Facilitation Methods vs. Tools: Making Your Facilitator Journey Easier


Today, at risk of repeating ourselves, we are going to talk a bit more about your journey as a facilitator. It is an amazing journey, a “hero’s journey” (mythologist and author Joseph Campbell came up with this term) of sorts. Each one of us will have a different journey, depending especially if we start it in our paid job as an inside facilitator or start our own company as an independent facilitator.  We will remind you of some great resources we’ve created over the last few years to help you think about your own journey.

Let’s start with this short video I did recently, and if you have not downloaded the free handout to assess your own journey, you can find it in the resources section below.

On your journey to becoming a process facilitator and then perfecting your craft as a facilitator, you will run across a number of important words.  In this blog we will only focus on competencies, methods & tools. There is much more as suggested by this diagram (e.g., styles, approaches, impact), courtesy of my dear colleague Eunice Shankland and other ToP facilitators.

Let’s define those three for you.

Facilitator Competencies

In my 24 years of running a facilitator business, I feel there are 10 top competencies/skills you require as a facilitator to meet the needs of your clients.

  • Engaging Conversations
  • Surfacing Conflict
  • Team-Building
  • Data & Trend Analysis
  • Consensus-Building
  • Idea Generation
  • Planning
  • Organizational or Team Assessment
  • Decision-Making
  • Problem-Solving

When you develop these skills, you grow in your own ability to connect with people from all walks of life.  For a list of tools you can use in each of the competencies listed above, see my blog in the Resource section below.

Facilitator Methods (and Tools)

Here I am going to try to help you understand the difference between a single use tool and a more comprehensive method.  ICA uses the word methods for most of their key Technology of Participation (ToP) processes, e.g., The Consensus Workshop Method.

Why should we even care whether we are using a tool or a method?

In short, I’d say it is all about enhancing your ability to design impactful agendas.  For example, a less experienced facilitator is likely to “grab” a tool they’ve heard about and try to apply it wherever they can.  That is a great way to learn a tool in depth. After you gather and master a few tools however, a more experienced facilitator will know that a beautifully designed agenda is not full of tools, but rather a series of carefully crafted methods or processes.  So it is important you know some “full-bodied” methods (sounds like a good brewed cup of coffee versus instant coffee, right?)  that you will also want to put into your so-called ‘facilitation toolkit’.

By the end of this article, I hope you will be motivated to learn more methods.  And, that you will learn them deeply enough to know when and how to dissect them into their component parts and skillfully apply different parts of them depending on the situation.

What’s the difference? The beauty of a method vs. a tool

Please note that although I’m attempting to neatly separate out tools from methods, it is not easy to do so.  There is a lot of overlap.

We might also illustrate the difference of using tools vs. methods when comparing it to a painting project.  Your living room table has been through 25 years of heavy use and it’s time to give it a new look.  You can either:

  1. Repaint the table using 2 tools– a gallon of paint and a paintbrush! (The table may be a different color now, but it won’t have the high quality finish of going through the process of refinishing.) Professional painters may call this a slightly amateur way of painting, leading to poor quality results.
  2. Refinish the table using a method of steps– using your tools in a process of steps such as sanding, priming, painting, and sealing. (The end quality will be a beautiful finish).

In my mind, a tool is a distinct stand alone activity that can be used in a variety of different scenarios.  For example, the primary tool for dialogue is questions.   A single question or even multiple questions do not lead to a finished product, decision or result. A tool on its own rarely leads to a polished result.  A method often does because it is a series of activities or steps designed to lead to a polished result. Methods often differ in that they are multi-faceted in their application. They consist of a series of steps often sequenced in a particular order for maximum effect. Yet each step is a discrete process that can be used on its own or in conjunction with other tools, allowing for facilitator creativity in designing events that are customized for each client group.

Examples of Methods:

I’m going to lead you BRIEFLY through 4 processes to help you understand why methods are so effective in helping your groups move or transition from an old way of being to a new way of being.  The 4 processes are:

Focused Conversation Method – for our first example, we will highlight the Focused Conversation (Method). It was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (see book The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace (ICA series) or take the training here!).  It is a method because: 1) it has many steps and it is important that these steps occur in a particular order 2) it is ALSO a structure not only used to facilitate brilliant dialogue but also as an underlying structure for an entire agenda, and 3) each part of the process or method can be used as a stand-alone piece.  The four steps of the Focused Conversation Method are actually mimicking exactly how our brains process information. Thus, it is a beautiful method that one can apply to create a flowing, sequential agenda design. See our PDF interactive module on several features of dialogue methods including the Focused Conversation Method, “Leading Focused & Productive Discussions: Facilitator Tools for Sharing Ideas in Meetings”.

ToP® Strategic Planning – also from the Institute of Cultural Affairs, this strategic planning method consists of 4 main parts and several pre and post steps as need demands. We can use them all together to produce a stellar strategic plan. Or, we might use only two parts for a client group that is not ready to go further. This might look like doing an environmental scan and the vision for a group but not covering the other parts of ToP® Strategic Planning, i.e., obstacles, strategic directions, measurable accomplishments, success indicators, and detailed action plans. Another example of using only one part of this particular method, is using use the ToP® contradictions (obstacles) workshop to get at root cause analysis.

There are many other strategic planning models and all are essentially methods. For more information on strategic planning, see our PDF module “Secrets of Strategic Planning”.

Six Thinking Hats – developed by Dr. Edward de Bono could also be called a tool of dialogue but is also a method because it is composed of six distinct thinking modes which can be used in any sequence. It can also be used to design an agenda or to ensure that all the appropriate modes of thinking are incorporated into a decision or problem-solving session. I might, for example, only use four of the thinking modes to diagnose an issue. E.g., white hat questions to get at what we know and don’t know about a situation; the red hat to elicit our gut intuitive thinking on the problem; a green hat to generate ideas about ways to solve; and a blue hat to summarize the themes that are emerging from our creative idea generation. See our PDF module on this method, “Leading Focused and Productive Discussions”.

Gradients of Agreement – this is a decision making method developed by Sam Kaner. It also has many steps including 1) the divergent thinking zone (relative brainstorming of solutions), 2) the groan zone (involves analysis of options and this can involve “push and pull” as people vie for their preferred options; this is a time for building understanding but often it is frustrating – thus the name “the groan zone”), and 3) convergent thinking zone (where facilitator allows the group to see commonalities and choose the best options).  It is a process used all together to really enhance decision-making and yet we often have seen these three phases show up in many other methods. Thus the method can be used as separate component parts also.

These are only a few examples that we have worked with.  There are dozens of methods if not hundreds and thousands and of tools. In the IAF Professional Facilitator Certification program, the number of  main competencies is 6 and sub-competencies are 18.

Where are you in the journey?

We’d be very happy to hear about what has been your journey.  Or if you have found something very different for yourself that has worked really well, let us know!

We are also taking a survey to see which stage our readers are on.  Click here to make your selection: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LL695BD.

If you’re curious to see the overall results of this survey, go here:  http://www.surveymonkey.com/stories/SM-58DMCS28/


Blog: Facilitation Tools Do’s and Don’ts

Note: The 10 categories are generic competencies you should strive to become very good at during your facilitator journey. Each competency category lists examples of tools you can use.  I recommend that you know at least two or three tools within each of the 10 categories.

Blog: The 7 Stage Facilitator Journey – Which One Are You On?

Note: Includes the free Facilitator Journey Assessment.  We have updated the handout to include 9 competencies

Blog: Keeping the Faith – The Last 2 Stages of the Facilitator Journey

Blog: 6 Facilitator Styles That Will Keep You Out of Trouble!

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.

Leave a Comment