The need for facilitation
Excerpt from the ‘Social Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’
We turn to groups because we think they will help us unfold our visions and dreams, attain desirable goals, fulfil important needs, produce quality products and services, or manage complex work. We expect groups to work effectively and harmoniously. Yet our experience with groups often leaves us feeling disappointed or frustrated. Our ignorance of the complex dynamics underlying every group and the unconsciousness of our own contribution to this dynamic are largely responsible for the limited results we obtain in groups. As Roger Schwarz says:
“Groups do not have to function in ways that lead to ineffective performance, make it difficult for members to work together, and frustrate members. Groups can improve how they work.”
— Roger Schwarz, 2002
There is, for instance, no need for meetings where people are freely ridiculed while still speaking, where argumentation and often abuse fill the air — even in groups of equals it is not rare to see how people with high rank inadvertently abuse their position, while others with lower rank suffer in silence and don’t speak up for fear of the consequences.
There are learnable, teachable skills and processes for orchestrating meetings that get everyone participating and sharing their wisdom. Wherever groups of people gather to create a vision, make decisions, plan activities, or resolve their conflicts, they have different options on how to conduct their meetings. No matter what the chosen option is, the group has much to gain by using a facilitator and knowing about facilitation skills.
Most groups tend to focus their energy on reaching their goals quickly, not paying enough attention to what is going on beneath the surface. Consequently, they often undermine the long-term success of the endeavour. A good facilitator helps solve these difficulties by balancing the focus across three dimensions: Results, Process, and Relationship.
What is facilitation?
Facilitation is a system of tools, techniques, and skills to help a group of people work well in defining a common vision, making decisions, achieving their goals, and creating a relational climate where trust prevails and communication is fluid, empathic, and honest. It is also useful to work with conflicts, when they arise, in combination with other techniques, like mediation or different types of forums.
The facilitator may be a member of the group with appropriate knowledge and skills — in this case it is advisable for the group to have different people trained to carry out these tasks and rotate through the role. Or she may be somebody from outside the group, which is especially useful when a difficult decision must be made, or when a conflict lingers on and the group doesn’t have the means to manage it with its own resources.
In his influential book, The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz affirms that “the facilitator’s main task is to help the group increase effectiveness by improving its process and structure.” Process refers to how things are done — the way things are being accomplished. Important components of process are:
- How the work is designed and managed,
- How members communicate,
- How decisions are made,
- How the work is monitored and evaluated, and
- How conflicts are managed.
Structure refers to stable recurring patterns in a group, like norms, roles or the status network. Some structural elements are visible, and are part of the public identity of the group (like a common vision, membership protocol, decision making procedures, formal roles, etc.), while others are invisible — the group is not aware of their existence (like certain norms and beliefs, role patterns, the status network, recurring power abuses, etc.).
In contrast to process and structure, content refers to what a group is working on, what is being said, the matter under discussion. Whenever a group meets, it is possible to observe both content and process (see section, “What to observe in a group”). Underlying the facilitator’s main task is the fundamental assumption that ineffective group process and weak structure reduce a group’s ability to solve problems and make decisions.
In his model for group effectiveness, Roger Schwarz describes three criteria and three factors that interact to create an effective group. Besides the group process and group structure explained above, a third factor that influences the effectiveness of a group is the group context. As we have said before, all groups are embedded in different contexts, including physical and cultural environments. In many cases groups are part of larger organizations and communities. Understanding the group context helps a facilitator identify how the larger context is likely to help or hinder a group’s effort to improve effectiveness.
Three criteria for effective groups (Schwarz, 2002):
- Performance: the group completes its task or achieves its goals;
- Process: the group maintains and preferably enhances the ability of members to work together; and
- Personal: the group experience contributes to the growth and well-being of its members.
These three criteria for effective groups relate directly to the ‘dimensions of success’ triangle we looked at earlier (performance is called results, and personal is called relationships in that graph).
