A facilitator is someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains "neutral" meaning he/she does not take a particular position in the discussion. Some facilitator tools will try to assist the group in achieving a consensus on any disagreements that preexist or emerge in the meeting so that it has a strong basis for future action.
There are a variety of definitions for facilitator:
- "An individual who enables groups and organizations to work more effectively; to collaborate and achieve synergy. He or she is a 'content neutral' party who by not taking sides or expressing or advocating a point of view during the meeting, can advocate for fair, open, and inclusive procedures to accomplish the group's work" - Doyle
- "One who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions. A helper and enabler whose goal is to support others as they achieve exceptional performance" - Bens
- "The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding and cultivates shared responsibility. By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements" - Kaner
The concept of authority (of the facilitator) is one which can cause confusion. Heron espouses three alternates (initially in the educational context) as being:
- Tutelary Authority - based on the competences and skills of the Tutor/Facilitator
- Political Authority - involving the exercise of educational decision-making with respect to the objectives, programme, methods, resources and assessment of learning. (This manifests particularly in the planning dimension.)
- Charismatic Authority - influence by presence, style and manner. (It manifests particularly through the feeling, confronting and valuing dimensions.) However it is quite possible to draw from this the requirements for a facilitator to be clear how they are operating in any environment.
Facilitators necessarily require authority to chair a meeting, or serve mediator or moderator or arbitrator functions, for instance in managing a progressive stack in which some speakers are preferred over others because they are more affected by a decision or have generally less voice. A contentious issue for instance in the Occupy movement. Disputes regarding the exercise of contentious authority functions probably require reference to all available skills and invoke deference to several kinds of authority. For instance, in the progressive stack example, the facilitator must refer to the political need to represent victims or voiceless persons, but must do so with the most charismatic and convincing voice, to avoid backlash upon those victims or voiceless persons. They will also need skill to ensure efficiently hearing the maximum number of people, so that contention to airtime is minimized. In other consensus decision-making contexts, facilitators will need to distinguish between levels of urgency of a situation to establish consent threshold required, and again this may require reference to the political context, and the ability of the group to convince others (charismatically) that the decision was "fair".
Business facilitators work in business, and other formal organisations but facilitators may also work with a variety of other groups and communities. It is a tenet of facilitation that the facilitator will not lead the group towards the answer that he/she thinks is best even if they possess an opinion on the subject matter. The facilitator's role is to make it easier for the group to arrive at its own answer, decision, or deliverable.
This can and does give rise to organisational conflict between hierarchical management and theories and practice of empowerment. Facilitators often have to navigate between the two, especially where overt statements about empowerment are not being borne out by organisational behaviours.
Training facilitators are used in adult education. These facilitators are not always subject experts, and attempt to draw on the existing knowledge of the participant(s), and to then facilitate access to training where gaps in knowledge are identified and agreed on. Training facilitators focus on the foundations of adult education: establish existing knowledge, build on it and keep it relevant. The role is different from a trainer with subject expertise. Such a person will take a more leading role and take a group through an agenda designed to transmit a body of knowledge or a set of skills to be acquired. (See tutelary authority above.)
Conflict resolution facilitators
Conflict resolution facilitators are used in peace and reconciliation processes both during and after the conflict. Their role is to support constructive and democratic dialogue between groups with diverse and usually diametrically opposite positions. Conflict resolution facilitators must be impartial to the conflicting groups (or societies) and must adhere to the rules of democratic dialogue. They may not take parts or express personal opinions. Their most usual role is to support groups develop shared vision for an ideal future, learn to listen to each other, and understand and appreciate the feelings, experiences and positions of the 'enemy'.
Wraparound facilitators are facilitators in the social services community. They originally served disabled teens which were transitioning into adulthood. Now they include facilitators serving children between the ages of 0–3 years who are in need of services. Outside the meetings, the facilitator organizes meetings, engages team members and conducts follow through. During meetings the facilitator leads and manages the team by keeping the participants on track and encourages a strength-based discussion addressing the child's needs. The facilitator encourages equal participation among team members.
