Facilitating the Self-help Group


In the strict sense of the term, the facilitator is the "technician" who helps the group function well during a meeting. Whether the group is large or small, a facilitator is necessary. If not, the group tends to go around in circles, talks just to talk and doesn’t focus on anything specific.

It is important that all present know who the facilitator is and the prerogatives and obligations that accompany the role.

Functions of the animator

Generally speaking, the main functions of the animator are as follows:

  • To help the group identify its needs, to give it a goal, to achieve what has been decided upon and to evaluate what has taken place.
  • Make sure that group remains true to its goals and to the organization it established to achieve these goals.
  • Ensure the bond between the members
  • “Technically” facilitate the group during the meetings.
  • Motivate members to move forward.
  • Make sure the meeting moves along at a good pace.

Role of the facilitator

Specifically, the role of the facilitator during the meeting can be summarized as follows:

  • Specify the goal of the meeting.
  • Briefly state what the different stages of the meeting are.
  • Facilitate discussion between the members (for example, questions, suggestions, etc.).
  • Give equal opportunity to the different points of view to be weighed and examined by the group.
  • Maintain order in the discussion.
  • Grat the right to speak in an equitable fashion.
  • Bring the group “back-to-order” when necessary.
  • Help clarify the meaning of certain interventions when they appear confused.
  • From time to time, summarize what has been said.
  • Without preventing people from expressing their differences or possible conflicts, direct discussion towards the objectives of the meeting or that it doesn’t jeopardize the flow of the meeting.

Summarize the meeting (short evaluation at the end of the meeting).


No, the facilitator does not have to know everything because his or her role is not to provide answers, but to facilitate. On a precise question, he has to know enough to understand the meaning of the interventions and to separate them from one another.

The distinction between “facilitator” and “expert”

It is very important to distinguish between “facilitator” and “expert” (or resource-person). Considering the knowledge of acquires while participating in self-help groups, it is useful to highlight the distinction between objective knowledge (that which every “expert” should possess) and subjective knowledge (that which the facilitator of a self-help group should possess).

Object knowledge is the set of facts and results of systematic observations or scientific research, while subjective knowledge refers to personal, individual experience.

In the face of a chronic disease, a handicap, addiction or divorce, it is important to have some pertinent objective information of a medical, social or legal nature. The members of the self-help group discuss or tell each other about such information, as well as references to pertinent books or journals.

The facilitator of the group does not have to be an “expert” on the subject being discussed. In fact, the facilitator doesn’t even have to know as much as the members of the group: his primary role is to help the group ask questions, find answers one way or another and not to answer all the questions himself; however, sufficient knowledge of the issue is required to properly facilitate the group.

When a group tackles a real life situation experienced by all the members, we believe that they are all more or less experts on the question because they have experienced it (experts through experience). In fact, faced with a crisis or an overwhelming situation, it is often not objective knowledge that the person needs, but rather understanding, personal or subjective knowledge of the issue affecting him, thus enabling him to accept or change certain personal aspects of his life, while maintain the motivation to get on with required changes.


  • First of all, try to understand, then to be understood
  • Respect the ideas and the individuals
  • Don’t have preconceived ideas about the members and the points of view
  • Ask questions and let the members answer
  • Clearly assign tasks, if necessary
  • Listen attentively


In principle, the facilitator is there to draw out the opinions of others and not to give his own. If, as some point, he feels it is opportune to say what he thinks about the subject under discussion, this must be done with extreme care because the facilitator must continue to foster discussion between the other members. If he decides to offer up his opinion, the facilitator might say something like: “I am going to step out of my role as a facilitator for a moment and participate like the rest of you”.


Aptitudes required for facilitation

When we talk about aptitude, we refer to a natural disposition a person has that can be developed.

A good group facilitator must:

  • Be convinced of the value of the initiative undertaken by the group, so as to be able to motivate participants.
  • Be capable of structuring group meetings.
  • Be able to cope with different types of behavior: aggression, passiveness, etc.
  • Be able to put one’s ideas “on hold” to give others a chance to express themselves.
  • Be able to truly listen and to understand others’ points of view.

It is through practice that one acquires and develops aptitudes. Even though we are not sure we possess them to start with, there is nothing to lose by trying to facilitate if we feel like it. It is an enormous service we provide to a group by helping it to function well.

It is also an enormous service to the group to alternate the facilitation team. In fact, in the context of self-help where everything should be equal, it is important that it is not always the same people who facilitate the group. We thereby avoid creating hierarchical relations between the members of the group. Moreover, alternating enables those who want to act as facilitators to take a greater part in the discussions when they are participants.

As well, although no one is irreplaceable, a group can be affected by the departure of its most active members. If the facilitation has been well shared within the group, the departure of certain members will not jeopardize the survival of the group.

