5 Big Differences Between Training and Facilitation


Why this topic?

The reason I’m addressing the topic is that many of us think that training done interactively is very close to or even the same as facilitation. It can feel like that but there is an essential and critical difference. This blog will cover those differences, talk about the benefits and when to use each mode. Also, I’ve made a short video for those of you who are thinking about when to hire a trainer versus a facilitator.

I have a bias, as I would say there are distinct advantages of using a process facilitator over a trainer in many more circumstances than you’d think. Yet I want you to know that I have great respect for many colleagues who are amazing interactive trainers and provide a great service to their clients. I also think I’m really good at training. However, there is a very specific time when trainers are best used and times when it’s better to use a facilitator. That is what I will try to clear up here.

If you are currently a trainer moving into the field of the facilitation, you might find this blog gives you the language to help your clients decide when to use you as a process facilitator versus a trainer.

We say this Blog is primarily for Stage 1 or the “Seeker” stage of the facilitator journey. However, I think it will be pretty interesting to the latter stages as well simply because you’ve wrestled with this. Many of us who own our own facilitation business or are employed within an organization to do OD work or process facilitation, are also called upon to clearly distinguish the difference between the two fields for prospective group work. It is up to you to know when one intervention is better than another.

What are the essential differences between training and facilitation?

There are five. I’m going to start first with the main emphasis of each field then move on to some of the structural, outcome and tone differences.

The essential first difference between the two fields is first and foremost that training is about passing on learning and content. The training provides theory, information and activities to share and help retain the information. On the other hand, process facilitation is about helping the thinking in a group. The main difference is in almost simplistic terms: training is about learning and facilitation is about thinking.

Here is a 2.5 minute video to explain this a bit more:

The second big difference is the trainer really has to offer quite a bit of content in large or small blocks. So the emphasis is on a hierarchical model where the trainer is the teacher and the learner is the student who supposedly knows less than the trainer. That might be the assumption of the student although it’s not necessarily the assumption of the trainer.

The facilitator model is based on collaboration. It is a group of peers who have come together who themselves have the content. They need a structure to think through the information they have in a way that will result in something new and different. The facilitator provides the tools, structure, flow, calm, presence and energy to guide the group.

The third is that the trainer is really helping the group to apply the content he or she has given them. So the training would ideally contain a lot of demonstrating, practicing, and reinforcing of the concepts that have been shared.

In the facilitator model the emphasis is more on communicating. It is about helping team members share their data points, understand one another, build cohesiveness of ideas and find ways to solve problems. It is not the role of the facilitator to reinforce any concepts. However, many training techniques can be applied in facilitation settings to help the group be more successful in “cementing” a decision, for example.

The forth difference is in the design. I hope I’m not offending any trainers by my choice of words. But because training or education comes from a hierarchical model, there tends to be more of a linear plan in the trainers’ outline. You decide what the learning outcomes are, you design your activities and content accordingly. And likely you rarely vary up that plan once you’ve tested and finalized your curriculum. It works well!

In contrast, the facilitator always has to have a flexible agenda. They simply cannot predict what is going to happen as a result of a tool being used that changes where the group may need to go or decides to go. No matter how much you interview beforehand and how you do your research, your job as the process facilitator is always to remain adaptable. You are changing and adapting in the moment. You are helping the group do some complex weaving of their thinking.

The final difference between the trainer and the facilitator I feel, is that the trainer is really focused on achieving a longer-term outcome. They know that one day or two days or even five days of training is not going to necessarily have an immediate impact. The concepts have to be continually reinforced, practiced, refined for each situation. If this is done well, in the long term, you will see some change. However, when the person and or the organization does not do anything to reinforce the concepts, then all that is taught is lost!

The facilitator has more of an emphasis on the short term. The result may be e.g., an immediate decision or an immediate consensus. The result could simply be a profound discussion with your colleagues about something that needs to change. When you were doing planning, although the result is an immediate documented plan, it may take a number of years to implement. In general as a process facilitator, you’re looking for short-term insights and often immediate results.

