Definition of Facilitator: Legal Terms Explained

“Facilitator” is a word used often in alternative dispute resolution discussions, but the definition of facilitator is rarely defined fully.  Facilitators usually lead the discussion and help move the dispute resolution process forward. Finding the right facilitator can resolve a dispute with the best possible results.  But what exactly is a facilitator? Are mediators and arbitrators facilitators? Are there are people who would be considered facilitators outside of arbitrators and mediators? All of these questions and more can be answered by defining the word facilitator.  This article seeks to define what exactly a facilitator is and how the categories of conflict resolution specialists fit within this definition.  It will also discuss the role of the facilitator and suggest qualities that make a good facilitator.

Defining Facilitator

Very simply put, a facilitator is the dispute resolution practitioner.  However, a better definition should include the work that a facilitator does—helping a group of people to work together better.  Facilitators help a group of people work together better by providing structure and process to the interactions so that the group may continue to move toward resolution.  Another important part of facilitation is to remain neutral during the process by not picking a side they believe is right, but looking at all perspectives evenly.  Finally, the facilitator will encourage the group to participate fully and think critically and creatively to move through a conflict.  Conflict resolution facilitators specifically work with a group at times of conflict and hardship.

Pulling this all together, a definition of facilitator would be a neutral dispute resolution practitioner that provides structure and process to the interactions of a group to help them participate fully and think creatively to work together better and move through a problem.  It is important to note that while facilitators may be present in issues where legal issues are in play and the issue may be headed toward further dispute resolution and litigation, facilitators may deal with disputes that have no legal issues and revolve around internal issues in the group that would not move toward litigation but are affecting the dynamic of the group.

Mediators are a form of facilitator because they often participate by leading the parties in mediation toward a settlement but do not have an active role in the resolution of the dispute.  Arbitrators would likely not be considered facilitators in the formal sense because they decide and are involved in the resolution of the process. However, this article will focus on the group of people separate from mediation and arbitration.  This group of facilitators leads the process known as facilitation, which can happen before a group participates in mediation or arbitration to help the parties begin to understand the conflict and see settlement options.  So, to fully understand facilitators, it is important to consider the process of facilitation.

Facilitation: The Work of a Facilitator

Facilitation is the process of a group led by a third-party neutral without a determinative role in the conflict identify the areas of conflict and how that affects their lives or work and the tasks that need to be accomplished to move through the conflict and work more efficiently together. 

Some common goals and steps in facilitation include:

  • Identifying Problems: The first step of any facilitation is for the parties to identify their problems.  This includes both the very recognizable and immediate problems that spurred the facilitation in the first place and a facilitator may move through those problems to identify the deeper problems that the group is facing.  The group cannot work to alleviate their issues if they do not fully understand what the problem is.  Facilitation may end after the problems have been fully identified, or it may continue to the next steps.
  • Develop Options: The next step in the process would be for the group to develop options to solve the issues at hand.  This can be very simple once the parties truly understand the conflict, or it may require some creative thinking from the group and the facilitator to accomplish the goal.
  • Consider Alternatives: The group will need to consider the alternative options that have been proposed and work to determine the best option to resolve the issue and move forward.
  • Agreement: If the facilitation helps the group move through the problems they were facing and move toward a resolution, the group can make an agreement and leave the facilitation with a plan.

Additionally, there are three core values of facilitation according to Roger Schwartz.  These values are:

  1. Valid Information: This means that everyone in the facilitation agrees to share all the information about the issue within the facilitation and that everyone understands the information and how it affects the situation.
  2. Free and Informed Choice: This means that the group can create their own hopes and goals for the issue and the ways to achieve these goals.
  3. Internal Commitment to Choices: The means that the facilitator must make clear that the parties are responsible for their choices.

Facilitators can keep these values at the core of their practice and it will keep the group on track to resolve their issues.

Facilitation gives the group a chance to explore the issues affecting the dynamics of the group and begin to see the possible ways to end the conflict.  It can add some formality to an otherwise casual conversation about the issues and can encourage all members of the group to take the issue seriously and continue to try and resolve the issues.  The goal of the facilitation is not to solve the issues, but to address the issues and begin to see a way past the issue.  If the parties can agree to a solution, it is an extra benefit of the work done before in the facilitation.  Examining the work that this type of facilitator does allow us to continue to explore who a facilitator is and how they operate.

Considering a Facilitator

Reading through a description of facilitation may encourage a person to consider facilitation to resolve issues within a group.  While facilitation works well for many issues involving a group, there are some particular instances where a facilitator may be incredibly helpful.  These situations include:

  • Skill-Based Issue: A facilitator may be helpful for a group trying to resolve an issue-based heavily on a certain skill that the facilitator is also skilled in. This is particularly true when the issue requires a specific process to address the situation.
  • No Contact: Another conflict that may benefit from facilitation is one where the parties are refusing to speak or interact with each other.  Facilitation allows the parties space and a bridge for the parties to feel heard and seen as they begin to discuss the issues.
  • Formality Required: When conflict is being addressed haphazardly and causally but would benefit from focused attention on the conflict, the formality of the facilitation process can help the parties acknowledge the issue with full gravity.
  • Chronic Conflict: In cases where the group is often in conflict and it is not being resolved effectively, facilitation might benefit the group by providing the space for the group to formally address the situation and determine the true source of the issue.
  • Dependent Group: If the group is dependent on each other and is unable to resolve the conflict within themselves, the group could benefit from facilitation to allow an independent outside person to lead the process and remove the necessity from the group.

Facilitation can be a beneficial practice for many types of conflicts within groups.  It allows the group to explore the issues affecting the group and gives the members the space to evaluate why other options are not working.  Facilitators are trained to trace and identify the problem through the process they lead, giving the process a reputation of finding the true source of the conflict. Facilitators are often skilled in a variety of other areas that aid in the exploration and reconciliation of the issues.

The Skills of a Facilitator:

Facilitators must be skilled in identifying conflict and its cause and encouraging a group to speak freely about the issue.  They set the tone of the meeting and create a space for the group to feel comfortable sharing.  These skills include:

  • Strong verbal and nonverbal skills
  • Understanding group dynamics
  • Analytical skills
  • Creating an inclusive environment
  • Questioning skills—what questions, how to ask them, and when to ask them
  • Allowing the group to establish their rules
  • Appropriate probing for more information
  • Building trust
  • Rephrasing or reframing statements
  • Keeping momentum and participation
  • Maintaining neutrality
  • Dealing with overpowering or hostile group members

A good facilitator will have these skills and hone them to encourage groups to work together and move forward from facilitation without rehashing the same issues again, and the best facilitators will do this all while helping the group members to feel empowered to make their own decisions and solve their issues on their own.

Conclusion

A facilitator is an independent, neutral practitioner that helps a group identify and address the issues affecting the group and create tasks to move the group toward a resolution.  Facilitators do this by providing a process for the group to identify these goals and feel included as they do so.  Facilitators are skilled in group dynamics and a variety of other areas that help them bring people together to solve issues effectively and creatively.  Facilitation provides an avenue before even formal mediation or arbitration for the parties to address their issues and possibly even resolve an issue without any further action.  Facilitators drive the dispute resolution process at the origin of an issue and help the parties move forward with a solution or a better understanding of the issues at hand.  This is a vital and important work within the dispute resolution world, and facilitators drive this work.

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