Facilitation … an Art
The Danger of Confusing the Roles of Consultant, Moderator, Facilitator

Dear Colleague … What’s Your Role when a client engages you to support their business?
To what extent have you truly considered the essential differences between the roles of Consulting, Moderation and Facilitation when a client asks you to work with them?

Dear Client … What do you REALLY need when you ask for external support?

It has become « desirable » – unfortunately – for « consultants » to describe oneself as a « facilitator ». The word seems to sound good, and where the client themselves are not quite clear on the significant differences in these roles, they may well be impressed enough to provide you with business, while being unaware of the consequences of not clarifying either precisely what they want/need or the depth of skills the consultant actually brings with them. The Question of ethics arises …

First Story

During an informal conversation with colleagues a few weeks ago, I listened to a consultant speak enthusiastically about a new assignment she had picked up with the national office of a global non-profit environmental organisation. The work sounded challenging and worthwhile. As I listened to her speaking about the content she could input while « facilitating » the process, alarm bells started ringing. Having requested permission to ask her a Question, I asked what the client expected from her and whether they had clarified this together; whether she had clarified her role explicitly; whether she perceived the conflict between « facilitating » and being a conflict provider. She hadn’t, and seemed unaware of the problem.

Another colleague intervened … « You go girl. This sounds great. You can do it! »

At that moment I remained silent – I have no stake in this business.
On the intervention, and here … I call bullshit!
You can’t facilitate and consult simultaneously. It’s impossible.

Second Story

A few days after the first story, I was visiting a client who initially appeared very clear on what they wanted. The more Questions I asked, the more Questions she returned … we were ascertaining precisely what we needed to do in her business unit to enable it have real impact on business results. During this meeting, I was playing the role of consultant … for co-designing the process and the focus. We talked about the principle – in which I strongly believe, and work with – all the know-how and wisdom the group needs lies within. Once we have the appropriate Business Question, the group needs a facilitator to provide the space enabling them to work. I would take on the role of facilitator during this phase.

Third Story

The following week, I visited the CEO of a newly « merged » IT company. He was dissatisfied with the initial progress of his management team and wanted someone to « facilitate » a process to enable them to work in line with his ideas. « I could facilitate this myself of course, » he said, « but I don’t really have the time to prepare it properly. » I explained the impossible challenge he was trying to set himself, pointing out that he absolutely had to lead the process, but couldn’t facilitate it. Furthemore, he was clearly unaware that what he actually wanted to do was moderate the process.

There is so much misunderstanding on the significant essential differences surrounding the roles of Consulting, Moderation and Facilitation.
Let’s clarify …

Consultant

A consultant is engaged to support a client business with know-how, experience, contacts etc. Content-related interventions are expected. Answers/Solutions are desired. The consultant owns content with the group.

Consulting is a purely functional role.

Moderator

A group moderator is tasked by the client with helping to steer the group towards achieving specific goals, pre-defined and made explicit by the decision makers. It’s a controlling role … and colleagues beware – clients may also be setting you up as an alibi to have an excuse to reassert a pre-defined position. While participative approaches may be integrated into the process and people may be given space to contribute, interventions are made with the goals in mind. The group owns content.

The moderator is interested in the outcome (achieving goals).
Moderation is a purely functional role.

Facilitator

A facilitator creates and holds the space enabling a group to focus on finding answers to their challenge(s). Interventions are limited to focus and possibly relationships. The group owns all content. Facilitators free themselves of all interest in the outcomes.

One secret to practising the art of facilitation is letting go. There’s much more of course. Trust the group to do what they need. Provide the space. And they will.
They know what they need. The facilitator doesn’t. He/She cannot know.
Learning to facilitate takes years of practice. It also takes years of work on oneself.

True Facilitation is an Art.