The Art of Facilitation

Working in Non-Governmental Organisations means developing various types of skills but working in Non-Governmental Organisations in India means learning one major skill irrespective of the field one is in or the type of role one has. That skill is Facilitation! The NGO sector mainly involves reaching out directly to the beneficiaries and taking a message, initiative, or resource across to underprivileged sections of society. These underprivileged people, specifically children, may not have the best education, awareness or access to resources and therefore, NGOs must reach out to them in a simple and accessible manner. This is where facilitation comes in. There can be different types of barriers – language, distance, illiteracy, lack of education, poor understanding, lack of awareness of a novel concept, financial or digital illiteracy, and other difficult circumstances. So, when NGOs are taking their initiatives directly to the beneficiaries, it is important to reach them simply. Awareness generation and even education need to be uncomplicated and easy to understand, mostly in the local spoken language with a direct approach. Even the most complicated of concepts can be introduced to a completely new community with ease, only if the people involved in the process have the skill to do so.

A facilitator is a person who makes an action or process easy or easier. There are three important characteristics that define a facilitator. First, a facilitator does not tell the concerned group to do something but helps them do something by various means like imparting skills, knowledge or conflict resolution. The focus is not on directly providing a solution but on finding a sustainable process or method to find a solution. Second, a facilitator is required for group work. Help to an individual takes the form of coaching or mentoring but groups need a facilitator. Third, a facilitator is not a member of the group and neutrality is an important precondition. But this condition is not necessarily applied in real cases.

An automatic correlation comes up between teaching and facilitating. After all, both the skills involve a somewhat similar job description. But there are some significant differences between the two. The flow of information is in one direction when it comes to teaching, from the teacher to the students but in facilitation, the information flow is multi-directional, both from the facilitator to the group and in between group members. Teachers follow a predefined, set curriculum and are therefore concerned with making sure that the students understand the right answers whereas facilitators adapt to the needs of the group and encourage different viewpoints. A teacher comes to share their own knowledge but a facilitator starts by assessing the knowledge of the concerned group. The mode is different as well. While teachers usually employ the lecture method, facilitators use practical and participatory methods like interactive games, activities, and discussions. Finally, the status of a teacher is more formal than a facilitator who is open to being considered equal and develops an informal relationship with the group.

There are certain skills that a good facilitator must learn. The important competencies of an effective facilitator can be simply summarised through the IGNITE acronym. Here, Inspiring refers to the ability to maintain interest in the topic through good communication followed by a Group Atmosphere where different opinions and conflict is handled in a friendly manner. The facilitator must be Not Controlling which means that they should speak with the participants, not to them, and they shouldn’t provide any direct answers. Involving Participants by getting into their shoes, inviting them to speak and share, checking for questions, establishing eye contact, and checking on higher and lower participation of the beneficiaries is important. A facilitator must optimize the time by sticking to the schedule, maintaining a balance, cutting short irrelevant questions, and only extending the session if absolutely necessary. The goal of facilitation is Effective Learning through a defined objective, following a plan of action, using tools and examples, and summarising the key learnings.

An Infographic Describing the IGNITE Model of Effective Facilitation
IGNITE Model Describing the Main Characteristics of an Effective Facilitator

Of course, communication skills are important to be a good facilitator and non-verbal skills are equally important. Moving around and standing up to ensure engagement, using gestures and actions, eye contact, calm facial expressions, and a steady voice are all essential for rapport building. The technique of facilitating must include clear instructions, paraphrasing, sharing examples and one’s own stories to encourage participation and letting participants do most of the talking. Listening to and respecting the participants is of utmost importance. Finally, regularly gauging the understanding of the participants and summarising the discussion at the end of the session are important aspects of a good facilitation session.

A facilitator must be prepared to face challenges like the hesitation of participants, off-track discussions, arguments and conflicts, dominant and reluctant participants, and participants with a combative attitude. Techniques like active listening, confrontation, locating the context, reframing and deferring must be practiced to become an effective facilitator. Empathy is at the center of good facilitation – not judging another’s circumstances, being open and accepting with attention, and creating a safe space for the participants are of utmost importance.

It is crucial to know that there is no “right” style and all facilitators make mistakes. Finding a unique style takes time and giving feedback to one’s own self is necessary. Feedback will help in understanding what one’s good at and what needs improvement, after which the methods can be tweaked. Experimenting with the group and taking risks can help. Bringing one’s own unique experiences, knowledge, ideas, and attitude adds uniqueness and makes one the best facilitator possible.

