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What is Facilitation?

James Neill
Last updated:
02 Aug 2004

What is facilitation?  Helping a process along

To facilitate, is to help something (usually a process) move along.  The word derives from "facile" which is French for "easy".  To facilitate, then, is literally to make something easier.  Through facilitation, the instructor provides subtle "boosts" to help participants through a series of experiences which combine to create a desired effect.

Facilitate does not mean "solving a problem" or "doing it for someone". It means doing something that makes a process run a little better.  When a situation is too difficult, a facilitator is there to help.  When a student or a group are having desirable experiences, the facilitator can be less obtrusive. In general, the goals of facilitation often include participants analyzing and better understanding their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

However, facilitation can also be understood to mean all the behaviors and actions of a teacher, instructor, trainer, mentor, etc. which influence the experience of the individuals and the group.  This includes subtle, unconscious behaviors of the instructor which can have profound influences on what unfolds.

Four quadrants of facilitation: 2 x 2 (Intentional-Unintentional x Overt-Covert)


Facilitation is everything that an instructor does, thus it includes intentional, unintentional, subtle and obvious behaviors.  Four types of facilitative behaviors can be identified, as follows:




Intentional - Overt

These are things an instructor does intentionally and these are noticed by students.


1. A facilitator shows students how to make a fire.

2.. A facilitator uses Socratic questioning, such as when asking a question of a group during a debrief.

3. An instructor counsels or gives verbal feedback to a participant.

Intentional - Covert

These are things an instructor does intentionally but they are not noticed by students.


1. As a group are sitting down to have a discussion, the facilitator intentionally places him her self next to a student who he/she wants to begin the discussion.  The instructor then casually indicates to go around in the direction of the person next to whom he/she has sat.

Unintentional - Overt

These are things an instructor does without intending and they are noticed by the students. 


1. An instructor is naturally warm-hearted (without realizing) and this quickly makes students feel accepted and excited about the program.

2. An instructor unintentionally uses gendered language which upsets several participants.

Unintentional - Covert

These are things an instructor does without intending and they go unnoticed by the students.  But it does affect individual's experiences and has subtle socio-psychological impacts.


1. As a group are sitting down to have a discussion, the facilitator unintentionally sits either too far apart from the group (e.g., is ego-centric) or unintentionally too far into the group circle (e.g., is anxious, shy).  The group don't consciously notice but it effects the way participants respond to the instructor.

2. An instructor uses gendered language and this goes unnoticed by the group but it contributes to underlying gender issues and tensions within a group.


Note that many definitions, theories and practical approaches to facilitation only focus on intentional efforts.  Basic "group debrief" type facilitation training, for example, seems to assume that everything (or at least the important stuff) happens in the conscious minds of both participants and instructor (overt-intentional facilitation).  Facilitation theories and training which use insights from psychology and group work tends to include more focus on unconscious, subtle, socio-psychological processes (unintentional and covert facilitation).

Examples of research on ways an instructor shapes participant experiences

There are a myriad of ways an instructor shapes and moulds a participants' experience (e.g. a carefully placed word of encouragement, using body language to reinforce desired behaviors).  So facilitation is an infinitely complicated process, particular with groups.

Ultimately, even the smallest of an instructor's decisions and actions can profoundly influence the nature of a participants' experience.  This is more than an abstract "butterfly flaps its wings in the forest" chaos theory claim.  For example, a qualitative study by Mike Brown (in press) has revealed some of the ways that "paraphrasing" summary statements by instructors during group debriefs can "privelege" and "alter" the kinds of meanings about an experience that a group forms.   Similarly, Hovelynck (1998, 1999) has argued that instructor-generated metaphors for experience may have limitations in experiential programming because they are not generated by participants.  I also recommend Martin Ringer's (2002) book "Group Action: The Dynamics of Groups in Therapeutic, Educational and Corporate Settings".