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Facilitation Styles

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Leadership, Second Edition by Bruce Martin, Mary Breunig, Mark Wagstaff, and Marni Goldenberg.

Facilitation keeps the learner - rather than the facilitator - central to what is happening. Therefore, a leader should be very thoughtful in selecting the style of facilitation used. A leader’s facilitation style is based on many variables, some of which are internal and some of which are external. Internal factors include beliefs, communication ability, and valuing others. Personal belief systems are strong perceptual filters that affect expectations and behavior. For example, the Pygmalion effect suggests that what we expect or believe about someone is what we get. If we view someone as ineffective, they most likely will live up to that expectation. Our perceptual filters can limit ourselves, too. A frog perceives only things that move as food and therefore will starve in a box of dead flies. We can work toward establishing a rapport with others if we understand how they perceive the world.


External variables, which help the facilitator adjust their style to each specific group, include the following:

  • The age and maturity of the group - The younger the group, the more it depends on the leader and requires direct leadership and coaching. The maturity of any group changes as the group interacts.
  • The length of the program - Groups generally build skills over time, so a short course or single-day event encourage direct leadership. The longer a group is together, the greater the opportunity to use more indirect methods.
  • The expressed goals of the program - The outcome will dictate the style of presenting a challenge and debriefing it. Sometimes a group has no agenda except to have fun and get acquainted, which creates more opportunities for multiple activities with little transfer. However, if a group is working on communication or improving problem solving, the choices might be limited and more translation of the experience might occur.
  • The readiness of the group - Some groups can manage safety and conflict because of their experiences together and are ready for more complicated challenges. Other groups take longer to develop the trust necessary to leave the ground or move independently.


Facilitation styles are either direct (i.e., telling or selling) or indirect (i.e., coaching and encouraging while staying focused on the students). The role that a facilitator chooses directly dictates the style of facilitation used. Evidence supports the effectiveness of direct facilitation styles, especially with motivated students. Such a style keeps the leader focused and on task and requires the leader to recognize changes in the group’s climate and have a repertoire of activities that are appropriate for the situation. A new facilitator must practice a variety of behaviors and styles to learn what works with different groups.


Nondirective Facilitation

Nondirective facilitation uses a laissez-faire style in which the facilitator creates an opportunity that allows participants to determine which way to go. Although this style is not always comfortable or appropriate, it can be effective when a leader believes that the students can find their own solution to a problem and find that solution rewarding.


Appreciative Facilitation

Appreciative facilitation emphasizes what works well and concentrates on success and achievement (Greenaway, 2004). Identifying moments when the group is working at its best helps the leader identify and emphasize desired behaviors. Sometimes asking what is going well focuses attention on what is working rather than what is not working. This style is based on research related to the Pygmalion effect: The students become what the teacher believes them to be.


Activity Facilitation

Activity facilitation occurs during a group activity. Greenaway (2004) states, "Sometimes the facilitator may simply be enabling a group to achieve a task in the time available" (paragraph 14). To make experiences more meaningful, the facilitator interjects during the activity to influence what is experienced. Most of the time such influence involves changing the rules in some way. There should always be a clear beginning, middle, and end in activity facilitation. Discussing the goal of the activity in the beginning sets a target for the group to achieve. The middle portion is the actual participation in a game, initiative, or other activity. The end is called when the activity has run its course. Some sort of summary, debriefing, or conclusion increases the value of the experience.


Group Facilitation

Group facilitation can apply to groups in any context. Group dynamics in the outdoors can have a greater effect on a person than the outdoors alone. Even if group development is not a priority, group facilitation skills are necessary to keep the group on task. If a primary goal is team building, then group facilitation is absolutely necessary. At a minimum, outdoor leaders want to build a climate for learning and development (Greenaway, 2004).


Directive Facilitation

Adventure programming is a more directive style of facilitation that leaves little to chance. Priest and Gass (2005) developed categories of facilitation techniques commonly used in outdoor settings. The first two - frontloading and framing the experience - occur before and during the experience.


Frontloading
is prebriefing or setting the stage before an activity. The facilitator tells the group what they should learn from the experience in order to create focus and a reference point. Framing the experience helps a group make sense of it. Stories or metaphors help the group understand how a particular activity relates to their lives outside of the experience. Taking an activity and making it meaningful by relating it to the needs of participants can be powerful. Instead of climbing a rock, participants may be learning to stay focused on life goals. Instead of jumping off a power pole to catch a trapeze, individuals can reach for goals in their lives.


Other facilitation methods proposed by Priest and Gass typically occur after the experience. One is letting the experience speak for itself. Often it is assumed that learning has taken place simply because the individual took part in an experience. Accomplishing a summit climb rarely needs an explanation, for example. After the difficulty of ascending a peak, just being there is enough for most people. Speaking for the experience, on the other hand, allows the facilitator to interpret the experience for the group. By telling the group what they have learned and how they might apply that new knowledge in the future, the facilitator can emphasize desired outcomes or learning.


Debriefing can occur during or after an experience. The facilitator asks the group to reflect on their experience and to identify points of learning. Levels of questions are used to extract different information from the group. Facilitators must be clear about what types of information they want and the group’s ability to respond.

There exist many ways to debrief an experience. Leaders can use journaling, photography, and drawing, to mention a few techniques. Getting thoughtful responses from participants is the key element. Later in this chapter we discuss processing experiences.


When the meaning is not elicited during facilitation, this is just a jump of trust.
When the meaning is not elicited during facilitation, this is just a jump of trust.

©Christine Cashel


Choosing a Facilitation Style

Choosing a style of facilitation is not an easy task. Each style has advantages and disadvantages. Facilitators have their own style based on their values, experience, and personality. Mixing techniques and styles that are different from one’s personal style serves the students at a moment in time. Knowing when to take charge, when to back off, and when to negotiate has to do with the situation, the group, the task at hand, and the facilitator’s personal style. Over time, facilitators learn when and where to apply a variety of techniques, just as Karen learned to set herself up for success by figuring out which facilitation style worked for her. Establishing an effective facilitation style takes time, practice, and being facilitated by others.

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