The Facilitator’s Dilemma

In Rhizome we have recently been sharing with each other the work we have done and how we felt about it. Common to us all of course is working with, facilitating, training, supporting groups of people. Some groups have many tensions unexpressed within them , power struggles, individuals feeling excluded or disregarded, mistrust, misunderstood or vague objectives leading to ineffective meetings and decision making and sometimes explosions of personal emotions which shatter the supposed task to pieces and all one can do is forget the task and start working on building group trust and respect .

As an external facilitator, brought in to help with a decision or a sticking point in a strategy development process, or to help define and clarify roles and responsibilities, it’s often obvious that the group has not spent enough time getting to know each other, exploring what they want or need, some members are marginalised and the group is dysfunctional.  I liked Cruxcatlyst’s article on this issue, When Groups Go Bad, recommending Jamie Oliver among other good suggestions, and also her piece on dealing with black hats!

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses.

And, as an external facilitator, it’s really hard to move away from the task that you’ve been brought in to do to what really needs doing and especially if there is not enough time allotted.  But the one cannot be successfully achieved without the other. A quandary, one which I struggled with recently, ending up giving more time to the people aspect and less to the task. Although this was something of a disappointment for the group, they did feel  they had got to understand each other better and agreed to take the task on to another meeting. Not much of a catalytic intervention, and another occasion when offering on-going support to the development of the group’s health was what I really wanted to do! This is the constant dilemma – to accept with caveats the parameters set by the client, even though you know it will not work, or to hold out for more time and more focus on the group itself before even contemplating starting a decision-making process.




Can everyone facilitate?

I was copied into an email discussion earlier this week with an underlying question of whether it’s possible to say that everyone can facilitate.

Clearly there are people for whom facilitation is a greater challenge, whether because of confidence, experience, or communication style.

Been to this meeting?

What sprung to mind for me was shared facilitation. Not having a meeting facilitator, but having a facilitated meeting. In other words not packaging up all the possible roles, responsibilities, skills and actions required to successfully facilitate a meeting and hanging them around the neck of one particular individual (like some kind of process albatross). Instead consciously sharing those things, each taking their part. But how many meetings are there where that actually happens? The albatross scenario is more common by far. And if you take that scenario as your starting point and ask can everyone facilitate I think the answer’s likely to be  “no”. And who could blame folk for not trying or for trying and failing?

When we go to a meeting we need to ask ourselves what our role is. Seems to me that we have a few choices open to us, not all of which are helpful. I’ll leave you to make that judgment:

  1. Are we going to be passive spectator and be part of the ‘audience’ or are we going to get involved and contribute?
  2. If we contribute will it be a contribution to the content of the meeting? This is common but often conditional – after all we want to get our point of view across, right?
  3. We could also contribute to the content in away that helps articulate points of view that aren’t being heard – whether asking for others’ opinions or attempting to express views not in the room.
  4. We could also contribute to process. Again this can be, and often is, conditional – we’ll offer thoughts on process whenever said process isn’t going the way that best serves our interests.
  5. And/or we could contribute unconditionally to process, that is we could share the facilitation if only for a few seconds. For some folk this comes naturally and they’re a huge blessing for any albatross wearing facilitator. For others it’s not a natural part of their meeting experience or culture, but with a little conscious work it could be.

And if we can start to move in the direction offered by this fifth option, can everyone facilitate? Well the question then becomes: can every group share facilitation well enough that everyone in the group feels supported to play their part in that facilitation? Not an albatross in sight.

Consensus decision-making: Why?

We’ve already talked a little about what consensus is. We used phrases such as:

“challenge oppressive behaviour, working for the common good over personal benefit…a pulling together of ideas to build the strongest available decision…a transformational process”

All well and good, but let’s look in detail and make it a bit more real: why do people choose consensus? And who are these people anyway? The common thread with groups using consensus is probably the search for a genuinely egalitarian and inclusive model of democracy. Groups that have used or are still using consensus or consensus-like include native american nations, anarchist protest movements and radical religious groups, notably quakers and mennonites.

