The Difference Between a Facilitator and a Trainer

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Not long ago I was asked to facilitate a breakout session at the Technology Association of Georgia’s spring conference. Beforehand, all of the facilitators were asked to attend a training session because we came from various professional backgrounds, and they wanted to make sure we were all on the same page as to what our goals and responsibilities were. Most importantly, because many of us were coaches and trainers (and used to being in the spotlight!) we needed to understand the clear difference between being a facilitator versus being a trainer.

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were asked to do something that was close to your skillset, but also entirely different? Many people look to hire facilitators or trainers without fully understanding how they're different or what value they can each bring to your organization. 

First, and most importantly, facilitating means removing yourself from the equation. You are not the source of all knowledge, the team leader, or the person there to share your own opinion (no matter how wonderful we think our opinion is!). This is very tough for those of us who’ve been trained to teach: we want to make sure everyone is learning new things, getting everything they can from the session, etc. And of course, we’re also used to being the center of attention! But that’s not what facilitating is.

Trainers and Coaches can both benefit from excellent speech writing. Download this FREE guide to help!

Trainers and Coaches can both benefit from excellent speech writing. Download this FREE guide to help!

As a facilitator you are meant to act as a hidden hand, guiding the conversation and keeping the group on track if they start to veer off on unrelated or unproductive tangents. A skilled facilitator can anticipate certain questions and statements that throw the group off track. For instance, if a participant says something that’s clearly controversial and meant to incite a heated debate (a debate that does not support the main objectives), the facilitator can and should gently redirect the conversation. The facilitator should NOT jump in with why this person is wrong, or why they’re right – they are there to help the group reach those conclusions instead.

Just the same, if not many people are contributing or adding meaningful ideas to the conversation, an experienced facilitator knows what questions to ask and how to loop people in so the dialogue becomes productive. The challenge here is not resorting to adding your own two cents if people aren’t contributing to the conversation. A facilitator is brought in to guide the conversation, not to add their own ideas or opinions. (I know I’ve mentioned this point before, but it’s worth noting again because this is the biggest misconception about what a facilitator does.)

Contrast this with a trainer who is there to teach the participants something new, and therefore plays a much more active role. In the example above of someone saying something controversial, a skilled trainer will use that statement as a learning experience for the entire group. I once worked with a team who were quiet and passive most of the morning, then right before lunch someone made a comment indicating they thought leadership didn’t really care about them; as you can imagine all of sudden everyone had a strong opinion. In this case a facilitator would guide the conversation without taking a side. However, as a trainer it was my role and responsibility to adjust the plan for the rest of the day to make sure this comment was not only addressed (so the person who said it knew they were heard and valued), but also used to create valuable learning for everyone involved.

In short, organizations typically bring in facilitators to guide discussions and conversations amongst team members in order to achieve a specific goal. On the flip side, they will bring in a trainer to teach the group a new set of skills, strategies, problem-solving methodology, etc. If you have the opportunity to do one or the other, make sure you’re clear on what the organization’s needs are and what your intended role is.

Related: TED 2018: A Masterclass, Why Teachers and Trainers Should Always Have a Backup Plan

A key part of being a great trainer is becoming a great speaker. Start here with my FREE Speech Writing Guide!

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