Facilitation of outdoor groups

  • Assessing needs
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Group development
  • Motivation and working together
  • Trust
  • An 'ego-free' approach
  • Roles

Sometimes you come back from a trip with a glow of warmth and a sense of fun, feeling that everyone had an enjoyable time with a group of people who developed as friends during the trip. On other occasions you can return from a trip and feel as though the group didn't gel; perhaps there were disagreements that weren't dealt with well and while the goal may have been achieved, it wasn't as enjoyable as it might have been. Of course on some trips there will be extenuating circumstances, but often the difference is in the capacity of the leader to develop and integrate the group.

As part of the task of leading a group and helping them achieve their goal, the outdoor leader takes many different roles and needs to draw on a wide variety of skills. The skill of facilitation ensures that the people processes and the process of getting to the goal work hand-in-hand, resulting in the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number. A facilitator is one who helps a group achieve its aims, drawing out their skills and energies and helping in the coordination of inputs towards a common goal.

The skill of doing this comes more easily to some people than others, but it is a skill that all competent outdoor leaders must develop. Effective group facilitation is built on a number of components that a good facilitator needs to understand, including:

  • assessing needs
  • good interpersonal communication
  • an appreciation of the process of group development
  • motivation of group members to work together for the good of the group
  • the development of mutual trust
  • an ‘ego-free’ approach to leadership, ensuring you have no attachment to an outcome for your own needs rather than for the overall good of the group
  • an understanding of group roles.

Assessing needs

Each individual comes to the trip not only with an expectation to complete the journey as they understand it, but also with personal needs and expectations. Many of these will remain unexpressed. They might include such considerations as having an enjoyable social time, making new friends, getting a good fitness workout or spotting particular birds. A good leader/facilitator will pick up some of these needs and at least acknowledge them even if they can’t be met. The needs of the group as a whole will be a combination of all of these needs but will also be skewed by the personalities involved and their impact on the overall group dynamics. The skilled leader will often have a sixth sense about how these processes balance out.

Interpersonal communication

Communicating clearly may seem a simple concept but it doesn’t always happen, particularly among the other distractions of an outdoor trip. It starts with one person being clear about what it is they want to communicate, again a seemingly simple idea which doesn’t always happen and finally this needs to be matched by attentive listening.

If a group member is speaking to you as the leader, especially when it involves an important issue, you need to give them your full attention. If necessary go somewhere that is less distracting and make the person your centre of focus for that time. Good one-to-one communication is based on attentive listening, and minimising any barriers, both physical and psychological.

When issues, especially controversial ones, are being sorted out in the group, then civility and focus can be abandoned. As the leader/facilitator, it is important to ensure that each person is heard and group members don’t talk over each other. If necessary, ask for a commitment from group members that they will hear each other out.

An effective facilitator is able not only to communicate well but also to engage the group. Techniques such as use of names, open-ended questioning and drawing out their input will help. A valuable aim as leader is to help each group member feel they are a valued member of the group, and that they do make a difference.

As leader, it is easy to get attached to a particular outcome for the trip and probably specific outcomes for each discussion and difference of opinion. If you are not careful, this can easily become an inappropriate attachment. Clearly, the needs and desires of the group must be borne in mind at all times. It is likely that you are in the leadership role because you have greater knowledge of the route, or you have more experience or you have a good level of group leadership skills. However, standing on your authority is not likely to produce a mutually satisfying outcome for the whole group. A good leader/facilitator is the one who can bring the group to a mutually satisfying outcome of the trip in a way that most group members felt was a process in which they had adequate input. They need to feel as much as possible that it was a group process, not just the leader or some other member imposing their view.

Group development

The typical stages and process of group development, discussed in more detail in Chapter 46, can provide a useful guide to facilitation skills appropriate to various times in a group’s period together:

  • In the initial forming stage of getting together and getting to know each other, a facilitator can help by ensuring introductions are done and that reluctant members are drawn into the group.
  • When the norming stage happens, the facilitator can ensure that the guidelines are in keeping with other established patterns in the club or walking group.
  • In the storming stage which involves working out issues such as who has power and who will do what tasks the facilitator needs to keep an eye on any inappropriate conflict and help clarify any role issues.
  • Once the group is in the performing stage everyone can relax a little more and enjoy the trip and so can the leader.
  • At the end of the trip in the adjourning or mourning phase a leader’s role will be to smooth this process and ensure that appropriate traditional rituals are honoured (e.g. follow ups, get togethers and sharing of photos).

An appreciation of this broad outline of the group development process can help the trip leader/facilitator work through this process rather than against it, and ensure that each stage is honoured. A well-managed and enjoyably finished trip will leave a good feeling in the minds and hearts of the participants.

Motivation and working together

Motivation will flow from an agreed common commitment to the goals and well-managed social processes. If necessary, allow time for the group to get to know each other, ensure that people are introduced and that there is time to discuss and sort out any issues. Make sure that everybody knows what is happening and build confidence that all safety issues will be dealt with and that communication will be maintained. It is important to check in with the group at the beginning of the trip to reconfirm the goal of the trip and to be sure that all group members have at least an outline of the trip.

Gaining the involvement and commitment of the group can be easily overlooked. We can tend to assume that everybody is approaching the trip with the same enthusiasm that we are. A motivated group springs from having everybody working together on clear, agreed goals and all members feeling some sense of involvement and control in the group process.

Trust

A well-led group gradually develops a sense of trust, a feeling that ‘we are all in this together’ and that if there are difficulties we will support each other. Trust grows within the group as a result of openness and trusting behaviour between group members, but is also strongly influenced by the group leader providing a role model that demonstrates trusting and trustworthy behaviour.

An ‘ego-free’ approach

Taking on the job of leading a group can be a satisfying and rewarding task, however the praise that comes from the appreciation of a job well done should not lull us into seeking praise as an ego boost. This is especially a problem if our decisions are coloured by it. If we find ourselves as leaders having an investment in a particular outcome for our own needs rather than the best interests of the group it may be time to reassess why we are taking on the leadership role.

Roles

The good facilitator will also come to appreciate different roles group members play. We can all identify with the enthusiastic motivator and the people-oriented caring type, the jokester and the quiet retiring type. There are many different roles that individuals play, many of them constructive, but some also distressingly destructive. As facilitator/leader we need to harness the power of these roles and wherever possible use them effectively to help the group get where it is going with the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number.

As with all group tasks there is a need to balance the people needs and the task needs. Hopefully the good leader/facilitator will be able to maintain this balance, so at the end of the trip the group will not only say ‘We achieved our goal’ but also that ‘We enjoyed ourselves and got most if not all of what we wanted out of it’.