The Opportunities and Challenges of Co-Facilitation

co_facilitationIn many situations, two or three heads are better than one. When it comes to presenting a workshop it is often much easier on everyone if there is more than one person leading the group. Here are several ways in which co-facilitation can benefit both the facilitators and the participants.

Capitalizing on Strengths. Co-facilitation allows one person to present while the others observe and support their partner. Partners can divide the material in a way that lets them capitalize on individual strengths and have their own moment in the spotlight.

Conserving Energy. Presenting can be tiring both for facilitators and participants. Co-facilitators provide diversity in voices, presentation styles and energy levels which can serve to hold the attention of the group, while giving each facilitator time to shine and time to rest.

Maximizing Diverse Resources. No one, no matter how well educated or skilled, has a talent for or knows everything. Working as a team allows each person to contribute the best of his or her gifts, talents and resources.

Extra Eyes, Ears and Hands. Two facilitators can manage a group better than one. The second person can help gauge participants’ reactions and notice whether people seem to tracking with the process. Co-facilitators can also help hand out materials, assist in monitoring discussions and/or coaching participants in breakout groups. Finally, co-facilitators can monitor and handle problems with the physical environment, latecomers, phone calls, audio-visuals, and other logistical matters.

Providing Mutual Support. Everyone can have an “off” day. Perhaps an activity did not go as planned, or maybe your energy is low or scattered. Co-facilitators bring balance to the team. I find that when one facilitator is off, usually the others will be on. Co-facilitators’ behavior towards one another – if it’s supportive, respectful, and collaborative, serves as a model for the way participants can behave towards each other.

Co-Facilitation Best Practices

While working effectively with other facilitators may just happen naturally, that isn’t always the case. Here are some tips to take into account with working with facilitation partners.

Before the Workshop

  • Plan and Document. For a facilitation team to work together seamlessly, more planning and documentation is required than when you’re working alone. Imagine the complexity of a script needed for a one-person monologue versus one required for a three act play with multiple characters. All the characters need to have a way to know when and how they fit into the whole.
  • Practice What You Preach. As a co-facilitation team, you are essentially a group working through its process to achieve goals just like you will be helping others do. So get to know each other and do what it takes to build healthy authentic relationships where honest and compassionate feedback is welcomed and differences are worked through in healthy ways. Do this because, the relationship you develop as co-facilitators will comprise, to a large degree, a silent yet tangible teaching to your groups.
  • Leverage Strengths, Minimize Weaknesses. Discuss each other’s style of planning and facilitating and share each other’s triggers. Verbalize what you feel your are best at and what you are most challenged by. Discuss how you’d like to work with strengths and weaknesses in the context of the workshop material.
  • Test Assumptions. Take time to discuss your views about the workshop topic, especially areas of disagreement, and any assumptions you have about each other.
  • Facilitate Your Planning Sessions. Just because your facilitators doesn’t mean you’re immune from the need for facilitation. Even if you only have a two-person team, have one of you facilitate your meetings to make sure you have clear objectives, that you stay on course to achieve them, and that results and action items are documented.
  • Handle Logistics. Take about whether, when, and how it is okay to interrupt each other. Decide how to keep track of time. Plan ways to give signals to one another. Strategize about how to stick to the original outline and how to switch gears. Divide facilitation of activities fairly. Agree to how you will share responsibility in preparing and bringing workshop materials and resources. Agree to arrive at the workshop site in time to set up and check-in before the workshop begins. Schedule time after the workshop to debrief.

During the Workshop

  • Communicate Liberally. During activities that don’t require constant attention, check-in with one another. Sharing the subtleties of what you see and experience can be invaluable to making course corrections and inspired innovations in the moment. Support and validate one another and use lots of eye contact.
  • Facilitator Interventions. Include your co-facilitator even when you are leading an exercise or discussion, by asking, for example: “Do you have anything to add?” Assert yourself if your co-facilitator is talking too much and take the initiative to step in if your co-facilitator misses an opportunity to address something.
  • Embrace Mistakes. Actually pointing out a mistake that was made while facilitating can be an invaluable teaching opportunity if the mistake relates to the context of what you’re teaching. The willingness to admit and look at your mistakes also does wonders for bolstering the group’s trust in you, as well as providing wonderful modeling in resilience.

After the Workshop

  • Conduct a Debrief. If you can’t meet right after the workshop, schedule a time to debrief before you leave. Listen carefully to one another’s self-evaluation before giving feedback. Discuss what worked well and what did not. Brainstorm what could have been done differently. Name particular behaviors, for example: “When you kept interrupting me, I felt undermined and frustrated”, or “I got the impression that some participants were bored”, instead of “You always interrupt me” or “You were very controlling during the workshop.” Realize the importance and potential difficulty of debriefing a challenging workshop.
  • Use Evaluations. Use written evaluations as a reference point to talk about the workshop, and assess your effectiveness as co-facilitators.

