Engaging with the Public: A series of best practice tip sheets
What type of facilitator will help the most?
Tip: Consider when to use an internal or external facilitator
Groups need meetings that make progress, and good facilitation can make this possible. A skilled facilitator, or process manager, designs an effective process and guides the discussion so that it gets results. Facilitators can be either internal to your group, or external. Both types have advantages and disadvantages. In this tip sheet, we discuss the pros and cons of both. We answer the question:
What type of facilitator can best help our group make progress?
Internal and external facilitation
Facilitators design and support sound processes for calling a group together; they pay attention to the how of a meeting. Groups should carefully consider who is in charge of the how of the meeting.
An internal facilitator carries the dual role of guiding, while also being a member of the group. This is a common role for managers and supervisors. An external facilitator is someone who is not a member of the group. When deciding whether a meeting should use an internal or external facilitator, consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Internal facilitation taps people who are part of the organization, project, or community as process managers. In organizations, these are often middle or upper-level staff members with skills in guiding group discussions, processes and decision-making. In communities, they may be elected officials or staff people. Internal facilitators may or may not have knowledge or expertise in the technical/content issues that are being discussed.
- Internal facilitators often have detailed knowledge about the issue being discussed.
- They have knowledge of the history and context of the situation.
- They have knowledge of, or relationships with, many of the participants and stakeholders.
- They may cost less than hiring an external facilitator.
- Internal facilitators may have untested assumptions and biases about the issue, as well as the history of the situation.
- Group members may perceive an internal facilitator as biased for or against certain participants, stakeholders or decisions.
- Internal facilitators may not want to risk their position within a group or community by asking difficult or controversial questions.
- They may be reluctant to challenge people in positional power for fear of retribution.
External facilitation taps people from outside the organization, activity or community as process managers. An external facilitator's primary interest is to guide a process that assists the group in discussing and taking action on issues. An external facilitator should have no vested interest in supporting a specific decision.
- External facilitators typically create an atmosphere of neutral or unbiased facilitation.
- They bring fresh perspectives and new questions to the discussion.
- They are willing to ask difficult questions and confront assumptions.
- They can move the group forward when dealing with difficult or controversial issues.
- External facilitation requires time for the facilitator to become familiar with the issue, context, participants and stakeholders involved.
- External facilitators may be viewed as outsiders and not respected or trusted.
- They typically require a fee for their services.
- They may only be present for a portion of a larger process/series of questions.
When groups are going to meet, an important early decision is what type of facilitator — internal or external — will help your group make its best progress on goals. When the type of facilitator matches the needs of the meeting, effective meetings are more possible.
Block, P. (2000). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
Boyce, K. (2005). Internal and external facilitation: A comparison. Fact sheet. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension.
Schwarz, R. (2002). The skilled facilitator—new and revised. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Tip sheet prepared by Lisa Hinz, Assistant Extension Professor and Educator, Leadership and Civic Engagement