Facilitating in a hierarchy

For many of us that work in grassroots networks or co-operatives, facilitating in a formal hierarchy doesn’t appear to be much of an issue – unlike co-ops or informal networks, the power relations and decision-making responsibilities are clear. But for many of our social change colleagues working in NGOs, facilitating meetings certainly can be an issue. The devil is very much in the detail.

Recently Gill and I were training a group of folk who will do much of their facilitation in the hierarchical setting of a national NGO, and for whom meeting facilitation is a source of potential tension. Factor in that they were relatively junior graded staff in the grand scheme of things and the problem is magnified. So what advice would you offer them? What’s your experience of facilitating in formal power dynamics?

As facilitators who’re often external to the groups we work with, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to be in that position. Our role as ‘outsider’ brings a certain authority with it, so we can feel protected from the hierarchy. Of course, that’s not always the case. Many of us will have done a piece of facilitation work when the brief we’ve been given only works for those with a certain degree of power, but not for everyone we’re working with. Or we’ve facilitated in a participatory way as instructed and then the manager has panicked at the newly empowered responses they are getting. Can you share how you dealt with it?

I stopped doing the washing up last night to make notes of the conversation that was happening in my head. Here’s a slightly more polished version:

Problem 1: Don’t we promote facilitation as about full participation? Good facilitation brings people in from the margins of the group, allows them to be heard, allows the  group to benefit from the full breadth of its wisdom, form plans and make decisions that harness the creativity and energy of the whole of the diverse group. I’m pretty sure I’ve said stuff like that on numerous occasions. But should you go into a hierarchical setting with that as the expectation of yourself as facilitator and then find yourself in tension with what actually unfolds before you?

Problem 2: Don’t we all carry personal expectations about what will happen in meetings with us from meeting to meeting? For some it might be “I have lots to offer but will never be heard”. For others it could  be “I will be heard”, or indeed “I will be heard and the outcome will go my way”. These are just a few examples of the many conversations that are likely to be going on in participants’ heads. Some meetings may deliver those expectations and others may not, especially if those expectations are about people’s power in groups. There’s a challenge there for facilitators to understand and manage those expectations sensitively in a hierarchy, particularly when they have to live within that hierarchy rather than be tourists, like us.

Problem 3: I’ve worked with a number of NGOs that like to see themselves as significantly less linear than, say, many corporations. They often, consciously or unconsciously, cultivate an image of equality, respect, being horizontal and well-connected to the grassroots. This can lead to frustration when the reality of the hierarchy kicks in mid-meeting. It can create a raft of problems for facilitators who’ve been asked to encourage participation and that’s what’s been happening; there’s suddenly a deterioration in people’s behaviour as they begin to feel ignored or sidelined, there may be conflict or more. I feel this tension whenever I’m working around NGOs. It’s a tension of expectations against reality. When you sign up to work in a social change or ‘alternative’ structure it’s easy to take with you notions of participation only to find that they don’t apply when push comes to shove.

Gill was rightly keen that in last week’s facilitation training we spend a while focusing on the purpose of a meeting. There’s a world of difference in what to expect from a decision-making meeting to a consultation for example, and yet the two often get confused. Are we being asked our opinion, which may or may not be taken on board, or are we sharing in the decision-making power? Are we simply receiving information on a project or being asked for our ideas? and so on. So facilitators need to help the group get some clarity on what’s the expected outcome and behaviours (and what may actually be permitted) in any given meeting, and where the power lies to decide that outcome, judge that information, manage those ideas.

In a formal hierarchy different people in the room may have a different role to play. That role may change depending on the meeting or even the item in the meeting; it might be clear that I am used to being the decision-maker when meeting with my juniors, but only be expected to offer opinion when meeting with my seniors.220px-FrostReportClassSketch

And what does that mean for the facilitator of that meeting – how should they acknowledge and manage the different, maybe fluctuating, power relationships? Does that mean that the role of the facilitator in this setting might be to disabuse participants of notions of their own power? How does that sit with notions of opening space for participation? Can these facilitators really facilitate for the margins – isn’t the nature of hierarchy that it will inevitably marginalise some people at least some of the time? Answers on the proverbial postcard, please.

Of course we haven’t talked about informal hierarchies, differences in perceived power, how people present when they’ve been discriminated against, teased, made into a scapegoat, marginalised or how people take authority, take control, assert their power. Many grassroots facilitators will face all of these issues too, only it won’t be so apparent who the ‘managers’ are and who are the ‘worker bees’.

And we haven’t talked about the real purpose of a meeting (as opposed to the stated aim). What are people really trying to get from the meeting? Attention, promotion, asserting dominance, settling scores….. A facilitator may need to bring these things to light or keep them under control and reassert the collective purpose of the meeting.

I’ve used the word ‘assert’ in one form or another several times here. Not surprising as I’m considering the need for more explicit work on assertive communication in facilitation training.

And then, sadly, I no longer had an excuse not to go back to the washing up……

Matthew (thanks Gill, for suggested edits)



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