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Effective facilitation

Facilitation describes the process of taking a group through learning or change in a way that encourages all members of the group to participate. This approach assumes that each person has something unique and valuable to share

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Photo: Isabel Carter/Tearfund

From: Facilitation skills – Footsteps 60

How to facilitate participatory learning effectively

by Sophie Clarke.

Facilitation describes the process of taking a group through learning or change in a way that encourages all members of the group to participate. This approach assumes that each person has something unique and valuable to share. Without each person’s contribution and knowledge, the group’s ability to understand or respond to a situation may be reduced. The facilitator’s role is to draw out knowledge and ideas from different members of a group, to help encourage them to learn from each other and to think and act together.

The role of a facilitator 

A facilitator is someone who:

  • recognises the strengths and abilities of individual group members and helps them to feel comfortable about sharing their hopes, concerns and ideas
  • supports the group, giving participants confidence in sharing and trying out new ideas
  • values diversity and is sensitive to the different needs and interests of group members. These differences might be due to gender, age, profession, education, economic and social status
  • leads by example through attitudes, approach and actions.

Facilitation and traditional teaching 

Traditional teaching involves the sharing of information in one direction – from teacher to student. Facilitation involves the sharing of information in several directions – between the facilitator and the group and among the members of the group. The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, believed that education should be liberating. Rather than giving learners answers, education should aim to increase the learners’ awareness so that they are able to identify problems and their causes, and find solutions to them. A facilitator’s role is to help a group through this process by asking questions that encourage new ways of thinking about and analysing their situation. There should be a balance between offering ideas to guide the group and patiently listening and questioning.

The relationship between a facilitator and a group of adults is different from that of a teacher and a class. For example, a teacher normally presents ideas from the front, but a facilitator usually sits with a group and encourages group discussion. A facilitator involves the group in activities that help adults with low levels of formal education, literacy or confidence to take a full part.

A teacher usually has a formal relationship with their students, where the teacher is in authority. A facilitator is an equal and is often someone from within the community, without a formal leadership role, who wants to work with others to make positive changes in their community. The facilitator’s relationship with the group members is based on trust, respect and a desire to serve.

What makes a good facilitator? 

A good facilitator has certain personal characteristics that encourage group members to participate. These include humility, generosity and patience, combined with understanding, acceptance and affirmation. These are gifts that we would all do well to develop.

A good facilitator also needs various skills (see box above) and will use a variety of techniques to encourage group members to participate in discussions or activities and help them apply the learning to their lives. These techniques include:

  • asking the group to present and share information using drawings, diagrams or visual aids – especially where some group members have low levels of education or literacy
  • dividing the group into smaller groups to encourage shy members to participate
  • using group discussion and activities which allow learners to be actively involved in the learning process
  • asking the group to agree some ground rules for participation so that each person feels free to share their ideas. Such rules might include not interrupting, respecting different views and agreeing on a maximum number of points that each person can make to any one discussion. If the group agrees to these, they will have shared ownership and shared responsibility to ensure they are followed
  • giving particular tasks to dominant people to allow space for others to participate whilst keeping everyone actively involved
  • handling conflict in a sensitive and appropriate way, so that differences are valued and respected.

Difficulties facilitators may face 

Taking control One of the greatest difficulties facilitators may face is the temptation to take control of a discussion or change process. This is often out of a genuine desire to help the group move forwards. If we are used to a formal teaching style, and have not had the chance to observe good facilitators at work, it can be very challenging to change our approach to sharing ideas.

Difficult questions It can be difficult to deal with people’s questions. Facilitators may feel that they should have all the answers. They may lack confidence in their own ability to deal with questions on a particular subject. Facilitators can simply say that they don’t know enough about a particular question to provide an answer but will look into it before the next meeting. It is very helpful for them to know where to go to find more information. Facilitators can also draw on the wisdom and knowledge of other members of the community, outside of the immediate group.

Handling conflict Sometimes people will have strong and conflicting ideas on a subject. Poor relationships within the group will also affect the way the group works together as a whole. A facilitator needs to be sensitive to differences and tensions and to encourage people to work through these, keeping their common goals and interests in mind.

Who needs facilitation skills? 

Facilitation skills are essential for anyone who is seeking to lead others in a participatory process of discussion, learning and change. If such a process is to be owned by a community, it needs to be relevant and accessible to their culture and language. Any information shared should not only come from outside the community. There is much knowledge within communities that can be shared. A facilitator can help community members share their knowledge with one another. The facilitator could be from either outside or inside the community.


Facilitation is about empowering others. It involves letting go of control over the outcome of a process and giving that responsibility to the group. This shows a sincere commitment to the value and potential of people. A facilitated participatory process will take time and patience. It should be open to God’s guidance. This is a challenge to those of us who want to see immediate results! However, it will eventually lead to change that is more far-reaching and sustainable, due to the building up of strong relationships, the quality of learning and because the group owns the process.

A facilitator is ‘best when people barely know that he or she exists…’

Sophie Clarke coordinates the PILLARS work for Tearfund. She has experience in literacy training and facilitating small groups. Her address is 100 Church Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8QE.
[email protected] 

Facilitation skills

Some of the skills a good facilitator needs include:

  • listening to others
  • communicating clearly
  • checking understanding, summarising and drawing together different ideas
  • thinking and acting creatively
  • managing people’s feelings
  • encouraging humour and respect
  • being well prepared whilst remaining flexible
  • keeping to time without being driven by it.

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