Art, craft, and the science of facilitation in a complex partnership programme

Facilitation is a crucial tool for everyone but especially for research and development professionals working in the international development space. It is a process of helping people to work together to identify and address issues, to collectively develop solutions, and reach a consensus where the chances of dissatisfaction are reduced. People are guided to reach a common goal. So, a facilitator plays the roles of helper, mediator and guide. The most important part of facilitation is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved and engaged in the process and that their voices are heard and that they feel valued. A facilitator needs to ensure that the process is transparent, no one is side-lined and that all stakeholders are aware of the progress being made. This will make the process efficient, well structured, professionally managed, and effective.

It is both an art, a craft, and a science, requiring a combination of skills and knowledge. As an art, it requires the facilitator to be creative and to use their intuition to understand the dynamics of the group and to create an environment that is conducive to productive dialogue and collaboration. The craft of facilitation is the ability to navigate the complexities of power dynamics in a group and effectively lead the group towards achieving the goal in an empathetic way. This includes setting ground rules, creating an agenda, and providing structure to the conversation. The facilitator must also be able to listen to the group and understand their needs and concerns. They must be able to recognize when the group is stuck and help them move forward. The science of facilitation involves the use of specific techniques and strategies to help the group reach their goals which includes brainstorming, problem-solving, and decision-making tools. By combining all these the facilitator can help the group reach their goals and achieve success.

Image by CLARISSA Bangladesh team

Facilitation is a complex process that also requires empathy and sensitivity and understanding of the power dynamics in the room. It becomes even more essential in complex programmes, such as CLARISSA (Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia) where confrontation, competition, and conflict are more common as we work with multiple partner organisations, in complex contexts, with distinct work cultures, and diverse viewpoints.

These are some of the key learnings in CLARISSA as we overcome our challenges and aim to improve our ways of working: 

  • Come well prepared and be organised  
  • Actively listen  
  • Understand the needs of the individual and teams involved  
  • Ask open-ended and deepening questions 
  • Create a safe space and encourage participation 
  • Be conscious of the power dynamics in the group 
  • Use visual aids to help explain critical concepts 
  • Provide clear instructions 
  • Give timely feedback and create space for open and honest conversation  
  • Be flexible and adaptive to learn from experience and evolve  
  • Use humour to keep the atmosphere light 
  • Keep track of the energy of the room 
  • Take time to reflect on the session and follow up 

We have learnt that following these steps does not necessarily mean that everyone will be happy with the decisions taken. but they help ensure that no one leaves the room feeling neglected or unheard.

This blog is inspired by two great facilitators in CLARISSA – Danny Burns and Marina Apgar.

March 23, 2023
Sukanta Paul & Jiniya Afroze