Questions from Readers and my Responses

We are a newly formed group of 3 budding facilitators. The biggest challenge I face currently is the designing of a training program. I have observed that when more than one person is involved, they have different flows of thinking and find it difficult to integrate the thinking flows to come to a common design. Since we have a certain understanding level among us, one or the other ends up compromising on his/her design part. We share & talk about it. But somehow, its hard for that person to maintain the energy level after that. To handle this is it wise to have one lead facilitator for each program?

SD: You first challenge about integrating divergent ideas from multiple parties is simply part of the landscape of developing a creative product as a group. Have you heard of the Groan Zone in Sam Kaner’s Diamond Model? First, it’s helpful for everyone to understand that this tension is a natural and expected part of the process. Kind of like labor pains giving birth to something new. If there is no tension, your creation is not likely to be very durable, or shall I say, creative. Just like facilitating any process, it helps to have someone facilitate your creative sessions to assure things keep moving, that everyone is staying on track, being heard, etc. Then simply embrace the delicious challenge of co-creating together!

I’m having a reaction to your compromise comment. It seems to me that in a group of three, most of the time you could find consensus on your issues. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees 100% on every action. But it does mean that everyone expresses themselves to completion so that once a decision is reached, everyone can still get behind the decision. If people are giving in to the point they are losing energy, that makes me suspect that they aren’t fully expressing themselves. This is an issue I would suggest discussing directly among your team to talk about what you can do to work this process so that everyone can remain fully committed. This will be an ongoing exercise as life and humans are dynamic systems!

As to having one lead facilitator for each program, that depends. I like the idea of having multiple facilitators during a session for the reasons mention in this article. However, in my experience, it’s useful to have a lead facilitator for each segment. Someone responsible for leading the design and delivery of that module, while still leaving room for input from other facilitators before, during, and after the process.

How do we ensure same level of commitment by all throughout a program?

SD: There’s no way to ensure anything like that. Levels of commitment will always vary depending on life circumstances, interests, etc. But do what I suggest in my answer above and I think that will help a lot!

Yes. We are aware of the “Groan zone” in the Diamond model & other models & theories on working in group. But as you rightly said we need to start practicing it for ourselves before we preach. :) How can we assume that we are a different ‘group’ as it’s a group of facilitators and leaders? :)

I think, we are, at least I am, weighing relationship more & so afraid to hurt others feelings while giving feedback. Also trying to encourage each other & holding back due to the fear that it might discourage the other person. Will work out a way to improve transparency. Rather I prefer to state it in a direct manner.

SD: Giving effective feedback is a critical skill to learn and to teach. And strangely enough, giving honest and direct feedback is often lost among groups inclined toward facilitative/consensus operating norms, and this can be a great disservice to the group. Assuming people are not strong enough to receive feedback is actually disrespectful in a sense. Put yourself at the receiving end and I think you see what I mean.

I’d say that one of the most valuable things to practice as a facilitation group is to disagree and critically debate each other’s ideas. A prerequisite to fully committing yourselves to the learning and growth of your participants, is to realize that you are not your ideas, you are simply the vehicles for their delivery.

ACTION

What has your experience been co-facilitating groups? Are there any tips or responses to the questions above that you’d like to add to this list? Feel free to share your experiences, questions, answers, and feedback below.

Comments

  1. sheila williams says:

    I am a co-facilitor what advice can you offer. My opionoins as a co facilitator is viewed by the facilitator as personnal attacks toward her. Everything I say during group sessions is reported to my boss, and co.- workers that my comments are disrespectful. Such as “Is it appropiate to show your clevage? Our topic for dicussion was on bounderies for teens, as well as the employees at the teen center? My question was viewed by the facilitator as a personnal attack to degrade her in front of the teens. That was not my intentions. When I tried talking to her after she reported me to the boss . Her response was ” You are always disrespecting me”. One day she appeared tired, I asked her was she tired and she responded “That’s soo disrespectful”. At this point I am concerned that whatever I say will be viewed the wrong way, and therefore, at this point I don’t offer my oponion in group sessions my no means. What advice do you have?

  2. Steve Davis says:

    Hi Sheila,

    It sounds like you have an relationship issue that needs to be addressed with your partner. I would ask to set up a meeting with her to discuss how you can better support each other for the highest good of all concerned. Please feel free to email me offline on this using the contact form.

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