The simplest form of facilitation entails ensuring that all
involved have a chance to speak and that the meeting starts and
ends on time. Any group member can do this, especially if the
group agrees to support them at it. (It can help to rotate the
responsibility, giving all group members a turn at it. Participants
rapidly come to appreciate what a creative challenge facilitiation
is -- it is simple, but not necessarily easy. Everyone is then
more respectful when their peers try to play the role.) Alternatively
an experienced facilitator can be brought in. This is especially
necessary during a one-time event, or with people who don't know
each other, or with a group that hasn't had good success facilitating
themselves. Finally, the role can be held by one or a few group
members who develop special skills in it -- or even, in a mature,
consensus-oriented group, shared by all group members equally
all the time (i.e., no one is "the facilitator" but
the functions of faciltation are carried out by any and all participants
in a fluid way as the meeting proceeds).
Good facilitators always explain their approach and get some agreement from the group as to what is going to happen. In a regularly-meeting group, this may just involve getting agreement on the agenda. Some facilitators discuss broad dialogue guidelines with participants and get them to agree to try applying them. Often such guidelines are posted on a wall where they can be referred to during the dialogue.
The facilitator says that he or she will be trying to shepherd the conversation along the guidelines described. Then the facilitator lets people talk, giving them gentle reminders as necessary.
Of course, to the extent all participants are brief, mindful, and curious about what each other has to say, little formal facilitation or gimmicks are necessary to ensure healthy dialogue.
There are many approaches to facilitation. My favorite collection of them, unified with a brilliant model of how groups operate, is the Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al. (New Society, 1996) -- a very understandable guide to facilitated consensus process, organized so that pieces can be copied and used by the group.
See also Tree Bressen's Facilitation Points.
Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA). ICA/Chicago, 4750 N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago, IL 60640; 312-769-6393. Offers facilitation and group process trainings in U.S. cities and internationally. http://www.icaworld.org/.
International Association of Facilitators (IAF). 7630 W. 145th St., Suite 202, St. Paul, MN 55124; 612-891-3541; email@example.com; http://www.iaf-world.org. Sponsors an annual conference, publishes a journal.
See also consensus and dynamic facilitation