While designing the Unlearn Fellowship, it was important for our team to make sure that the fellows selected by us are trained and capable of taking sessions as facilitators. We designed a month-long training program where we discussed and conducted each module with our fellows, followed by mock sessions that the fellows took on their own. Extensive feedback sessions were incorporated where fellows criticised, checked and praised each other as a cohort. They slowly started designing their own sessions as well. Fellows were always given clear instructions to prioritise one skill or another in different sessions. Even the fellows who acted as participants were instructed to be uncooperative at times, so that a simulation can be created to practice their future sessions in observation homes. Building a repertoire of games, energisers, team building activities, and value-based learnings were all part of this training process so that our Unlearn fellows have these skills at hand to be used as and when needed. These fellows are now taking sessions in observation homes where they’re tackling challenges like engaging kids who are facing difficult personal circumstances, and who can be uncooperative, disengaged and easily distracted. Though some unexpected issues are also coming up, our extensive training process has helped our fellows in anticipating these issues and they are prepared to face these challenges with the skills gained during our training. Recognising the power and privileges operating within the adult-child binary is important to create an adolescent friendly space. Steps like creating ground rules for the class with the participants, respecting them and being open with them are essential when dealing with adolescents.

Participating in a Mock Session by the Unlearn Fellows
Participating in a Mock Session by the Unlearn Fellows

Facilitating a Session on Culture of Dowr with the Unlearn Fellows
Facilitating a Session on Culture of Dowry with the Unlearn Fellows [Images – Project Unlearn]
My personal experience as a life skills facilitator in Tihar Prison No. 5 has been an extraordinary journey. Yes, going beyond the gates and inside Asia’s largest prison complex is a unique opportunity in itself. But, interacting with the inmates as a facilitator is an eye-opening experience, where inmates trust you to listen to them, are they are actively interested in engaging with you as well. I found my own voice with these inmates. Sitting in a huge hall with 40-50 adult inmates looking at you for guidance and knowledge, brings out a type of engagement that is not common in one’s day-to-day life. I realized that I am a lot more open with them than I usually am, even compared to the people I know personally. I naturally share my own life experiences with them, which brings out their own experiences promptly. In one session, I promptly took the decision to share a story about my parents which was related to the topic and this brought out a unique engagement that was unexpected. I’m more open and use humor to encourage participation. During a session on Gender Roles and Stereotypes, where the inmates themselves concluded how the terms “Like a Boy” and “Like a Girl” can have harmful consequences, I suddenly decided to end the session with a pledge from the inmates to not use these phrases anymore and to create a safe space of openness for each other in the prison. This was met with an enthusiastic response and I genuinely felt that my promptness helped in some change in behavior, even if it may last a short while. Initially, I and my co-facilitator Priyanka were keeping our masks on during the session, but by the end of Day 1, we both automatically took off the masks because firstly, it was not allowing our voice to reach all the inmates and more importantly because it was acting as a barrier in our open communication with the inmates and we wanted to remove it with immediate effect. My openness and humor with the inmates brought out personal stories and experiences of the prisoners and our classes are all the better for it. After a few weeks of leading these sessions, I’m confident that I’ve found my unique style of facilitation and I can lead a session in a roomful of adults without any hesitation. I’m capable of talking about sensitive issues tactfully and I can broach topics that people might be uncomfortable discussing. I am capable of highlighting a message and bringing out understanding and participation from reluctant participants as well. The training sessions I designed and led, have helped me as well, especially in gaining a skill like facilitation, one that I never really planned on developing.

RESOURCES –

  1. Pravah Workshop on Adult-Child Binary
  2. Room to Read India’s Girls’ Education Program, Facilitation Module

Ilika has received her education from 11 schools in various states of this country and had the opportunity to witness extraordinary cultural and social diversity across the length and breadth of India. She completed her Economics Honours from Shri Ram College of Commerce and is inclined towards issues related to development and economic inequality. She slowly developed an interest in Human Rights and went on to pursue her Masters in that field. She
wants to work at the intersection of human rights and global politics to address the legal, economic and political challenges in the realization of basic human rights worldwide. For this, she has also completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Human Rights Law. She has worked as a Research Assistant in the Politics team at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi where she developed the India Manifesto Project and undertook research related to elections, democracy, complexity of voters, and identity politics.

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