However, it would be unrealistic to think that anyone who wants to facilitate a group can. In fact, to be part of a facilitating team, a person has to have a good understanding of the meaning of self-help and possess certain indispensable qualities.

Indispensable qualities of a facilitator

There is no ideal facilitator; there are no tricks, no recipes for facilitating a group. Rather, there are indispensable qualities for effective group facilitating. These qualities can be acquired on the condition that the person had sufficient personal autonomy, that he is sufficiently stable and able to handle himself. A person, who wants to undertake the task must examine his facilitation style, be able to recognize his strength and weaknesses and be willing to improve himself.

Beyond the general attitude described in the above paragraph, the facilitator must possess certain essential qualities.

No matter what the circumstances, the facilitator must demonstrate an assurance, both physical and psychological, that will enable him to tackle the most difficult situations.

He will be able to adapt his facilitating style to the needs of the group, that is, he will be able to play the role of moderator or facilitator, according to the circumstances.

Refer to the section entitle: “Role and functions of the facilitator”. Remember that this quality requires a minimum of skill on the part of the facilitator. For more on the subject, refer to the following section entitle: “Skill required for group facilitator”.

The facilitator must be able to react instantly in the face of unforeseen situations.

Certain intervention strategies should be developed ahead of time should a crisis situation arise during a meeting of a self-help group; these strategies would enable the team to control the situation as well as ensure the continuity of the regular activities.

The facilitator has to know how to listen to the group.

And last but not least: The facilitator needs a sense of humor!

The presence of a co-facilitator, a person who helps the facilitator carry out his functions, can be very useful in crisis situations, because the facilitator or the co-facilitator can withdraw the person in crisis form the group to help him or her through the difficult moment.

Skills required to facilitate a group

Facilitating skills are, for the most part, acquired through experience. Nevertheless, the facilitator must possess:

  • A minimum knowledge of the role of the facilitator.
  • A minimum knowledge of the basic rules of facilitating.
  • A minimum knowledge of the subject being discussed (given that, generally, the facilitator shares the common experience of the whole group, this condition does not usually pose a problem).
  • A good knowledge of the general goals of the group and the capacity to explain them to the group.
  • A little experience in facilitating, if possible (but there has to be a first time!)


The following is a list (unlimited of the main faults noted in facilitators.

Inability to adapt to the personality of the group, a fault linked to the desire to dominate the group.

The person who facilitates a group can have a tendency to suppress the group (consciously or unconsciously) by the desire to demonstrate that he is a competent person. And so, rather than promoting discussion amongst the members of the group, this approach risks blocking the group from the outset. This attitude is often indicative of lack of self-confidence and a lack of simplicity.

Such would be the case of the facilitator who addresses a group by citing all of his university degrees, boasting past successes and padding his discourse with big works in attempt to impress his audience.

Showing off like intimated others and results in their not wanting to express themselves in the presence of someone so knowledgeable for fear of “saying something stupid.” It is a fact completely contrary to the role of the facilitator who is there to facilitated exchange between the members of the group.

The will to impose one’s own ideas

Given that his interventions can orient the flow of the meeting, the facilitator must demonstrate that he is open to the ideas offered by the members of the group and not impose his own.

The desire to talk

A talkative facilitator is a doubtful group leader because;

  • He prevents the other members of the group from speaking.
  • He is not listening to the participants because he is so concerned about expressing his own opinions.
  • Given his privileges, he sways the group towards his personal views.
  •  He lends uneasiness to the group by giving the impression that he’s talking to avoid silence.

Too rigid

This is the facilitator who imposes his views on the group and orients the discussions in terms of his convictions, even when it is evident that his facilitating style is jeopardizing participation and hindering progress.

Too much flexibility

This is the facilitator who proposes certain steps (for example, a roundtable) and then lets the members of off in a completely different direction. Or the facilitator who, visibly, has no idea how the meeting will proceed and lets the group go off on a variety of tangents (to justify himself, he will say he is “non-directive”).

Excess of insufficient authority

Excess authority creates barriers, whereas the lack of authority engenders confusion. Often the two attitudes coexist in the same facilitator and emerge as a function of the people he is addressing.

This is the case of the facilitator who doesn’t dare interrupt people who are monopolizing the discussion, even when they are completely off topic. To get even, they restrict the right to speak, are sarcastic, reject the ideas presented, etc., in the case of a less imposing member.

Involvement in the discussion

This is the facilitator of a meeting who gets caught up in the topic. Inevitably, there is a tendency to be for or against what participants say. At this point, the person is no longer facilitating, he is participating. And as such, is no longer able to properly fulfill his role.

In a self-help group where the facilitator is directly concerned with the thoughts raised (to the same degree as the other members), involvement in the discussion can pose a problem. As well, it is strongly recommended that the facilitation team alternate in order to allow everyone to fully express themselves.

