I have often struggled to better explain how the Interactivity Foundation conceives of the role and function of a facilitator in our discussion projects. My incoherence probably derives from a couple reasons (at least and in addition to my usual cognitive limitations). First, “facilitation” is at best a general term and a skill that encompasses a variety of different practices, techniques and objectives (try a Google search for facilitation and see how many different guides and techniques you come up with on the first page alone). And second, the individual styles of facilitators can (and probably should) vary almost as significantly as the different facilitation techniques and objectives. With these obvious variations, it can be difficult to describe precisely what a facilitator does in one of our group discussions.
One useful metaphor that Jack Byrd, Jr., our President and a professor of industrial engineering at West Virginia University, has often employed in describing some aspects of facilitation is that of a glider pilot. The pilot can’t control the weather, but she can learn to recognize and anticipate subtle wind and other atmospheric changes in her flight path. With concentration and experience, she can somewhat control her flight by steering into or around different weather conditions.
In a similar vein, I’d like to add another metaphor for understanding some aspects of the facilitator role: that of a river guide for a white water rafting trip. Just like a facilitator in a group discussion, a river guide must work with a diverse group of participants—each of whom has different skills, experience levels, and personalities. Much of the time on the river and especially in the calm stretches, it looks like the guide is doing little more than gently resting on the oar and watching the river. But just as in a group discussion, this tranquility is often deceptive in that the guide is intensely looking for, anticipating, and reacting to numerous subtle shifts in the river. At other times, the guide is more obviously paddling and/or directing other rafters—individually or as a group and in different ways depending on the waves, the current, and the abilities of the individual paddlers. And, as in an IF discussion, the goal isn’t at all to avoid the rapids—they’re often precisely why the participants signed up—but it is to navigate them, preferably without tipping over. While you want to avoid serious injury, getting more than a little wet is all part of the experience. Also because the river changes constantly (water levels rise and fall, rocks and other obstacles move around), neither the guide nor the rafters know exactly what course they will take through the rapids or what will happen, which is—again—partly what makes the experience both a bit scary, exhilarating, and ultimately (one hopes) fun.
As with any metaphor, the white water river guide is far from a complete or perfect description of the role of a facilitator. (For example, the river guide usually knows the group’s precise downstream destination. Whereas an IF facilitator only generally knows the overall objective (toward developing multiple policy possibilities) and neither the final destination nor any of the specific stops en route.) Still, I’ve found white water rafting to be a somewhat helpful way to think about (and contrast with) the experience of facilitating group discussions.