Chairing versus Facilitating

Chairing versus Facilitating

Box with the text 'chairing vs facilitating'

Last week while facilitating a morning’s group work with an 18-strong board of directors, one of the delegates came up in a break to ask how chairing versus facilitating sessions differs. It is a really good question which I am asked more often, so here is how I explain it to my clients.

Let’s have a meeting

Meetings are gatherings of people who come together to discuss important things in person. Really good meetings progress those important things and find answers to questions, solutions to problems, or generate new ideas to go away and explore after the meeting.

Meetings suffer from bad press, and in some sectors even more so than others: the public sector comes to mind. I am sure every one of us will have attended a meeting at some point which we left in a state of frustration, bewilderment or despair, or a combination thereof.

A brilliant book which picks apart the reasons why meetings fail is the classic Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni. It sets out a way to organise and structure meetings so that they become valuable collaborative sessions instead of dreaded time wasters. Making sure the meeting is led well is a key ingredient, says Lencioni, and this starts with being really clear about the purpose of the meeting, and agreeing the desired outcomes.

Which brings me to the differences between chairing a meeting or event, and facilitating one.

Chairing versus facilitating a meeting

There are some real stand-out differences between the two roles. That of the chairperson is to be a full participant in the meeting as well as to oversee and manage the proceedings themselves.

By contrast, a facilitator is an outsider joining the group or team to guide the session through the different phases while remaining neutral throughout. They do not contribute to the content of the meeting itself, but they do use techniques to tease out contributions and ensure all angles of the meeting content are explored. To be able to do this successfully, it helps if the facilitator has some understanding of the matter under discussion. Crucially, this is not the same as having extensive knowledge of the meeting content.

The focus of a chair is also different. While controlling the progress of the meeting is part of their responsibility, the chair’s job is also to set the agenda and ensure that decisions are made where necessary. They have the last say if a decision needs to be negotiated. A chairperson is often someone with some authority over other meeting participants.

A facilitator also focuses on ensuring the process of the meeting works well, in particular to allow participants to successfully concentrate on the matters at hand. However, the agenda is set beforehand by the group or team, and the facilitator sometimes gives some practical guidance where needed to ensure the meeting goes well. Facilitators do not ‘enforce’ decision making or make the final call on decisions, except when it comes to the running of the session itself.

Finally, a key difference is in the responsibility of the chair after the meeting. A facilitator may be contracted to help with writing up meeting notes such as brainstorm flip charts after the event; they do not follow up to check actions are being followed through. Chairs and facilitators are both guardians of the process of having a meeting and aim to fulfil the projected outcomes, but it’s the chair who has an ongoing responsibility for the team or group’s work.

If a facilitator is tasked with tracking progress and holding participants to account on progress, while remaining the outsider, we’re talking about team or group coaching instead.

Chairing versus Facilitating

Team Coaching vs Facilitation

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Team coaching and facilitation are closely related disciplines. Are there any real differences between the two, and if so, what is helpful to bear in mind when deciding on one or the other?

A question of definition

The meaning of the term facilitation is often assumed to be understood. A look on the Association of Facilitators site for example leads to excellent content including a Code of Practice, but no definition is given. Elsewhere subject matter experts such as John Heron are quoted to describe the dimensions of facilitation or the styles of facilitation.

This is what I mean by facilitation:

Facilitation is aimed at helping participants to explore and develop with the help of a neutral outsider – the facilitator – who brings a structured approach to the process.

Team coaching is defined by Hawkins and Smith in their excellent book Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy as:

“enabling a team to function at more than the sum of its parts, by clarifying its mission and improving its external and internal relationships.”

Team coaching or facilitation?

First let’s deal with the obvious difference: team coaching always concerns a team, whereas facilitation doesn’t necessarily – it can also be a group of people coming together for the purpose of the session alone. Examples are conferences or workshops.

Let’s consider a team to be a collective of people who not only share a common goal, but are co-dependent on each other to achieve it, and (are expected to) behave accordingly.

It’s true that it isn’t clear where team coaching ends and facilitation begins. Let’s start with some similarities:

Team coaching

  • takes a structured approach to the session
  • may use tools
  • works to agreed objectives and desired outcomes
  • requires a coach to participate


  • takes a structured approach to the session
  • may use tools in session
  • works to agreed objectives and desired outcomes
  • requires a facilitator to participate

The clue is in the role of the outsider guiding the session along: coach and facilitator. Let’s look at those a bit more.

A coach is a professional who is skilled at eliciting helpful and focused conversation with individuals or groups, including teams. Coaches may use different approaches and techniques to stimulate this conversation, including tools which are also used in facilitation. They may work as a one-off with a coachee or group, but usually have a relationship lasting over two or more sessions.

A facilitator is skilled in guiding group processes to allow helpful collaboration, such as meaningful conversations to take place. As with team coaching, sessions are designed and prepared in advance, to allow the effective use of tools and group activities in the available time. It is not uncommon for facilitators to deliver one-off sessions focused on a specific goal or objective.

The difference: frequency, focus and relationships

As the above implies, a key difference between team coaching and facilitation is in the frequency of sessions: team coaching usually involves more than one session.

A second difference is in the the aims of team coaching compared to facilitation: team coaching  focuses on the team itself: its effectiveness, the barriers to success, how it functions and where it can use its strengths to maximise performance. It requires a different kind of participation from team members, who will be invited to evaluate their own part in the team’s success in various ways.

Facilitation very often focuses on specific aspects of a team’s role and responsibilities: the annual strategic review; target-setting or planning for the year ahead. Sessions can have a clear theme as well, such as leading change, and fit in seamlessly with a training or development programme.

A third difference is in the nature of the relationship between coach/facilitator and participants. The latter can more easily bring expertise into the session without undermining their relationship with the group, while a coach will try to avoid being seen as the expert so as to remain on an equal footing with the team.

One-off vs ongoing: a caveat

I don’t consider this to be a hard and fast rule, as I have both delivered one-off team coaching and ongoing facilitation. I always try to find out from clients whether the topics they need external support with are of an ongoing or unique or ‘seasonal’ nature. The way I will go about supporting a team will be quite different depending on the answer.