Facilitator makes or breaks discussion group’s success

When a farm discussion group loses its facilitator, it can be unsettling – but it can also be a catalyst for change and an opportunity to rejuvenate the format of meetings.

According to dairy farmer Alex Holland, who chairs the West Wales Grasshoppers Discussion Group, it is healthy for a group to change its facilitator from time to time.

“A new facilitator can bring a fresh way of doing things and a new approach,” says Mr Holland, of Big House Farm, Pendine. “Each facilitator has their own way of doing things, but sometimes a fresh angle is needed.”

The Grasshoppers recently went through that process after their facilitator of two years left to pursue a different career.

Mr Holland says the group was fortunate to have a number of excellent facilitators available, although this itself has proved a problem. “We haven’t been able to decide on a replacement yet, not because we don’t have a choice, but because we have too good a choice.”

Every facilitator has a speciality subject that has greater relevance at certain times of the year, which means it can be beneficial to have more than one. What is important is that a group makes the right choice. “It can destroy a group if you don’t get the right facilitator,” says Mr Holland.

“Surprisingly, the best are quite often those you don’t get on with. A facilitator who annoys the hell out of you is often better than one who is a good mate. The two don’t necessarily go together.”

Facilitators give a group direction and keep members focused. But it is more than just running a meeting – they must be knowledgeable, too. “Facilitators need to have the facts and figures,” says Seimon Thomas, a member of the Merlin Group in west Wales.

“We have been lucky in that we have had some excellent facilitators, some intelligent people. They have helped to guide members to make practical decisions on the farm.”

Tom Phillips has worked as a facilitator in New Zealand, Australia and the UK for more than 30 years and believes an important skill of any facilitator is the ability to listen and to allow members to express their views in a constructive way.

He sees his key function as ensuring everyone takes part. “There is an element of keeping the lid on the sometimes over-zealous members to allow the quieter ones to have their say,” he says.

Serious thought must be given to preparation and Mr Phillips factors half a day’s groundwork into every discussion group session. He will talk to the host farmer in advance to set the day’s agenda and also spends time during the year helping the group develop a constructive programme for the year.

Farmers are encouraged to share information, not necessarily financial, but on subjects such as calving patterns and nutrition, so discussion can be based on real information.

Financial information is important too, but requires a level of trust. “I don’t think a group progresses far until financial information comes from all members, but it can take time,” says Mr Phillips.

The experience of the group brings huge benefits to discussion and is a reason many farmers choose to belong to a discussion group rather than employ a consultant. In a group of 15 farmers, each will have at least 10 years’ experience, which adds up to 150 years’ experience within that group.

Mr Phillips, who also works as a consultant, but mostly as a facilitator, says even the most practised consultant will not have that level of experience. “The most valuable component of a group is the group experience,” he says. “I can use my experience too, but the key issue is to get farmers’ skills into the debate.”

Farmers give up valuable time to be at the group, so it is important they get value for moneyhe says. “It can’t be just a jolly talk, it has to be a constructive learning experience. I have been to groups that are far too nice and I don’t think farmers get a lot out of them.”

But Mr Phillips concedes there has to be a fun element to the day, too. “A facilitator should understand that farming can be an isolating profession and it is really important that part of the day involves social contact,” he says.


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