The evaluator as facilitator: Considerations for good facilitation practice

Ijeoma Ezeofor
five playmobil figures around a circular table

Before I joined TCC Group as an evaluation and learning consultant, I was a therapist. My days consisted of listening to people as they tried to navigate and make meaning of their lives.

It was during this season of my life that I came to be a steadfast believer in the importance of having good facilitation skills. Good facilitation skills are essential for drawing out meaningful insights during an exchange.

For evaluators, there is a high price for bad facilitation: Without our knowing, we may favor our own priorities, forget participants’ needs, submerge stakeholder voices, hide underlying causes, and undermine the impact of our work…

Dr. Rita Fierro, CEO of Fierro Consulting,LLC and Past AEA Board Member

Today, working as an evaluation consultant, I am struck by how much of my work involves this same practice of helping people navigate and make meaning of their experiences or the experiences of others. However, despite the ubiquity of facilitation in evaluation, it has been my unfortunate observation that attention to facilitation as a core skill for evaluators has been scant in training programs and the field at-large. 

From moderating focus groups to leading capacity building sessions to presenting findings, evaluators must frequently lean into our roles as facilitators. Federica Bottamedi, a communication specialist in the Office of Evaluation for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in writing about the importance of facilitation in evaluation explains, “People lie at the heart of evaluation, beyond tools, methods and approaches…People provide the wisdom; we need to be good enough to harvest it. Facilitation helps to do exactly that.” The researchers Miri Levin-Rozalis and Barbara Rosenstein note that as evaluators move towards a focus on organizational learning, this “transforms the role of the evaluator to one of knowledgeable facilitator.” And yet as Tessie Catsambas, past president of AEA writes, while “every part of every evaluation that involves contact with people needs to be facilitated… evaluation instruction has traditionally emphasized methods, leaving out facilitation competencies.” 

An evaluator should play a facilitator role during the evaluation. The evaluator should assist different stakeholders to ‘discover ideas, answers, and solutions within their own mind…

- Dr. Heng Luo, Assistant Professor, Central China Normal University

The dictionary defines facilitation as the act of “mak[ing] easier or less difficult; help[ing] forward (an action, a process, etc.)” Every day, evaluators do this by taking complex ideas, disparate experiences, and unwieldy data and helping make meaning of them for our clients. Evaluators are well-poised to assume the role of facilitator. Many of us have an instinctive curiosity that predisposes us to want to hear from many voices, to explore where there are commonalities and differences in the things we’re observing, and to help draw out, with and/or for others that which might be most insightful and actionable in their own work. 

There are potentially four points in the evaluation process when facilitation to support group learning and improved understanding might be particularly relevant:

  • Framing the evaluation – Facilitation skills are crucial for clarifying the intended uses and developing key questions for an evaluation.
  • Collecting the data – There are a number of types of data that require effective facilitation skills in order to gather quality data. In addition, when the data collection process is intended to also foment group learning, capable facilitation is required.
  • Meaning-making – The evaluator is arguably, first and foremost, a facilitator at this point. Working with a group to make meaning of the evaluation results calls on the evaluator to tend to group learning, group dynamics, and flows of discourse in the way a facilitator must. 
  • Promoting the use of findings – This might involve facilitating discussions on the development of recommendations, the practical implementation of those recommendations, or being involved in developing action plans on the basis of an existing evaluation report.

It is not a huge leap for a good evaluator to become a good facilitator. For an evaluator that is looking to improve their facilitation skills, there is no shortage of resources, guides, and how-tos that exist for how to conduct effective facilitation. For example, Dr. Michael Quinn Patton, a luminary in the field of evaluation, has published on the subject of facilitation in evaluation in his book, Facilitating Evaluation: Principles in Practice. And online resources, such as the International Association of Facilitators website, abound. If  the vastness of those resources is a bit overwhelming, a favorite resource of mine is the handy Checklist for Effective Facilitation from the National School Reform Faculty. Additionally, if you are looking to continue sharpening your facilitation skills, some colleagues and I will soon be publishing a blog post with reflections on what it means to conduct anti-oppressive facilitation.