What to Observe in a Group
One way to learn facilitation skills is to observe and analyse what is happening in one’s group. All of us have spent a good part of our lives in groups of various sorts, but rarely have we taken time to stop and observe what is going on in the group, and ask why the members are behaving the way they are. The following list includes some of the factors you should pay attention to in any group:
1. Content and Process
In any group we will find two main elements:
- Content: what is being said, the matter under discussion; and
- Process: what is happening to the group itself, the way things are being accomplished.
The content may be seen as the part of an iceberg out of the water, while the process is the part under the water, not easily seen but very important and influential.
2. Issues involved in any group
- Problem of identity and acceptance within the group. Who am I in this group? Where do I fit in? What kind of behaviour is acceptable here? Do I belong?
- Problem of group goals and personal needs. What do I want from the group? Are its goals consistent with mine? What help have I to offer the group?
- Problem of power, control and influence. Who is in charge? Who will control what we do? How much influence will I have?
- Problem of intimacy. How close will we get to each other? How personal will things be? How much can we trust each other?
3. Roles or qualities to watch for in a group
- Leadership — Assuming or representing authority;
- Followership — Leaning on the leader or on anyone who represents authority;
- Opposer — Resisting anyone who represents authority;
- Pairing — seeking one or more supporters;
- Fighting and controlling — Asserting personal dominance, attempting to get one’s own way, to satisfy one’s own needs, regardless of others;
- Care — showing interest for people’s needs
- Facilitation — bringing out ideas and processes to help the group move forward;
- Eldership — showing a capacity to accept and respect difference and conflict; and
- Withdrawing — Taking no part in the group to escape the sources of an uncomfortable feeling.
4. Clues to help us observe
- Who talks? For how long? How often?
- Who do people look at when they talk? At the group? At one person? At the floor?
- How do people speak? What tone of voice?
- Who talks after whom? Any small asides between couples?
- Who interrupts? Do they interrupt the same person constantly?
- What gestures are used?
- How do people sit?
- Any yawns, twiddling of thumbs, gazing out of windows?
Ground Rules for Effective Groups
The ground rules are a set of guidelines describing behaviours that may improve a group’s process. Sometimes the group develops them cooperatively, and sometimes the facilitator presents them as a proposal at the beginning of the group’s first meeting or at the first meeting in which they are to be used. Regardless, once they have been accepted by the group, it is the job of the facilitator to see that the group respects these norms. Some possible ground rules (also called ‘group agreements’) appear below.
Each group must choose the norms that best meet its needs and values. Rather than seeing them as “rules” (many of us have a rebellious side that hears that word and is reminded of being in a situation where top down power required us to “stick to the rules”), it serves to reframe these norms as enabling constraints (by holding to these basic agreements of the group, we enable a smoother functioning of the group and more effective ways to meet our collective and also individual needs within the group context).
Sample Ground Rules
In her Introduction to Consensus handbook, Beatrice Briggs brings together a set of common rules found in all types of groups:
The bare minimum:
- Use a facilitator
- Everyone participates
- Speak only for yourself (make “I” statements, rather than speaking for the group)
- No interrupting
- Seek a solution
- Begin and end on time
- Have an agenda and stick to it
- One speaker at a time
- Listen with respect
- No personal attacks or blaming
- Confidentiality (when appropriate)
- Silence = assent (If you do not say anything, it means you agree)
Other agreements used by some groups:
- Alternate men and women speakers
- No one may speak twice on a subject until everyone who wants to speak for the first time has had a turn
- Each speaker who is physically able must stand to speak (This is especially useful in large groups, or in groups where individuals tend to sit back in their seats and expound at length)
- Order of speakers is (1) people from other countries (2) people of colour 3) young people (under 20 years old) (4) women (5) men
- Express yourself clearly and honestly
- All are treated with respect and as equals
- We agree to disagree.
Behavioural ground rules for effective groups
Roger Schwarz’s “behavioural ground rules” differ from the more “procedural ground rules” that many groups and facilitators use. He says, “Procedural ground rules can be helpful, but they do not describe the specific behaviours that lead to effective group process.” His list of ground rules for effective groups includes:
- Test assumptions and inferences — When you assume something, you take for granted that it is true without verifying it.
- Share all relevant information — This ensures that members have a common base of information on which to make an informed choice and generate commitment.
- Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean — This enables the group to share relevant information that generates valid data.
- Explain your reasoning and intent — This means making your private reasoning public, so that others can see how you reached your conclusion and can ask you about places in your reasoning where they may reason differently.
- Focus on interests, not positions — It is difficult to agree on positions, easier to generate solutions that take into account all the interests identified.
- Combine advocacy and inquiry — It shifts a meeting from a series of monologues to a real dialogue, creating conditions for learning.
- Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements — This means deciding with others what topics to discuss, when to discuss them, how to discuss them, and when to switch topics, rather than making a decision privately and unilaterally.
- Discuss undiscussable issues — Undiscussable issues are those that are relevant to the group’s tasks but that group members believe they cannot discuss openly in the group without some negative consequences.
- Use a decision-making rule that generates the degree of commitment needed — The more the group members are able to make an informed free choice, the more they are likely to be internally committed to the decision.
Denyse Lynch describes what she calls the “process rules” in an article in the Institute of Facilitation and Change’s newsletter,:
- Participate actively
- Respect topics & time frames
- Open to giving and receiving constructive feedback
- Communicate clearly, concisely
- Enable all group members to be heard
- Seek to understand
- Sense of humour
The Art of Facilitation
“Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all the members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision-making authority, diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group’s effectiveness.”
— Roger Schwarz, 2002
Facilitation is difficult work because it is mentally demanding, both cognitively and emotionally. To facilitate groups, both in informal and formal contexts, the facilitator must learn a set of techniques that over time will be part of their work “toolbox.” In most cases, however, a routine application of these techniques is not enough. To be truly effective, a facilitator must have an open and empathic attitude, responsive to unexpected situations and to what the group needs at any time, especially in times of tension or conflict.
Therefore, in addition to the techniques — something you can learn — a person who wants to facilitate groups has to develop skills which can only be achieved through personal work. You will have to practice and manifest in your daily life the kind of attitudes that will then be useful in your work as facilitator.
The quality of the intervention or facilitation depends critically on the quality of the intervener or facilitator. Meditation and mindfulness practice and a commitment to continued personal development are likely to be helpful to anyone who would like to become a better facilitator.
What exactly does a facilitator do?
The International Association of Facilitators, IAF, has defined the basic set of skills, knowledge, and behaviours that facilitators must have in order to facilitate successfully in a wide variety of environments.
The IAF uses these criteria to assess candidates who seek certification from this respected association.
A) Create collaborative client relationships
- Develop working partnerships
- Design and customize applications to meet client needs
- Manage multi-session events effectively
B) Plan appropriate group processes
- Select clear methods and processes that
- Foster open participation with respect for client culture, norms, and participant diversity
- Engage the participation of those with varied learning and thinking styles
- Achieve a high quality product/outcome that meets the client’s needs
2. Prepare time and space to support group process
C) Create and sustain a participatory environment
- Demonstrate effective participatory and interpersonal communication skills
- Honour and recognize diversity, ensuring inclusiveness
- Manage group conflict
- Evoke group creativity
D) Guide group to appropriate and useful outcomes
- Guide the group with clear methods and processes
- Facilitate group self-awareness about its task
- Guide the group to consensus and desired outcomes
E) Build and maintain professional knowledge
- Maintain a base of knowledge
- Know a range of facilitation methods
- Maintain professional standing
F) Model positive professional attitude
- Practice self-assessment and self-awareness
- Act with integrity
- Trust group potential and model neutrality
Here is a link to IAF’s extensive Methods Database for facilitators.
[… continues; for those who are missing a mention of sociocracy 1.0 to 3.0 or holocracy here, let me assure you that the curriculum covers these extremely useful tools and processes elsewhere.]
[Note: The 2017–2018 online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’ starts on October 23rd, 2017 and is enrolling now. The course starts with the Social Design dimension, which this excerpt is taken from. The material for this dimension was mainly written by José Luis Escorihuela (Ulises) who also leads the online team for the Spanish version of the course. This excerpt was co-authored by Ulises Escorihuela and Daniel Wahl , the author of Designing Regenerative Cultures.]