What is a Facilitator?

Most people have attended government meetings. Usually, there is one person who is the Chair. The Chairman (and it usually is a man in most government meetings) is responsible for what happens during the meeting. This person is generally the one with the most control of the situation, he or she calls meetings, plans agendas, and makes decisions for the whole group. Even in a very democratic situation, where the Chairperson has an equal vote with anyone else in the meeting, the control of the meeting is in his or her hands.

There are other ways that groups can interact. When different groups get together and all of them have equal status, the table is or meeting room is often round and, since everyone in the group is a leader in his or her own right, the leadership of the meeting is spread throughout the whole group. Regional organizational meetings are set up this way. There may still be a Chairperson but their role is to facilitate discussion and bring out the leadership skills and potential contributions of all the people in the meeting.

That is what a facilitator is, someone who is skilled at helping everyone in a group express their leadership qualities. They help things go smoothly without imposing their own ideas upon everyone else. Negotiators are skilled facilitators.

Facilitators adhere to a number of basic qualities.


  • Each person has the opportunity to participate without prejudice. The planning of any meeting is open and shared by all participants.
  • The agenda should be designed by the group to meet their needs and can be changed by the participants if they think it should be.
  • There is no hierarchy in the group meeting.


Each person, including the facilitator, is responsible for their own behavior, including the choice of participating during a meeting.

The facilitator must be sensitive to how much responsibility the participants at a meeting are prepared and able to take. If someone does not wish to contribute, that is a valid option for them. Participants can learn to take an increasing amount of responsibility with experience.


The facilitator and the participants work together to achieve collective goals.

Leadership is something you do to a group; Facilitation is something you do with a group.


Facilitators express feelings, values, concerns and priorities when working with a group.

The open honesty of the facilitator about abilities and knowledge will help elicit honesty from all participants.

The role of a Trainer or Facilitator

A facilitator's job is to pay attention to how people in the meeting work together, so as to assure the group can accomplish their goals. A facilitator:

  • Challenges thinking
  • Helps the group creates lists of important points.
  • Summarizes the issues from time to time.
  • Shares ideas when they can help the meeting progress.
  • Provides handouts when needed to clarify the main points.
  • Raises questions to bring out different viewpoints.
  • Guides discussion, but does not lead it.
  • Restates ideas when the person presenting them is not clear.
  • Provides constructive criticism when, for example, a person or people attempt to dominate the meeting.

The facilitator accepts that each member of the group is willing and able to share responsibility for what happens, including reminding people of the next meeting, assuring each person has the opportunity to contribute to a discussion, or making sure the agenda serves the group's purpose. Sharing responsibility helps distribute the success or failure of the group's actions and allows more people to determine what happens within the group and what decisions are made.

Any member can assume, from time to time, the role of leadership and call the group back to the subject of discussion, interrupt patterns of conflict between other parties, offer clarifying comments, summarize activities or give feedback. As groups become more skilled in group process, the facilitator will become just one more member.

Facilitators must be aware of how people's interactions influence the dynamics of the meeting. The tone of the meeting can be set by simple non-verbal cues, such as where the facilitator sits. If the facilitator sits at the front of the room, facing the members of the audience who are seated in rows, with a podium between, the other members of the group are less inclined to speak up. Their attention is focused on the facilitator, not on each other. This gives the facilitator a great deal of authority.

On the other hand, if the facilitator sits with the other people, this will physically equalize the relationships and ease the interaction.

Code of Responsibilities for Facilitators

Demystify. Most people are used to participating in groups with traditional forms of leadership. Unless the group understands the role of a facilitator, they will automatically assign authority and influence to the person who controls the meeting.

Refuse Leadership. People may still want to concede their own responsibility to the facilitator and push for the facilitator to make decisions, and assume leadership. A good facilitator will reflect responsibility for decisions and definitions back to the group members.

Never Manipulate the group for your own advantage. A passive, friendly, well meaning facilitator can be manipulative with ways that an aggressive, forceful leader could never get away with. The difference between a charming manipulator and a domineering dictator may only be a matter of whether or not the group realizes it is being controlled by their leader.

Don't form attachments to members of the group. If a facilitator becomes involved with individuals or sub-groups the others will think the facilitator has chosen sides.

Represent yourself fairly A facilitator must be sure the group understands what the facilitator is doing, and what the limitations are.

Adopted from A manual for group facilitators. The Center for Conflict Resolution. 731 State St. Madison Wisconsin. PO Box 1468 Madison Wisconsin 53701 $20.20

See also:

D. Cartwright. 1951 "Achieving change in people; some applications of group dynamics theory" Human Relations 4:381-392.

Porter, Lawler and Harkman, 1975. Behavior in organisations. McGraw Hill. Ch. 15-17. An excellent introduction to a wide variety group interaction techniques.

Pfieffer, K.W, and J.E. Jones (eds)..1972 on. Annual handbooks for group facilitators. University Assoc. Publishers. Inc.