Facilitator or Trainer?

Photo on 05-05-2012 at 17.41I used to be an IT trainer and I was very good(so I thought) at telling people what to do and how to do it (in the IT arena that is). Whilst I was training with IBM, I was sent on a number of training courses and one of them was a week long facilitation skills course in a very lovely location in Hampshire. To say I was unhappy about the choice of course, was an understatement. I was fuming! As far as I was concerned, facilitation was for soft skills trainers, who liked to draw things out of their delegates. It was not for techies like me who had some serious knowledge to impart. Asking questions was only going to slow the process down!

So on the course, I took a very mature approach and sulked most of the week. On the Thursday afternoon we were given topics to either present or facilitate for the final session on Friday. That meant some evening work. I would be “happy” as long as I did not have to do any facilitation on the final day. But guess what? I was given the task of facilitating a discussion on “Power bases for trainers”. Not a subject I knew very much about, which firstly freaked me out a little. How would I stand up in front of a group of trainers and facilitate on a subject I knew very little (if anything) about? Panic!!

My second response was, okay so now that I have been landed with this, let me throw it back at them (they were not going to make a fool out of me!) and I will just ask loads of questions of the group and record their answers.  In the 15 minutes it took me to prepare, I realised that I had the least amount of work to do in comparison to my other colleagues, but I was still not won over – it was about retaliation!

Starting the facilitated discussion, I was nervous (although I hid it well) but the more responses I got, the less nervous I got. The session, sort of ran itself really; a few questions, some nods and grunts in the right places, from me and a bit of flipchart recording. I was quite pleased with myself – I had really shown them! I was not defeated – I ran a facilitated discussion and did the minimum preparation I could get away with and spent the rest of the evening gloating with a gin and tonic while the others furiously prepared for their sessions.

By nature I am a pragmatist and hence the struggle – I could not see how this was ever going to apply to what I do as an IT trainer. Reflection was not a normal occupation for me. But as I did reflect on the experience I did take away something quite valuable:

  1. I could stand up in front of people and help them learn, without being an expert
  2. When you “tell” in a training session, even if the learners look like they are engaged, they could be dreaming about anything – dinner, holidays or the weekend
  3. When you ask a learner a question, even if it is rhetorical, the brain tries search for an answer

The last one has had the biggest impact on me, because I understand now that learner engagement can be boosted by asking (relevant) questions. It is as simple as that.

So the blog is called “Facilitator or Trainer?” and those people in knowledge heavy training areas such as IT, Financial Services, process, H&S etc may be answering “trainer” – because you have to do a certain amount of telling in these subjects. True, but consider Tim Gallwey’s model below:

Tim Gallwey


During any learning/training the facilitator slips between these three roles:

  1. They have to be the trainer when they are setting out the objectives, instructing and getting the learners to follow the agenda
  2. They can be a facilitator by being neutral and asking questions to draw the learners to the conclusions they need to make and to engage them
  3. They should, themselves be a learner to observe what is going on in the room to adapt accordingly

So do we need to choose between the two? Or can we seamlessly glide between Tim Gallwey’s 3 roles? I will leave you to answer that for yourselves……..


12 thoughts on “Facilitator or Trainer?

  1. biggeoff says:

    I’m a bit of an extremist on this topic, positing that there is no such thing as a trainer. The implications of being a trainer are that your role is to inject knowledge into other people’s brains. How does this work, I wonder – if they don’t get it do we shout louder, repeat in words of one syllable or what?
    No, even when we are ‘training’ our role is really to facilitate the learning of our trainees. They all learn in different ways and at different paces, so I need to offer different learning paths.
    Just think – nobody ‘trained’ you to walk or talk, but they did offer support and feedback and praise for success.

  2. Love your extremist view as I am sure it will cause people to think! I would agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts that we cannot shout louder, or repeat things and get people to learn, but there are trainers out there who still hold the view that their knowledge is primary to any skills they might have in making the learning appealing, inviting and inspirational.

    When I was first an IT trainer, I too believed that my knowledge on the subjects I trained in was paramount, so much so that I spent far too much time preparing and not enough time thinking about how they could “learn to learn”.

    Keep your comments coming – like the debate!

  3. Andy says:

    Quote: “I could stand up in front of people and help them learn, without being an expert”

    As a SME, I would feel very uncomfortable having to facilitate a topic which I know very little about. The following hypothetical questions came to my mind:
    1. What if the learners do not know the answer to the questions I raised? (Don’t forget that I know very little about this topic)
    2. What if the learners do not respond and from your answer could tell that you know very little?

