Understanding facilitation begins with an awareness of the difference between facilitating and leading.
As the leader it is very challenging to be neutral. When you lead a discussion your tendency will be to drive it towards a certain outcome.
Facilitation is different. It requires a focus on the process of a conversation, understanding of the team dynamics.. while balencing a focus on the desired outcome.
Although many leaders are also very effective at facilitating discussions, there are times when it makes more sense to use "a neutral facilitator" .
When to use a Facilitator?
If the results of the meeting are critical and there is a need for a different level of creative thinking and alignment of execution.
Cross Functional Groups
A cross organizational group is formed to develop a plan or address a specific issue and there is no one leader to manage the process. An independent facilitator that can manage the process will ensure that the team works together well to achieve its purpose.
Content not Process
The group needs all team members, including the leader, to focus on business content not managing the process of designing and facilitating an effective meeting.
Intervention / Challenging Dynamics
Changes in the environment mean that an intervention needs to happen within the group. This intervention requires a higher level of facilitation skills then is currently within the group.
The issues that need to be discussed are sensitive and a level of anonymity needs to be maintained. Examples of this are when you want to gather feedback from a group and need to have an unbiased and confidential facilitator to create a safe environment where people can discuss issues freely.
The leader of the group is strongly vested in a particular position, but wants to be open to other alternatives. A faciltator will ensure that your discussions are collaborative, productive and that there is follow through on the agreed actions.