An Unplanned Second Facilitator

March 3, 2021

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Sandra (“don’t call me Sandy”) was a classic Type-A personality. She could be a real pain as a project partner because she was constantly bugging her partners to improve their work performance. But everyone wanted to be in her group because they knew the result would be a good grade.

When Sandra was in a class where every group member needed to take turns as a facilitator, she became a real problem. She couldn’t help becoming a second facilitator. When Sandra saw the facilitator doing something she thought was wrong, she would point it out. She would often get out of her seat and take over. As you can imagine, this would unnerve her classmates.

When her instructor, Dr. Holly Wang, saw what was happening, she needed to think of how to control Sandra’s second-facilitator actions, but without dampening Sandra’s enthusiasm. She came up with a strategy that became a key element in her course. She complimented Sandra’s facilitation expertise and asked Sandra to prepare simple one-page facilitation tips for the problems she saw. This task kept her from becoming a second facilitator. The tips were so well done that Dr. Wang made them available to students in future sessions. In fact, the tips often seemed to have greater impact on students than Dr. Wang’s guidance because the tips addressed issues from a student’s perspective.

Unplanned second facilitators can be a problem (and an opportunity) in the classroom and in organizations (this is separate from situations where an activity is designed for co-facilitators). Since facilitation is such a key skill for effective collaboration, it’s critical that all students have a chance to develop their facilitation skills. But inexperienced facilitators can often be intimidated by more experienced ones who take over the facilitation or try to be too helpful.

An effective strategy for managing second facilitators is to give them an important task to perform while another person is facilitating. Dr. Wang asked Sandra to develop facilitation tips in the form of peer guidance. That’s one approach. Other tasks might include:

  • Developing lists of topics that need further exploration
  • Developing debriefing material for the facilitator
  • Preparing a contemporaneous sense of the values evident in the discussion
  • Helping shape the discussion into action items
  • Identifying perspectives that were not brought forth in the meeting but need further sharing
  • Identifying critical moments in the discussion process–and developing a sense of how these were, or could be, managed

The standard approach for dealing with second facilitators is to discourage their interventions. This can be demoralizing, and it basically negates the value-added insights that a second facilitator can provide. What strategies have you developed to capture the value that students like Sandra can add in your student-centered discussion classes? How might we benefit from the insights of a second facilitator in a way that harnesses their skills without disrupting their classmates’ facilitation practice?

* * *

Neither situations nor people can be altered by the interference of an outsider. If they are to be altered, that alteration must come from within.” – Phyllis Bottome (British novelist and short story writer)

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays. 

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