Small group facilitators
Facilitators can be appointed to accommodate the engagement of participants, who in small and medium sized groups, aim to work though a particular agenda. In order to ensure the successful working of the group, the facilitator is appointed in place of what would once have been a chairperson's role. Along with other officers, the facilitator is appointed at the group's AGM to fill the role for the year ahead. Groups that have adopted this model include prayer groups, men's groups, writing groups and other community organisations.
- See Facilitation (business) for a view of specific skills and activities.
Many skills are required to be a good facilitator. The basic skills of a facilitator are about following good meeting practices: timekeeping, following an agreed-upon agenda, and keeping a clear record. The higher-order skills involve watching the group and its individuals in light of group dynamics. In addition, facilitators also need a variety of listening skills including ability to paraphrase; stack a conversation; draw people out; balance participation; and make space for more reticent group members (Kaner, et al., 1996). It is critical to the facilitator's role to have the knowledge and skill to be able to intervene in a way that adds to the group's creativity rather than taking away from it.
A successful facilitator embodies respect for others and a watchful awareness of the many layers of reality in a human group.
In the event that a consensus cannot be reached then the facilitator would assist the group in understanding the differences that divide it.
The International Association of Facilitators  was founded in 1993 to promote facilitation as a profession. The IAF maintains the Certified Professional Facilitator program. The competencies of a Certified PROFESSIONAL Facilitator can be found on the IAF website.
The International Institute for Facilitation  was founded in 2003 to maintain and promote a program of certification for facilitation at the Masters level, the Certified Master Facilitator program. The competencies of a Certified MASTER Facilitator can be found on the INIFAC website.
- Bens, Ingrid (2012). Facilitating with ease! Core skills for facilitators, team leaders and members, managers, consultants, and trainers. San Francisco: Wiley.
- Michael Doyle, quoted in Kaner, et al., 2007, p. xiii.
- Bens, 2000, p. 5.
- Sam Kaner and colleagues (2007) p. 32.
- Heron, J. The Complete Facilitator's Handbook,(1999) Kogan Page ISBN 0-7494-2798-1
- Wherrett, R. The Compleat Biz, (2009) Reroq Publishing ISBN 978-0-9561305-0-1
- "IAF - Home". Iaf-world.org. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
- "Competencies for Certification". Iaf-world.org. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
- "INIFAC – International Institute for Faciliation | INIFAC, The International Institute for Facilitation". Inifac.org. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
- "The Master Facilitator Competencies | INIFAC, The International Institute for Facilitation". Inifac.org. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
- Bens, I. Facilitating With Ease!: A Step-by-Step Guidebook with Customizable Worksheets on CD-ROM, (2000) Jossey-Bass, ISBN 0-7879-5194-3
- Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, IAF, ISSN 1534-5653 (Print) & ISSN 1545-5947 (Online)
- Hogan, C.F. (2013), "Facilitating Cultural Transitions and Change, a practical approach", Stillwater, USA: 4 Square Books. (Available from Amazon), ISBN 978-1-61766-235-5
- Hogan, C.F. (2007), "Facilitating Multicultural Groups: A Practical Guide", London: Kogan Page, ISBN 0749444924
- Hogan, C.F. (2003), "Practical Faciltitation", London: Kogan Page, ISBN 0 7494 3827 4
- Hogan, C.F. (2002), "Understanding Facilitation, London: Kogan Page, ISBN 0 7494 3826 6
- Hogan, C.F. (2012 - reprinted), "Facilitating Empowerment", Stillwater, USA: 4 Square Books. (Available from Amazon), ISBN 0 7494 3297 7
- Hogan, C.F. (1999) "Facilitating Learning", Melbourne, Australia: Eruditions, ISBN 1-86491-005-4
- Kaner, S. with Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S. and Berger, D. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, (2007) Jossey-Bass; ISBN 0-7879-8266-0
- Schuman, S. (Ed) The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation: Best Practices from the Leading Organization in Facilitation, (2005) Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-7160-X
- Schuman, S. (Ed) Creating a Culture of Collaboration: The IAF Handbook, (2006) Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-8116-8
- Schwarz, R. The Skilled Facilitator, (New & Revised July 2002) Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-4723-7
- Seifert, J.W. Visualisation - Presentation - Facilitation: Translation of the German Classic, (2012) Gabal, ISBN 978-3-86936-394-3
- Wilkinson, M. The Effective Facilitator, (2004) Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-7578-8