Over my many years of facilitating groups, I have also developed a short list of the things I have found to be especially valuable for good facilitation. In my experience, good facilitators possess a range of tools in their toolbox and when needed, they are comfortable and confident pulling out and using any one of them. Among those tools, here are the ones that always seem to be in heavy rotation:

Checking unchecked assumptions

Unchecked assumptions can be the death knell of learning and subvert the learning process. The role of the evaluator-facilitator is to foster learning, and when claims are made without the due diligence of examining, questioning, or challenging them, there is a risk of the group not learning or learning the “wrong” thing. An important part of the job of the facilitator is to listen for what assumptions are going unchecked in the group. As a matter of course, the group should be allowed the time and space to react to the material of the meeting (e.g. evaluation findings, a presentation, other participants’ comments). But as the discussion unfolds and evolves, the evaluator should attend to any assumptions, misunderstandings, or misinterpretations that could undermine the groups learning. To do this, the evaluator becomes what researchers Sharon Rallis and Gretchen Rossman described as the “critical friend,” that is, “one who is willing to question the status quo…[to] raise questions that are essential, that explore the heart of the issue, and the tentative and speculative nature of any answers.” This is an opportunity for the evaluator in their facilitator role to be the critical friend and gently push the group to interrogate anything they may be taking for granted in their discussion about the topic of interest. A non-confrontational way to check unchecked assumptions might be to inquire, “Now, let’s imagine that (unchecked assumption) weren’t true, how might we interpret things differently?” 

Modelling curiosity

Sometimes when an evaluator presents their findings, the audience will take it as gospel. They may ask some technical questions or questions about how to use the findings, but it is less common that they will question the findings. And this is not a bad thing – after all, they hired the evaluator because of their expertise and their trust in the evaluator’s ability to do good work. But a good evaluator-facilitator will want to help their clients learn how to think about making meaning of the findings for themselves. One way to do this is to model curiosity about the findings for the clients. When presenting the data, being comfortable to ask questions about your own findings or disclosing things to the client that were head-scratching findings can be one way to encourage clients to look at the findings with their own critical eye. Some consultants might be remiss to present themselves or their findings in a way that suggests that they do not have total confidence in their findings or their interpretations of the findings. But modeling a curious stance is not about a lack of confidence in the findings but a recognition that learning comes from wrestling with different meanings of the findings. Personally, I have many examples of saying to the groups I have facilitated things like, “I wasn’t expecting to see this, and it made me wonder if…” or, “…but I’m curious if others have a different interpretation of what this might mean.” 

Emphasizing group participation

A good facilitator is mindful of who is and who is not speaking or participating. Are one or a handful of people the frequent flyers, the ones dominating the conversation? Sometimes this might be due to people’s information processing style with some people needing time to process the information. Other times, however, less vocal participants may be assuming that those who are speaking up the most must understand things better than them or are better positioned to be the spokesperson for the group. When an evaluator observes this happening, it is a good idea for the evaluator to invite the people whose voices have not been heard to share their thoughts on the issue or topic. Another option is to jot down ideas that will be shared over the course of the meeting. Everyone needs to be involved in the learning process and by not having full group participation the group misses out on the opportunity to learn from the collective wisdom of the whole group. 

Sitting with silence

This is probably one of my favorite group facilitation practices. That moment after a statement is made or a question has been asked and there is just silence. Something is happening in that silence - minds are at work. As the facilitator, one may want to fill that space, believing that the silence means the group is uncertain about what to say next, or in disagreement about what has been said, or is simply disengaged. For many reasons it can be uncomfortable and even anxiety-inducing to sit in the silence. But in trying to fill up the space the facilitator can inadvertently communicate that there is something wrong with the silence and prematurely cut off the time needed for folks to process the information that was just shared. When the facilitator allows the silence to stand they communicate that silence is part of the process and they encourage an ethos in which folks feel okay to be in that space rather than to feel rushed to fill the gap. This can also be great for people who need more time to process their thoughts as it sets a group norm that taking time to prepare one’s reaction is okay. Having silent moments for information processing is a really useful tool for group learning, and frequently these moments will occur without much effort from the facilitator. However, sometimes the facilitator might need to manufacture the silent time. For facilitators looking to incorporate more silent time into their meetings, consider saying something such as, “Let’s take 60 seconds as a group to let what we’ve just heard settle in before we share our reactions.”  

I encourage evaluators to ask and answer the question of whether they want to be as good a facilitator as they are a methodologist, analyst, theorist, writer, or any other role. I hope the answer is yes, and as we continue thinking about the evolving value proposition of evaluation, I hope we will start to see – just as we saw with evaluators adopting a learning partner frame – more evaluators not only begin to embrace their role as a facilitator, but take pride in being a good facilitator.

The more skilled evaluators are in facilitation, the more effective they will be in working through the issues and challenges that arise during typical evaluations.”

- Tessie Catsambas, CEO/CFO of EnCompass LLC and Past AEA President