by Steve Roche

Facilitator as translator

One must cultivate a taste for finding harmony within discord, or you will drift away from the forces that keep a company alive.

Fujisawa, co-founder of Honda

Sometimes you need to act as translator, interpreting or reframing in a way that other people can understand. A useful phrase is ‘So what you’re saying is...’ because what people mean and say is often different from how they are heard.

There are several ways you may need to translate people’s meanings to one another.

As an expert in the subject matter

Often, people who are highly skilled in a technical area are very focused on the detail and jargon of their speciality, and this can make it difficult to establish effective communication with people from other parts of the business. Put yourself on ‘jargon watch’ and either explain unfamiliar language to the group yourself, or get the speaker to do so.

Another aspect here is helping to control the ‘altitude’ of the discussion so it is relevant to the outcome. With knowledge of the subject, you will know if the discussion is going into too much detail or too little, and can guide the group accordingly. Do you need a high-level ‘helicopter’ view or a fingertip search through the grass for every detail?

As a tour guide

A tour guide helps people to experience the way others see the world. Similarly, people often have trouble reaching agreement because they simply cannot see the issues from the other person’s perspective. You need to encourage people with phrases like ‘Put yourself in John’s shoes for a moment; from that viewpoint, what is really important about this issue?’ You will be surprised how seldom people do this of their own accord, and also how often it can move blockages to the progress towards an agreement.

As a translator of sensory language

If someone is explaining in strongly visual terms, you may need to restate what they are saying in auditory or kinaesthetic language for the benefit of others. To learn more about sensory language, see the topic on Representational Systems.

As a translator of stories

If you think about it, people are telling stories. This does not mean that what they are saying is untrue, but that it is their version of things, couched in terms that they understand. Stories abound with analogies, so it is often helpful for you to use these to bridge the gap from one view of the world to another. Look for something similar that people might understand to enable them make a connection, by using phrases beginning ‘xxxxx is like...’


A facilitator is like...

  • The conductor of a symphony orchestra: you don’t make any sounds that are heard during the performance, but you’re there to help talented, individual and very different instruments to get the most harmony out of playing together.
  • A harbour pilot: provides advice and guidance, but the responsibility remains with the captain and crew.
  • The air traffic controller of meetings.
  • The dealer in a poker game: it doesn’t matter what cards they have, just that they play fair.

Facilitation is like...

  • WD40: it helps you get past the sticky spots.

See also Storytelling for Business.