A client called a facilitator and said, “What I need is a strategic plan.” The facilitator, assuming that what the client wanted was a complete ToP Strategic Planning Process, planned to do a complete strategic plan. When the facilitator arrived at the site for the first session, the group was confused about why they were there – they already had a strategic plan, and refused to participate in another. Half of the planned session time was taken up with renegotiating what the group needed, and everyone (including the facilitator) was annoyed.

A different client wanted some audience participation in a conference on health care, with some documentation of the results. The facilitator assumed that the documentation was to be verbatim, with some simple prose summaries of the input, and contracted to charge for only a half day of writing up the results. When the results were sent in, the client disclosed that one of the funders was a university who wanted a very complete academic analysis of the results pulled together by the facilitator. The facilitator spent 2 weeks writing the paper, having only been paid for a half day of work.

Understanding what the client really needs sounds so easy, doesn’t it! However, there are real challenges! This is why the IAF competencies framework includes a whole competency section on “working collaboratively with the client”. This competency refers to the work with the client to design the facilitated event, as well as to adapt the plan during the session and ensure follow-up.

Usually a client or sponsor presents with a request. “I need teambuilding.” Or “We need a strategic plan.” Often the request comes in words that have many different meanings.
If you have a favourite tool or process that you know works, it is very easy to interpret that that’s what the client needs. It is much harder to put your assumptions on hold and listen carefully to what is underneath the presenting request.

Sometimes the client has not thought through their real needs, or is out of touch with what the group is struggling with. They need someone to help them articulate the background of the situation and to look beneath the surface desires to the real needs, and the impact that they want the intervention to have on the group.

Sometimes a client asks for a specific process or plans out the steps in detail before contacting the facilitator without thinking about the results they need or knowing the best way to get to results for a particular topic.

Be prepared to spend a significant time talking with the client (or internal sponsor) to understand not only what they think they want, but what they really need. You may even need to talk with others who have a stake in the results, to discern what the central issue really is.

This is the invisible but highly important part of facilitation – the careful listening and planning that comes before the actual event. Beatrice Brigg’s video “What Do Facilitators Do?” uses the metaphor of “architect” to describe this role.
We share some tools for collaborating with your client or internal sponsor in the accompanying article.

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