textbook definition of consensus is provided by Ingrid Bens in her book Facilitating with Ease (1999), which offers:

Consensus involves everyone clearly understanding the situation or problem to be decided, analyzing all of the relevant facts together and then jointly developing solutions that represent the whole group’s best thinking about the optimal decision. It’s characterized by a lot of listening, healthy debate and testing options. Consensus generates a decision about which everyone says, “I can live with it.”

Consensus implies that everyone involved has remained true to their own interests, while considering, as equally important, the interests of other participants.

Group Process

How can my sense of humor impact the group’s process?

Sometimes we are so cautious about respecting others that we lose our sense of humor. We tend not to laugh or joke, lest we be laughing or joking at the “wrong” thing. We don’t want to offend anyone so we are guarded with our humor.

Humor used wisely can help lighten spirits and generate a feeling of joy. Laughter can help us relax and fully participate in the group’s process. Have a sense of humor! And reflect on how your humor plays a critical role in your facilitative process.

— Credit: G. McPhail. Heart and Soul of Facilitation Cards. (in process)

How can I comfortably take risks in a group?

This can be looked at from two perspectives — as the facilitator and as a group member.

One answer embraces both — having a well crafted set of working agreements or ground rules sets the tone for how the group members, including the facilitator, will work together. It is possible to “take risks” and think creatively and openly.

In thinking about this from the facilitator’s stance of “taking risk” with the group, we know that we need to plan and design meetings carefully. Plan for the “just in case” issue. Sometimes we plan so carefully that we forget to “let go.”

Taking risks for the facilitator might mean trying a new technique or method, changing the course of the meeting midstream when the process seems to fall short, stretching into new areas that test the boundaries of our comfort zones. All of these do not require us to be reckless, but mindful.

As facilitators, we can “plan” for risk by troubleshooting possible outcomes for an “adventurous” action. We cannot foresee outcomes for all of our choices, but we can become more comfortable with the idea of “taking risks.”

Ask yourself, “What risks have I taken with my groups lately?”

— Credit: G. McPhail. Heart and Soul of Facilitation Cards. (in process)

Group Conflict

What factors contribute to a conflict that I can do something about?

Conflict can be simplified to be thought of in two areas: those areas that are generally not open to change and those areas in which change can be affected by a shift in focus to an area where there can be resolution.

Those areas that are generally not open to change include:

  • personalities — in general, we cannot change our personality
  • values — we are rarely open to change
  • history — we really cannot change what has happened

Meetings in which the focus is on personality conflicts, values conflicts or someone’s fault based on a previous act usually go nowhere. When the focus is in these areas, there tend to be lots of animosity and resistance. Yet, we’ve all been in these meetings — and they even tend to be common.

What tends to create positive discussion is when the conversation shifts in focus to move toward a resolution. These areas include:

  • interests — when we focus conversations on the concerns, desires, needs, and aspirations that the group members have about an issue (rather than their positions — their demands, their plans, their proposals, their requests, their solutions), the likelihood is enhanced of moving toward a mutually satisfactory outcome.
  • information — when we provide adequate, relevant, current, accurate information, all group members have the data with which to make informed decisions
  • structure — when we consider anything external to the participants that may be an obstacle, e.g. geography, reporting structures, compensation systems, physical environment, again the likelihood of moving to resolution increases.

When I think about what I can do something about, I often ask myself, “Am I inadvertently focusing the discussion on those areas in which we really cannot change?” and “How can I help the group acknowledge the differences in personality, values, and history, and then shift the discussion to those areas in which change can happen?”

— Credit: Haskell & McPhail. 2012. Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills, Level 2, Lesson 4, Facilitating through Conflict.