The theory of facilitation

The theory of facilitation

Facilitation 258x120Certain professions have very low entry barriers. An entry barrier shows to those things that a person must do or credentials of sorts that the person must have in order to render services as a professional (e.g., consultant, counselor, coach). In other words almost anyone can be a consultant, for example. Now, the concept of facilitation is even more vague since it is often used in casual language while there are those who see themselves as professional facilitators. One has to ask then, what is the theory of facilitation?

Every person who is a facilitator should have theoretical grounding to support and help guide their practice of facilitation. To my mind this is all the more important for those who call themselves professional facilitators (be they credentialed or not). My plea is one that acknowledges that theory should inform practice as much as practice should inform theory. But what I can tell you is that a profession in the helping services (essentially dealing with some component of human behaviour) that do not have a theoretical grounding cannot develop professional practitioners.

The problem, however, is that facilitation do not have an adequate theory or theories. From the moment that I started to conceive of a practical theologian as a facilitator (in a professional sense) I became increasingly aware that theory of facilitation is missing (in comparison to psychology or coaching for instance). All sorts of questions come to the fore asking about the nature of, and differentiation between facilitation and, say, group coaching. It’s not that nothing has been written. However, what has been written about facilitation from academia and practitioners alike should still be thickened considerably.

The search for theory

This post is a forerunner (I hope) for an academic article on the matter. Here I will have to keep it short and I offer an outline. To find this theory we should look to two things: The history of theory and the contexts and places people go to in order to make sense of what this thing we do, called facilitation, is.

The history of theory

I’m referring only to modern-ish history. This takes us invariably to the revolution in the sciences from the 1600s. There are different ways of looking at it but it helps to distinguish between three paradigms.

  1. The first is the analytic-empirical view (or then, form of inquiry and ways of understanding reality). It corresponds to the idea that things can be taken apart and diagnosed. Therefor it can also be fixed by replacing the problematic part or prescribing some remedy.
  2. Then there is the systems view, which is quite popular in the business setting. It holds that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. There are two ways to relate to the systems view as a practitioner. In the first you position yourself separate from the system and consequently you are still the leading authority or expert on the system. As an expert you can diagnose and prescribe solutions. Secondly you can view yourself as part of the system. I must say that those that position themselves here is often at risk of doing it only superficially while the way that they talk an behave is a sure give away that they view themselves as the independent, neutral, objective person. Much of classical (unquestioned) facilitation holds these assumptions. There is therefore a big discrepancy between where they position themselves and what they believe is possible.
  3. A third movement in the sciences relates strongly to language, culture and being inextricably bound to (in the previous paradigm) the system. Only, instead of system-talk, the third move in theory, in science and ways of inquiry makes much more of stories, metaphors, culture, and context. If you want to read up more on this, see: Arbnor, I.& Bjerke, B., 2009, Methodology for creating business knowledge, 3rd. edn.,SAGE, London. From this third movement the ideas that shape my thinking has to do with narrative practice, social constructionism, and postfoundationalism.

The kind of concerns above, about reality and how we envision our role as practitioners (and researchers) relates to the matter of epistemology. Epistemology should precede any discussion about ontology. The three theory models makes different claims about reality which hold significant implications for our role as practitioners… if taken seriously. At a fundamental theoretical level it places questions behind popular positions saying that one is, for instance, an eclectic or integrative coach, counselor, facilitator, and so on.

My argument is that from the above broad takes on reality (on theory, on science, on formal inquiry) the third, let’s call it a linguistic-cultural view, offers the best ‘foundation’ for professional facilitation. My view is that facilitation would otherwise not be able to stand up to the hard questions on what separates it from other professions and practices. The implication is challenging however.

  • It places organisational discourse at the centre of attention, more so than organisational systems.
  • It moves away from expert diagnoses to, if the word diagnoses can still be used, social collaborative ‘diagnosis’ [sic].

The implication is also that it takes, much more serious than in the past:

  • the community perspective in the shaping of reality
  • the values of participation and collaboration – wisdom of the group
  • decentred-influential leadership
  • knowledge not for the sake of being an expert or to diagnose but positioning oneself in a particular culture
  • the autonomy of the group to create its own sustainable efficiency
  • moving beyond democracy to co-operacy
  • the importance of relational ethics

Furthermore, if it is not foremost grounded in this paradigm then perhaps facilitation is barely more than a skill, one that can and is used by other more professional roles. Then there would be no haste in creating professional bodies, codes of practice and ethics, and so on, as one will not have to look very far to find these in the established or establishing helping professions that are serious about their informing theoretical fundamentals.

Informing contexts of facilitation

Regarding the developing contexts of facilitation some have already alluded to a number of movements and practices that inform coaching. I refer to them in my academic article that deals with conceiving of the practical theologian as a facilitator. You can see it, or download it from my website here.

In short the facilitator’s role is one that is probably as old as humanity itself. It has a particular affinity to some religious movements such as the religious ‘society of friends’ founder a few hundred years ago. I think that one of the reasons for the facilitation-spirituality or facilitation-religion link (with spirituality and religion not being the same thing) has to do with the communal nature of religion. When there is a community, there are decisions to be taken, roles to be taken up, group cultural values informing norms and practices, initiatives for the advancement of the community, combating threats to the community, and so on. This community can be religious communities, geographical communities, business communities, professional communities of practices, and more.

I also agree with authors (article link above), whom make something of certain contexts and movements a couple of decades ago: the social rights movement, liberation movements, and more. All of these movements, again, has to do with the group. Because of the facilitation preference of working with some conceptualization of group, my perspective is, for instance in the business context, facilitation can be seen as the sociology of the business community, whereas coaching and other professions relates more to the psychology of the business community. If facilitation relates to psychology it relates to social- and cultural psychology much more than, for instance, clinical psychology.

Much work is still necessary. No professional facilitator should avoid the tough questions on which theories they see as informing their work. But they should remember that it is not just a free for all but an earnest seeking as to what they regard as the nature of facilitation before they answer to the nature of their own facilitation.

I would love to hear your views. By what reasoning is, or is facilitation not, a profession versus a skill? What do you see as the theory/ies that inform or should inform facilitation?

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Hi my name is Dr. Elmo Pienaar. I'm an organisational practitioner and a 'practical theologian' at the University of Pretoria , South Africa. These two together make for an interesting field.

I consult, teach, do research, coach, do counseling, and more. Then also, here (and on social media platforms) I connect with people like you.

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