There’s Nothing Facile about Facilitation

Facilitating groups and helping individuals with their learning has been a career-long interest of mine. I am keen to create an environment where individuals and groups can learn efficiently and effectively and I do my best to stay away from any form of didactic instruction, teaching and training where I can. Working with DPG and their online CIPD HR and L&D course resources makes this a lot easier.

There are many components which make up what is a meta-skill. They are essential when working with individuals or groups of learners.  Perhaps the three most important ones in my mind are:

  1. Listening

Until you understand where your learners ‘are’ on a topic, it is hard to offer useful help. This skill involves paraphrasing (to show you understand), summarising (to ensure you have ‘got it’), and reflecting back any feelings you are picking up from learners which may be relevant . For a facilitator, this can be useful in the area of learning needs analysis.

  1. Questioning

Asking learners good open questions can help clarify what the learners are needing, both in a group and individual context.  This sounds easy but how often do we find ourselves asking leading questions to get an answer that fits what we want to do, rather than what the learner needs. How often can we fill an uncomfortable silence by asking a string of questions, only the last of which will be likely to draw a response from the learners.

  1. Feedback

This may include responses to questions posed by learners, but it can also be about inviting other learners to respond. Also, sharing your reaction to what is being said or done in the training room or in an online tutorial. Good quality, constructive feedback enables and enhances learning whilst poor feedback can ruin the facilitator- learner relationship. I like it too – don’t we all? Getting positive feedback is a huge motivator for me, as witness an email I recently received from one of my current DPG learners, Danna…

‘Thank you so much and WELL DONE to you for navigating through earlier this morning ? you did a great job. Couldn’t have been a better group and assessor to experience it with!  I enjoyed it – even with the touch of nerves, I learned so much from it‘.

I find myself using these skills when working with learners on DPG’s Learning and Development Practice Level 3 CIPD Programmes (LDP3). The beauty of this trainer training is, of course, not that you are merely using the skills, but also developing others in their use. There is no better way to improve your mastery of a skill than by teaching it to others. In developing others you are developing yourself. Everyone’s a winner!

I learnt so much from my work in what was the Civil Service College, training alongside gurus such as Helen Clinard, the American author of the book Winning Ways to Succeed with People (1989).  She uses a tool she calls a ‘MER lens’ (Managing Effective Relationships) through which learner behaviours can be met with skills which are designed to help the learner and enhance the facilitator/learner relationship.

The idea is about how a facilitator might perceive, evaluate, and influence at least one of the following three factors:

  • the learning situation or context
  • the learner’s behaviour
  • your own behaviour/response.

Also, I came across the work of John Heron who developed the dimensions of facilitator style in 1977, updated in this 2001 book, to be used when working with groups. He argues that facilitators can operate on each of these dimensions   in a training room at any given time. The  6 Dimensions are:

  1. Directive…Non-Directive. This is about how much decision making is done by the facilitator and how much by the learners. During an LDP workshop, there may be an interesting discussion on, say the use of visual aids in a session. Time is running short, but learners are clearly gaining from the discussion. Should the trainer let the discussion roll on, stop it in order to prevent eating into the next topic …or how about asking the group for a decision?
  2. Structuring…Non-Structuring. What learning activities are to be employed in a workshop. On the DPG LDP3 courses the activities are pre-designed. This is actually very helpful as the course is specifically designed to meet CIPD outcomes. However, within a session as a facilitator I can choose to include different illustrations/examples etc. as well as deciding on whether to be more presentational or discursive.
  3. Cathartic…Non-Cathartic. This is a tricky area! It is about the degree to which we encourage the release of feelings about what is happening in the training room or discourage it. The expression of feelings can result in some profound learning for the learner doing it, but it takes time and energy and, for others in the group, may not feel comfortable.
  4. Disclosing…Non-Disclosing. As facilitators, should we encourage openness among learners? We can do this by choosing to be open about our own strengths and weaknesses. However, there will be times, like at the start of a course, when it may be appropriate not to display weaknesses.
  5. Confronting…Non-Confronting. When is it a good time to deliver difficult feedback to a learner and when should we stress only the positives? Should we do this in a group context or only individually?
  6. Interpretive…Non-Interpretive. As facilitators, we can choose whether to introduce models and theories or examples to illustrate or empower learners…or we can choose not to.

All these dimensions are existing at the same time, whether or not we are thinking about them. So, it makes sense to use them to help the learning along.

I appeal to trainers out there to develop their own facilitation skills, even call themselves a ‘Facilitator’… because that’s what good trainers are.


Rob Leach – DPG Facilitator

A blog from the heart from one of the 32 expert facilitators in the DPG team. Rob is a master at these life skills which can be applied at work and with friends and family. They oil the wheels of learning and communication. Trainer training has long been Rob’s passion during his 24 years with DPG, as well as his previous training roles in the public sector in the Medical Research Council and in the Home Office. We hope it triggers reflection, learning and development for all those facilitators out there!