Facilitating meetings: useful tips & models

Our facilitation draws on many different models and approaches, so to mark the occasion of Rhizome’s new website, I decided to unearth useful advice and questions, to remind ourselves and for you, dear readers. 

I went back and re-read the blogs from 2010, the first year of our existence. I was quite impressed! There was a lot of good stuff about facilitation, especially about the models we use. This is what turning the tilth uncovered for me – all the text below is quoted from one of those blogs, lightly edited so that freestanding extracts make sense. There are three pieces of advice and two questions. Do ponder them all, and pitch in to the discussion, in the comments below, by twitter or via email or phoneMore about the facilitation we offer.

Check your assumptions

At one point there was open conflict involving facilitators wanting to move a process on, a participant not yet ready to move on, and others in the group unhappy at how the conflict was being expressed, and the patterns it might set if left unchallenged. In the debrief of the incident one key contributing factor was different parties’ understanding of what it means to facilitate.

Our facilitators were, consciously or unconsciously working to a model that required them to take responsibility to move the process along. This clashed with another take on their role (drawn from process work) – simply to <name< what was going on in the group, but not to attempt to do anything about it. That was for the group to decide. The issue wasn’t whether one model was right or wrong but that these assumptions had never been articulated and shared with the group. A useful reminder to all of us to ask a group, nice and early, how they see our role as facilitators. “What assumptions am I making?” is a powerful question. (Dreaming of Transition: sharing assumptions, December 7, 2010)

Be sensitive to the people in the room

Ground rules tend to be created by the mainstream of the group, who are clueless in their coerciveness. Take, for example, “no interruptions” as a ground rule. It explicitly privileges one communication style over another… African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalised have different styles of communication and may view interruptions differently — they can be part of keeping the pace of conversation moving. It’s still rude to cut off someone if they have not been able to make a single point, but even more rude to hog the floor making multiple and even unrelated points. But “interrupting” allows people to handle a conversation point-by-point, keeping a flow of a conversation. (Groundrules – empowering or oppressive? , July 12, 2010)

Stay flexible

Even the most pre-set agenda should only ever be a proposal subject to change in the light of new events such as an influx of newcomers or a breaking crisis that demands immediate action. Facilitators need to embrace the challenge of reworking agendas on the hoof. Co-facilitation is great for that. I facilitate the introductions whilst my co-facilitator reworks the first half of the agenda to take into account the need for change. (The agenda-less meeting? November 12, 2010)

How far to keep control?

At one stage [in a facilitation training] I heard one participant wonder whether Open Space didn’t throw out the facilitation baby with the bath water. The concern? That the small group conversations that are integral to Open Space are unfacilitated and therefore open to domination and a lack of participation.

I see [the issue of control] in many NGOs that work with grassroots networks. Fully letting go of the agenda on any level is tough. The NGOs have strategic directions, priority campaigns, and funding commitments. Individual staff have poured heart and soul into their area of work and developed specific skills and expertise. What if these priorities aren’t what the participants choose to discuss in their Open Space conversations? (Shared planets and open spaces, September 1, 2010)

How active to be?

A group has done tremendous work reflecting, discussing, planning, consenting and then we get to implementing… and suddenly no one has the strength left to lift either hand or gaze when the moment comes to volunteer to take a project forward. All that hard work is in danger of slipping away unimplemented for lack of a volunteer working group… As a facilitator I find it a tough one. Sure I can throw a bit of weight around and cajole people into finishing the process off, but that’s not a role I’m comfortable with. (Language, laptops and lethargy, July 9, 2010)