    These are my 2 cents worth

  4. Good quote Andy – I would love to know who said that. My take on facilitation is this:
    1) It can include asking questions and powerful questions will engage the learners much more than “telling”
    2) It is not exclusively about asking questions – there are other ways*
    3) There are many facilitation techniques out there that are applicable to knowledge heavy subjects
    4) Facilitate means to “make easy” and I personally do not find it easy learn purely by being told

    If you want to know a little more there is a great blog by a colleague of mine, Kevin Faulkner, that is worth a read:

    *Just as an example – why not, split the learners into small groups, give them some learning materials and get them to teach back to the rest of the group the part they have researched? That way they discover for themselves and you get to fill in the gaps!

  5. Andy says:

    The quote was from the blog post.

    I like your suggestion of splitting the learners into small groups, give them the learning materials and get them to teach back to the rest of the groups.

  6. That is just one of many things you can do Andy – shame I did not have all these tricks up my sleeve when I was an IT trainer with IBM all those years ago!
    Just joking about the quote Andy – in isolation any quote can be used in a way that it was not intended.
    “I could stand up in front of people and help them learn, without being an expert” was a key learning point for ME and it did not mean that I could get away with knowing nothing, just that it took the pressure off me to become an expert when actually a reasonable amount of knowledge would have been sufficient.

  7. Andy says:

    Thanks for the clarification 🙂
    I have only started to learn facilitation and I must admit that I still feel uncomfortable with the switch.
    If I may ask, can you share with me what other things I can do to facilitate heavy technical content?
    Thank you in anticipation.

  8. I think the key thing with heavy technical content is that you can quickly overload your learners, so the sessions you run should be as engaging as possible.

    One idea would be to “flip” the content – give them in Module 1, some work they need to do before they attend. Then in module 2 they get to practice it and imbed it. Module 3, tests their knowledge afterwards. Module 4, their line manager gets to play and sees what impact it has had on their performance.

    Chunk information, use mnemonics and ask them “how are you going to remember this” if they really need to commit something to memory. Then get them in groups to do this. Let them be creative in their approach to learning and remembering.

    I could write all day about this Andy, as my specialism is accelerated learning and I dearly love to work with trainers. I run workshops occasionally open ones but mostly in-house for trainers – learning about accelerated learning, some NLP, some creativity…..and lots more.

    Have a look at my website for some more info on accelerated learning:

    Also I have a recorded webinar you could watch to discover the “5 secrets of accelerated learning”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFVftibACos

  9. Interesting learning Krystyna. I found out many years ago that, as an IT Training Professional, it was possible to facilitate learning without having to impart serious knowledge ‘at’ my learners. It was such a revelation that I created a Train the Trainer programme specifically designed for IT trainers, called Excellent Learning Facilitation in 1998. It’s still a revelation to me that there are people who do anything other than facilitate learning, regardless of the topic. Good to see that you’re the same.

    Jooli Atkins FBCS, CITP

  10. I meet a lot of trainers, Jooli and it amazes (and then amuses) me when they think facilitation or accelerated learning does not apply to “techie” or knowledge heavy subjects. I love to wait and hear that penny drop!!

  11. Janice Twidale says:

    I’ve just completed a year of providing training to Central Government on new procurement methods. I am definitely not an expert on EU procurement regulations but I do know about Lean which is how the new method was devised. Without a facilitation approach to the training sessions I would have been lost.
    Its vitally important as trainers that we don’t forget – we are the expert in the room in how to transfer knowledge from us and our materials into the delegates in the best way for them to absorb it and more importantly retain it. The delegates may well have significantly more expert knowledge of the subject matter, but they just need a refresher or an opportunity to experience some “lightbulb” moments to quote Mr Faulkner!

    Even if facilitation doesn’t come naturally to you, theres always something different you can try to challenge your own perception of how a group will take on board the knowledge they need. One trick I’ve seen from a colleague which I love ( when used sparingly) is when you are faced with a difficult question and the answer isn’t quite there at the front of your brain: Ask the Audience.

    “Yes that’s an interesting one, how does everyone else feel about that?” would be her response: it opens a discussion; it engages the delegates; it allows people to think and reflect; but it also gives the trainer time to think and confirm the responses from the group rather than appear as the font of all knowledge.

  12. Thanks Janice – I hope your experience encourages other trainers with similarly “difficult” subjects to take your lead in facilitation!

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