Lack of assurance

Many facilitators are afraid of the groups they have to facilitate. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways: too much rigidity, aggressiveness, or perhaps too much flexibility in the facilitation style (see preceding).

This lack of assurance is often physical. The facilitator often doesn’t know what attitude to adopt in front of the group. He stays glued behind his table, avoids eye contact with the participants. He doesn’t know how to express himself with his body. He seems uncomfortable and makes others uncomfortable.

Lack of understanding of group psychology

When people come together, what takes place between them is a phenomenon known as “group phenomenon”. A competent facilitator must constantly be on the lookout for this phenomenon. He must constantly “be taking the pulse” of the group (which explains why he cannot participate in the debate). His role, being essentially that of moderator, he must be able to read the signals (verbal, gesticulate, mimicking, etc.) and know what is going on with each of the members so as to get the most of the group.


Self-help groups enable people who share a common experience to come together. These people can share their problems and together try to find pertinent solutions by which to improve their situation. In this context, facilitator’s responsibilities are as follows:

  • Ensure the setting up and proper functioning of the meetings.
  •  Be responsible for the material organization and the logistics of the different meetings.
  • Establish with the participants the various rules governing the confidentiality required by the group and ensure that they are respected.
  •  Encourage the full participation of all of the members and know how to listen to them.
  •  Adopt effective means of structuring the groups and prompting the participation of each member.
  • Control certain aspects of the content so that the discussions don’t get bogged down in political, religious and philosophical ideologies.
  • Prevent, to the extent possible, crisis situations. In the event that such a situation should occur, envisage intervention strategies with the person concerned while ensuring the continuity of the regular activities.

The presence of a co-facilitator, a person that helps the facilitator carry out his functions, can be very useful in crisis situations. The facilitator or the co-facilitator can withdraw from the group with the person in crisis to help them overcome their present difficulty.

In this regard, it could be very useful to have the address and telephone number of resources that could be called upon in the eventuality of a crisis situation.


Calling upon a resource person to facilitate a group: When and why?

Resource persons are people who, by virtue of their experience, their research, their work, have considerable knowledge of the issues subjects under discussion. These people can make themselves available to a group in a variety of ways to help them work through any issues that they are familiar with. There are numerous organizations, associations, clubs that can provide resource people in every imaginable area.

Some self-help groups might want a resource person to facilitate or co-facilitate their meetings. This volunteer, who has also lived through the same thing as the members of the group, can furnish certain content element necessary for the group to achieve its goals. Even though it might not always be a true content specialist (psychologist, nurse, or other), it is a person who can bring to the group their knowledge of a reality, enlightened by having read up on it, experienced it and an external point of view.

Concretely, the resource person answers questions, gives information, suggests ideas that stimulate discussion, and always in a brief and direct manner.

The resource person can facilitate the self-help group at the request of the group, as it is getting off the ground and developing a structure for itself that will enable it to function autonomously. They can also do it for a varied period of time when the group feels it is necessary, for example, in the absence of members of the group who have the knowledge and skills to facilitate. The resource person selected by the group should have the training, experience and the availability required to fill the role. Moreover, they must be well versed in the mechanics of self-help and how the groups function.

The resource person can also assume the role of co-facilitator, his impartiality making him a choice candidate for moderator.

And finally, a resource person can take part in the meeting, at its request, for the sole purpose to being available to answer any questions that might be asked during the meeting.


Basic rules for a co-facilitator

  • First of all, seek to understand; next to be understood.
  • Respect the ideas and the people.
  • Don’t have any preconceived ideas about the members and their view points.
  • Ask questions and let the members of the group respond.
  • See yourself as someone who assists with facilitating the group.
  • Listen attentively.

Co-facilitating a self-help group

The co-facilitator of a self-help group is the person who helps the facilitator fulfill his function. Since co-facilitating, the functions of co-facilitator overlap those of facilitator in a spirit of cooperation and accord. The facilitator and co-facilitator are allies who shepherd the group towards the goals it has set for itself.

Role of co-facilitator

  •  In conjunction with the facilitator, looks after the logistics of the meeting.
  •  With the facilitator, welcomes the members of the group.
  • In a collaborative fashion, ensures that the facilitator provides the group with all the facts regarding the goal and flow of the meeting
  • Accords the right to speak to a member who requests it.
  • Brings “out-of-order” members back to the subject at hand.
  • Helps clarify the meaning of some interventions when there is confusion surrounding them
  • Replaces the main facilitator when this person is unable to attend a meeting.

CAP Santé Outaouais autorise the reproduction of this texte. We only want you to indicate the source : How-to manual for self-help groups, CAP Santé Outaouais, Internet edition, www.capsante-outaouais.org