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Facilitating a training can be very different than the kind of teaching that takes place often in schools. Traditionally, a teacher is a person who primarily disseminates knowledge. Facilitation, on the other hand, involves accompanying people during a learning process in which they develop competencies. Facilitators create the right conditions for individuals to form knowledge and skills in a self-directed way, according to their specific needs. This is one aspect of empowerment. Our profession is better understood with a new definition: a shift from teaching to facilitating, moderating, and encouraging.

Focus on Existing Knowledge

Facilitation seeks to focus on an individual’s pre-existing knowledge, skills, and potential. In teacher-centered learning, the teacher is the cook and hopes that the group will enjoy the dish and its ingredients. In a facilitative approach, everyone cooks. In the best-case scenario, everybody is given the recipe, the ingredients and spices that help him or her best. The simple sentence “Yes, you can” expresses the facilitator's confidence in the learner. But it only works when you really believe in what you are saying. Do you trust in your learner's capacity to act successfully? This is described as Resource Orientation.

This example makes clear that facilitation is more than simply allowing each person to do whatever they want. Facilitators still use specific knowledge. Facilitation involves granting your participants’ experience and knowledge more relevance than it has in traditional teaching. In this sense, facilitation is a step toward sharing expertise and appreciation.

Situational and Shared Leadership

Knowledge and experience represent the two sides of a coin when it comes to the kinds of learning that take place in facilitation or in traditional teaching. The difference between empowerment and traditional education lies in the attitude toward the target group of people learning. A facilitative attitude seeks to connect experience in a seminar room with, life experiences, and knowledge in the most useful way.

Participants or learners usually know which approaches, topics, and learning styles work well for them. As a facilitator, your methodological skills help them bring their motivation and interests into play, and help foster a collaborative learning process. Facilitators help learners to find motivation, identify goals, develop action strategies, reflect on their existing skills, and identify challenges.

This has consequences for your position within the group. In traditional educational settings, the role of a facilitator is clear – their place is standing in front of the group. According to our philosophy, this is somewhat different: As facilitators, sometimes we still stand in front of the group, but more often we’re in the background, observing from the sidelines, acting as moderators or coaches. Sometimes participants even take the lead.1

The challenge is to find the position that works best for the learning process as a whole. With regard to your role, you might face specific questions, such as: Do I need to explain something here or should I focus on active group work? What part of the explanation that I have prepared is really useful?



When the boundaries between facilitator and participants become more fluid, challenges for facilitators can arise. Sharing the same values and vision of a participative and pluralistic civil society is a prerequisite for creating a trusting atmosphere where participants can open themselves to others. On the other hand, situations continually crop up where facilitators have to give orientation, act as a role model, or inspire others through their own experience or expertise.


In a shared and holistic learning environment, facilitators are also included in the process, on cognitive, experiential, and emotional levels. Our relation to the participants has a direct impact on the learning process. The challenge is to establish a trusting relationship with our participants while still keeping the intended outcome in mind, unless the facilitator is primarily responsible for achieving it. In other words: We are part of the game, but are also partners with a larger responsibility for the whole. A good relationship between facilitators and learners may lead to an experience where learning and facilitation feel like they are taking place more or less automatically – a nice process for both parties. More: Constructive Relation

Participatory Facilitation

Participation refers to the various mechanisms people use to express their opinions and exert influence on social decision-making. Genuine participation takes place through partnership, in which a negotiation process is used to distribute power between facilitators and the people learning (in a civic engagement, this occurs between citizens and power holders). In this process, decision-making is shared.

For example,

  • You wouldn’t just propose two alternatives, but would ask open-ended questions about what participants want to learn.
  • You would let them co-decide what content and methods they would like to use.

Following this logic, the highest level of participation involves people taking action and making decisions about their situations independently.

  • You might delegate your power to participants and let them act as experts in front of the group.
  • You might have them conduct a training or unit among themselves, independently from you.


Focusing on individual needs implies the insight that everybody is different. Our participants have different styles, attitudes, experiences, or cultural and social backgrounds. Most school systems often tend to homogenize this diversity. Facilitation means to respect and even to appreciate the(se) difference(s) as a resource. In the best-case scenario everyone gains from the realization that different roads may lead to similar goals and that it is often the other strategy that might help you in your work.

On the other hand the challenges are clear. First, when taking consciousness of diversity seriously, we need to integrate it into real life conditions of limited time resources, a heterogeneous, not always consensusoriented group, and an environment outside our working place, where diversity is seen as something alien. Second, when individuals or groups violate our non-violent and democratic principles – these need to be (re)established. Diversity consciousness is a learning field and therefore we cannot assume that everybody recognizes our values. Furthermore, our task is to act as role models and to convince through authentic and credible action.

Dealing with differing opinions and conflict

How can we bring people together in times of conflict? How can we overcome the gap that racism, terrorism, war and other forms of violence create in our societies and in our minds? We better should acknowledge that conflict and violence exist in the world around us and are therefore “silent visitors” in our earning space. And honestly speaking – wouldn't it be boring to live on an island of harmony without disagreement and contrasting opinions? Therefore, we facilitate the skill of learning to live with disagreement and conflicts.

Conflict occurs when a person has a need and that need is not met. In conflicts, at least two parties are involved (individuals, groups, states, etc.). At times, it can seem that meeting one party’s need is incompatible with meeting the other party’s need. Every conflict has its positive and negative sides, and these depend on various factors. However, we know that conflicts are disruptive and can be destructive. But conflicts also contribute to the creation of positive relationships and to the improvement of bad relationships through transformation. By employing good conflict management, facilitators improve the quality and efficiency of communication in a group and equip participants with conflict management skills: Conflict Management

Staying open to self-development

Facilitators stimulate others’ learning processes and create spaces for it. This implies the use of dynamic lenses to be able to observe group processes, foresee needs and motivations, and codesign the process accordingly. As shown in the text above this is a question of knowledge and the ability to apply methods, however to question proven or conforming ways of teaching starts with a shift in the attitude toward the learners and toward learning. More: The Facilitation Mindset.

Facilitation is as well a space for the facilitator's individual learning processes. Therefore, facilitators using the holistic approach develop skills and abilities to learn from a variety of experiences and in diverse contexts: formal and non-formal, group settings and individual personal interactions, outdoors and indoors, when communicating to a broader public and conveying messages but also in their own private lives. In other words, being a facilitator and imparting holistic learning, means committing to being a lifelong learner.

New paradigms of facilitation

  • Resource orientation instead of deficit orientation
  • Shaping cooperative and collaborative learning environments
  • Emphasis on the applicability of the learning outcome
  • Consciously building connections between different kind of learnings
  • Mobilizing empathy for the needs of learners, accepting their positions and trying to understand them
  • Training the competence of systemic thinking and of reflective (self-) observation

Elke Heublein

Co-founder of Working Between Cultures. Co-author of Holistic learning. Facilitator since 2004, certified intercultural facilitator (Institute for Intercultural Communikation, LMU München) and trainer (IHK Akademie München/Westerham), adult education (Foundation University Hildesheim). Focus: Cooperation and leadership in heterogenouos teams, higher education, train-the-trainer.

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: office@dare-network.eu

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