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The 9 roles of a good facilitator of art discussions

Facilitation is a key part of the Visible Thinking in the Museum method. But developing the skills of a good facilitator is an art form in itself – it requires practice and patience. So, what does good facilitation look like? And what roles will you be expected to play? 

1. Coordinator

You are the person who ensures the session goes well – this means that everyone stays on track and on time, everyone understands their roles, and feels a part of the process. It’s part of your job as a facilitator to manage the discussion – and that means keeping an eye on timings too. Don’t be afraid to interject and re-focus the discussion if needed. While some participants may offer a few words in answer to your questions, others might go on for much longer. 
A good facilitator can steer the conversation back on course by politely interjecting with questions at appropriate moments ‘If I may stop you for a moment…’ Asking additional questions like these will help you to maintain the control and flow of the discussion whilst also making your participants feel understood and valued.
A good facilitator can also close a discussion where necessary – by asking for just one more response or using a thinking routine like Headlines to capture the essence of the discussion and then move on.

2. Catalyst

As a facilitator of an art or object discussion, you’re actually responsible for making the discussion happen, for getting people involved and encouraging quieter group members to take part. You want to stimulate discussion and foster curiosity and excitement. It’s often a balancing act between asking the right questions and making people feel comfortable and happy to participate and get involved. Following a simple structure for your discussion based on observation-description-interpretation-wondering-conclusion using a combination of thinking routines will also free up head space to allow you to be more creative with your groups and will give you more energy to focus on what they are saying too.

3. Learning Facilitator

Imagine yourself as a facilitator of learning within your sessions. You guide and activate learning, whilst encouraging the skills necessary to discuss the artwork or object at hand. You are there to spark curiosity and wonder. You also set the conditions for learning to take place, you decide when, where and how much information to share – if any!

4. Listener

Everyone thinks they’re a good listener – but how good are your skills really? Active listening involves listening with all senses. You need to focus on what the person is saying and the words they are using. Be aware of the tone they are using and any emotions that may be coming across. Pay attention to their body language, make appropriate eye contact with them and give verbal encouragement. Oh, and you need to embrace silences too.

5. Observer

You are also an observer of your group. You watch your group for signs (body language, verbal clues) to indicate where to take the discussion next. You pay attention to creating a great group dynamic, establish trust, credibility and reliability. You will want to notice any signs that group members are uncomfortable or getting restless and act upon them. Observation is a key part of good facilitation.

6. Rapport Builder

Building great relationships and rapport between participants is hugely  important in making your programmes not just successful but memorable too. It’s important to bring people together, to make them feel socially comfortable and ‘at home’ in your session. When they feel rapport in the group, they are more likely to take part and ask questions. In a group with a good rapport, group members trust one another and they are happy working together towards a collective understanding of what you’re discussing.  As a side note, when a team has a positive dynamic, its members are nearly twice as creative as an average group.
As a facilitator, it’s so important to work on establishing a good group camaraderie right from the start. You will need to take conscious, deliberate steps to make it happen. 

7. Communication Enabler

This is a overly wordy way of saying that you are making sure that communication happens. You ensure that everyone feels at ease participating by paying attention to the language you use and the feedback you give to participants. If you are interested in hearing a wide range of comments from all participants, giving feedback without any implied judgement is essential. Aim to give neutral, non-judgemental feedback to anyone that contributes to a group discussion and to respond to everyone equally. This sets the tone of fairness within the group.
You also use conditional language to signal multiple interpretations and possibilities and deploy your verbal skills to facilitate engaging conversations.

8. Climate-Setter

By setting the climate, I mean that you set the tone and share guidelines with the group for the session. This helps to set expectations at the start and encourages everyone to go along with the agreed-upon guidelines. You could also draft your own introduction to set the tone for the session and share the guidelines positively. You should also establish a safe and open environment so that the participants feel comfortable and are happy to share their views openly and honestly.

8. Motivator and Energiser

Depending on the length of your session or perhaps the subject matter, you may find that there are moments when the group needs a boost or an injection of energy. As a facilitator, you should be prepared to re-energise the group and motivate them for the task at hand. This could involve you thinking on your feet and improvising an activity or question, or changing the pace. If participants have been standing or sitting still for a long time, get them up and moving around. A change in pace or an unexpected twist will help to motivate and reinvigorate the group. It can even be as simple as getting people to switch positions (or, if virtual, changing their view). Similarly, you should start and end your session by bringing the energy to the room (virtually or in-person).
So, what are your facilitation skills like? Which of these roles do you regularly play? For more information about facilitation skills, see A Quick Guide to Facilitation Skills

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

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