What is the role of a facilitator (and of a moderator, MC, chair etc.)?

I briefly touched upon this topic on the ‘about’ page to this blog. But not quite seriously enough.

And as I gave training on group facilitation skills last week, this question came up in various shapes until I had to nail it down, on the spot, thus without additional resources on the topic.

So hereby some attempt at clarifying what a facilitator does… and what some related functions are all about.

What is a facilitator? (Credits: Brefi Group Ltd.)

What is a facilitator? (Credits: Brefi Group Ltd.)

When I started drafting this post, I had just read this blog post by Martin Gilbraith, a former chair from the International Association of Facilitators. The video he featured has interesting features – particularly on the architect metaphor – though I wonder if there’s not a better local metaphor than the airplane pilot or the rowing galley leader to what a facilitator is and does.

In my view the facilitator metaphor might even work better with an object perhaps: a reflector (like a mirror), agent provocateur, lighthouse… for sure there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. Perhaps a facilitator is some kind of ‘everyday shaman’ who helps people reveal their own visions, though we (facilitators) don’t use magic mushrooms, lick magic toads’ backs or do other funky things to invoke any kind of magic… Perhaps a facilitator is simply a group coach…

Or using the Community at Work language, the facilitator is someone who ‘stays out of the content and manages the process, to help everyone do their best thinking’.

What can be confusing is that in practice many people have different definitions. So let’s have a look at a number of functions that are commonly associated with or confused for facilitator:

Moderator

The moderator (Credits: Gaspars Karda/FlickR)

The moderator (Credits: Gaspars Karda/FlickR)

As this post is helpfully clarifying, “A moderator at events, meetings, and networking gatherings will concentrate on keeping the communication and information flow clear and accessible to everyone that participates, at all times. So, the moderator is sort of like an information manager. In an Internet-based environment, he or she monitors the flow of communication, makes digests and summaries, approves posts, and even maintains the online environment. The moderator is usually invisible, but still very essential.” The same post continues saying: “An event moderator offers assistance to presenters and the audience. A facilitator keeps things moving along and makes sure everyone is participating.” Here is where things get more complicated: in French ‘Modérateur’ is often the name used for facilitators. But here you have a technical distinction…

Key distinction: The moderator works on getting content flowing VS. the facilitator focuses on the process that helps everyone participate in the best possible way.

 

MC (Master of Ceremony) 

The Master of ceremony (Credits: Martin)

The Master of ceremony (Credits: Martin)

The video below gives a short aussie glimpse of the difference between MC (also interchangeably called host) and facilitator. It suggests that “the MC, in very formal settings, conducts the event” – like a TV presenter would. This means they could really meddle with the content, not care so much about the feelings of participants and actually probably focus more on the on-stage guests than on the audience etc. A facilitator really has to pay attention to remaining neutral (on the content and on relationships) and acting in the best interest of all the participants. So there you have it!

Key distinction: The MC is the host to a formal event conductor who focuses on the speakers and guests VS. the facilitator is brought by a host to help focus on the process and on the participants.

The chair, to the left (Credits: OECD)

The chair, to the left (Credits: OECD)

Chair

This post offers one reason behind the confusion: these two functions are often played by the same person – though they are very different and “The Chair is responsible for the meeting’s outcomes and work product. The facilitator is responsible for the process of the meeting(s).” The same site suggests that when there is a high(er) chance of conflict in the meeting or process, hiring a separate facilitator is a good idea. In my experience with academic events, the ‘chair’ is also the person that tends to introduce the speakers and sometimes summarises key insights at the end. So a chair(person) is definitely a content-rich and high-stake function, whereas the facilitator “stays out of the content and manages the process” and is not the person calling the shots for what has to be achieved with the meeting but rather helps the leader with ‘how’ to achieve the objectives that matter to them.

Key distinction: The chair focuses on outcomes and work product VS. the facilitator focuses on getting all participants to these outcomes by bringing in their best thinking.

The leader (Credits: Christian Pierret)

The leader (Credits: Christian Pierret)

Leader / person in charge 

The leader – or person in charge – is the person that makes the decision, gives direction, calls the shots, decides about hosting a meeting or an event, has to clarify what their intent and expected outcomes are about it and thus it is someone that has important stakes in that event. They are the person(s) that the facilitator should come back to when some decisions need to be made on e.g. ‘spending more time on this conversation’ or ‘moving on to the next agenda point’ etc. The leader is a sparring partner for the facilitator when designing events. But the facilitator clearly should be a distinct function from the person in charge, even though it’s not always possible…

Key distinction: The person in charge decides the topics and objectives (the what and why) VS. the facilitator focuses on the process (the how) that gets participants to address the former.

Time keeper 

The time keeper (Credits: ios online)

The time keeper (Credits: ios online)

As indicated, this function is about keeping track of the time. Which is often what a facilitator also has to do – among many other things – but this is not the most important of his/her many tasks. And actually it’s usually more helpful for a facilitator to not really manage the time and rather manage the process and the relationships with all participants (making sure that everyone feels involved and valued). This is a very narrow window to the world of facilitation.

Key distinction: The time keeper makes sure things stay ‘on course, in time’ VS. the facilitator focuses on getting people to engage most meaningfully, even if that may mean getting over time.

The rapporteur (Credits: European Parliament)

The rapporteur (Credits: European Parliament)

Rapporteur 

Sometimes the facilitator is being asked to document conversations or the entire meeting. And that can be fine – though not alone and certainly not when the facilitator is ‘facilitating’ but typing up charts, sharing other notes etc. can be ok. The formal rapporteur of an event, however, really has a 100% mandate and dedication to their very job: paying attention to every point being shared, clarifying anything that is unclear and making sure that the entire content is captured and reported in a formal ‘output’ whether verbatim or usually in a synthesised format. So once again a very different role from the facilitator’s.

Key distinction: The rapporteur writes the formal content report from the event and shares it afterwards VS. the facilitator manages the process of the event while it’s happening.

Chart writer 

The chart writer (Credits: TheGraphicRecorder.com)

The chart writer (Credits: TheGraphicRecorder.com)

Another kind of person that ‘documents’ meetings in a specific way is the ‘chart writer’. The chart writer works in tandem with the facilitator to live ‘chart’ the key points that the facilitator is feeding him/her (as they take the cue from the facilitator’s paraphrasing). This function is about ensuring the collective group memory is kept and everyone sees their comments validated etc. But in any case facilitator and chart writer work together and are thus not the same function, even though in practice with my colleague here we alternate facilitating and chart writing for each other.

Key distinction: The chart writer collects and writes ideas from participants (often fed by the facilitator) VS. the facilitator manages the conversation process to hear these ideas.

So there are many possible distinctions – and aside all of the above the facilitator often plays different roles:

The many roles of a facilitator (Credits: IAF)

The many roles of a facilitator (Credits: IAF)

And here I’m not even covering other specific functions such as the graphic facilitator – as that deserves a dedicated post on its own, for some other time. And there are yet other distinctions…

Trainer vs. facilitator vs. consultant (Credits: Doug Caldwell)

Trainer vs. facilitator vs. consultant (Credits: Doug Caldwell)

This post is also just an invitation to my next post on this blog, which will be – by public demand from the same group of trainees this week – about videos on facilitation…

For now, here’s just a teaser that points to some of the fundamentals of what a facilitator does. Don’t mind the commercial ending (better: stop the video when it starts 😉

This video is not perfect – and the take on ‘documenting’ is not a requirement for a facilitator, just an option, but it certainly points to some of the basics. More (and deeper) soon!

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