My questions to you now:

  • What words would you use to describe the differences?
  • How can we help HR and OD leaders make the right choice in deciding when and how to use a training format versus a facilitated process format?
  • Which field do you prefer and why?

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Paul Nunesdea on February 9, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    A fabulous article, you guys @NorthStar Rock!

    • Barbara Mackay on February 16, 2017 at 12:22 pm

      Many thanks, Paul!

  2. Maarten Thissen on February 9, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    Very nice article, I will link to it from my own pages (www.djehoty.com). I enjoy training and teaching and I learn more and more about helping groups of professionals to get where they want. I use almost the same descriptions to underline the difference. My training and teaching is about me facilitating their learning by providing my (and other people’s) knowledge to them and or activating theirs. My facilitating is about creating a place together where they can discuss on how to use their knowledge collectively.

    • Barbara Mackay on February 16, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Thank you, Maarten! We so appreciate your feedback.

  3. Florence Yuen Funflo on October 13, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Hi Barbara, thanks for sharing such clear difference and I do agree with most of them. i just want to say it is well written, thank you. I have started to be more aware and doing process facilitation and feel that a great difference is about creating shared outcome from within the team or organization which is such a powerful space for the people. So I called process facilitation is to “create from within” and learning facilitation or training is about absorbing from outside to be digested inside that can bring more values to a person. Florence Yuen from Singapore. Just want to let you know your writing is read in Asia too.

    • Barbara Mackay on October 18, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      Love your distinction of the inside piece versus the outside piece Florence. Nice helpful image! Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas!

  4. RC Lamichhane on June 8, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Thank you very much for sharing this

  5. Dr-Mohamed Eldeep on January 5, 2020 at 9:26 am


  6. Bona Deng Lawrence (South Sudan) on June 26, 2020 at 9:35 am

    Thank you for a very informative and educative article. It is very helpful to me. Are there more images related to the subject matter. please share.

    • Barbara MacKay on July 30, 2020 at 5:19 pm

      Dear Bona Deng Lawrence, I’m so glad you found this article helpful. We think about images as metaphors and often our blogs are filled with visual aids to help the reader quickly capture the essence of the idea. Therefore, each blog has its own unique images. I apologize but we don’t have any more images to share with you. You might want to go to pixabay.com and put in word phrases that pop up for you as you try to explain a concept. And, sometimes we just use icons such as in this blog. You can also search our blog for other articles with images. Apologies if I’m not answering your question. Please feel free to ask again if I did not understand.

  7. Alok Verma on July 15, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Hi Barbara,

    I am into facilitation from the last 9 years and I have found it difficult to explain some people about the difference. I am happy that I read your post today. Now I have more in my hand to answer those who mistake me for a trainer

    Thanks for sharing such an insightful post.

    • Barbara MacKay on July 30, 2020 at 4:57 pm

      Dear Alok, I am very happy that you are a facilitator and that and you know that. It’s very good you know the difference. The main thing I would tell people who are asking you what the difference is, is that you are not delivering content, you are guiding process. Your participants have all the content that they need. Your job as a facilitator is to help them articulate their knowledge and experience in structured and creative ways. Then they can use the synthesis of their sharing to resolve the problem, make the decision, plan the next steps, etc. I would love to hear your ideas, Alok, about the main differences you have discovered.

  8. Chandrakant Sangam on November 18, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    Very neatly explained the difference between trainer and facilitator. I just paused for some time after each point and reflected on it. Clearly understood the differences and thank you very much :). Few thoughts flowing through my mind- Facilitation happens real-time in that present moment and outcome is unique in each session. Whereas trainer carries past session experience to present and try to adapt with new group however seeking the same predictable output.

    In simple world its “I” vs “We”, “listen to me” vs “let me/us hear you” and finally “I am the BOSS” vs “you all did it”.

    Facilitation is learning from group as a keep student, while creating environment where everyone would like to pour their experience and knowledge!!!

    • Barbara MacKay on November 23, 2021 at 7:56 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing your reflection and insights!

  9. […] Yet, even in such cases, there are some fundamental differences between process facilitation and training facilitation, as highlighted by Barbara MacKay […]

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