Why Facilitators Must Practice Tough Love
By R. Sridhar

Posted July 06, 2009

“What if we follow a different process instead of what you have told us?”

How do you respond to this suggestion, in the middle of a session, as a facilitator? This is a dangerous trap, but I realized it only after I got into it.

“Sure what do you have in mind?”

The participant explained his view. Soon enough the situation became a free for all and finally my client, who was the senior most person in the group, intervened and suggested a process step, something he does all the time in regular meetings. By that time I had lost control and I acquiesced. As you can imagine, the session was a disaster. My client was unhappy and I was miserable.

This happened years ago. After nine years in the business I do not fall into this trap any more. I have realized that as a facilitator, I can be open minded and listen to various views but I must stick to my process. The bottom line is this. I must know why I chose a particular process step and why it will deliver the goods.

When your process is under fire
“What if we follow a different process, instead of what you have told us?”

“There are several ways to approach any issue. For today I suggest you follow what I have explained.”

Generally this closes the issue, but not always.

“But I do not agree with your process step. I do not think it will work.”

“I am glad you are so forthright. Do me a favour. Give it a try and see how it works. Later, you and I can spend time over a cup of tea to discuss how we can improve the process. May I ask you to follow the step I have described? Call me if you have any difficulty.”

This is genuine, but firm. However I have had occasions where I had to be tougher.

“What if we follow a different process, instead of what you have told us?”

Something about the tone of voice tells me that this person wants to show that he is smarter and knows everything. All eyes are on me to see what I am going to do.

“I have no problem. However I must tell you that the process step I have explained has evolved over several years. It is based on my experience of what seems to work in almost all situations. Before we discuss what you have in mind, I want to know this. Have you tried what you are about to suggest? Does it work? ”

“Not really, but…”

“Then may I suggest that we go ahead with what I have explained. You and I can discuss the merits of what you have in mind later. I trust that’s OK with you.”

I bulldoze my way in this situation.

Facilitation is not for the weak-hearted.
Over the years I have come to understand that a facilitator has to lead and influence. He has immense power vested in him. A facilitator cannot be a dictator, but he is not a weakling either. He has to be democratic without losing his way. He has to listen with an open mind, but he does not have to act on everything he listens to.

I work in partnership with my clients. I ensure that the client agrees one hundred percent with my process design. I insist that he goes through it step by step with me. I also tell him that I will not accept any deviation from the process suggested by participants. This gives me a sense of authority and responsibility.

I have an obligation to my client to deliver results. I owe it to the participants to deliver value for their time. I owe it to myself to ensure that the session was successful from my perspective. It is my business to make the three things work together.

That is why I say in facilitation we must practice tough love.

Posted by R. Sridhar