So why does consensus deliver this superior form of democracy? Partly it’s down to a strong sense of group. Partly it’s down to the stated intention to treat all people as equals. Partly it’s down to quirks of the method, prime amongst them giving all participants in the process an equal right of veto over any and all decisions. Partly it’s down to consensus being a facilitated approach. And partly it’s down to people’s experience of consensus delivering high quality decisions that the whole group feels comfortable with (if not inspired by).

Sense of group

Consensus is for groups. Not for loose or accidental formations of people, but for groups that have a definite sense of themselves as a group. In her book Truth or Dare Starhawk calls it group mind. Others call it common ground, shared values. Whatever the words a group uses, it’s a conscious sense of the group being more than the sum of its parts. That sense of the group being able to achieve far more than any one individual makes it worthwhile for individuals to allow the group mind precedence over their personal ambition. This makes consensus the perfect approach for many co-operatives, community groups, and activist affinity groups.

The best of intentions

Consensus is an explicitly non-hierarchical egalitarian process. That’s what it says on the box, and as such it attracts users who already have a commitment to behaving in that way. Of course we don’t always live up to our ideals and most of us are brought up with competitive relationships being the norm. When we’re trying to work co-operatively they can trip even the best of us up. I’m reminded of a post on the fantastic Paths through Utopia blog, describing an anarchist school in Spain:

“Pepa tells us that they no longer allow children over nine years old to enrole. By then they have become too moulded by capitalism, competivity and individualism “the system has structured the mind and it is impossible to be free” she tells us. She thinks that adults can begin the process of changing but it takes a long time, as we are all well aware. It challenges the very basis of our society of separation – the I and the them, subject versus object. Reaching a state of freedom requires us to seamlessly merge individual and collective responsibility”

But the joy is in the journey and not arriving at the destination, right? So consensus is the preferred option for many anti-discrimination groups, and those for whom hierarchy is a problem – such as some co-operatives, anarchist groups and networks

The veto

Each individual having the right to veto any proposal at any stage? That’s a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility. For those that haven’t achieved the necessary sense of group it can also be a huge problem, with individuals vetoing proposals for individual reasons and not with that sense of group in mind.

But in a well-functioning consensus group (and they do exist) the veto is so rare as almost to be unheard of. For this reason consensus lore says that an individual should veto no more than the fingers on one hand in a lifetime! Think about it, to get to the point in a process at which someone feels moved strongly enough to stop a proposal from going any further, a group has to have ignored some pretty significant warning signs. The quality of listening, observation, inclusion has to have dropped well below the standard expected of a group committed to equality, access, inclusion, participation (and all those other nice words). And given that vetos are used to prevent a group taking an action that runs contrary to its core aims and values, the group also has to be going significantly off course. In our well-functioning group, the veto is not something to be afraid of, but to be welcomed. If someone vetos it brings the group back to itself, it sense of self, and its core aims and values.

And that makes the veto a radical safety valve that keeps groups working to their highest shared ideals.

We’ll inevitably talk more about vetos as this series of posts progresses.


Consensus assumes facilitation. For most groups this is an explicit appointing of one of more individuals to look after the process. Some groups may say they reach consensus without facilitation. More likely they do so without a facilitator, but they’re functioning well enough that they share the roles of facilitator without even thinking about it.

The use of facilitation in consensus provides some reassurances that the process will be more equitable. It’s far more than simply deciding between a go-round and a paired discussion for the next stage of the agenda. In a consensus setting having a facilitator or facilitation team in place ensures that someone out there is consciously monitoring the level of equality and is challenging informal hierarchy or any oppressive behaviour. More than that they can keep a flow of gentle but constant reminders flowing throughout the meeting – to work towards the highest intentions, to co-operate rather than compete, to aspire to build a cathedral rather than simply carve a block of stone

Quality not quantity…

Consensus works. Yes, there are many groups struggling to make it work: finding themselves watering down the process, making poor decisions, and dealing with informal hierarchy, oppression of various kinds and more. But there are enough groups that make it work well, or at least achieve moments of clarity in which they see the promise of consensus, that it’s worth pursuing. When it’s working well consensus delivers highest common denominator decisions – that is decisions based on the best of all the ideas discussed in a diverse groups. It addresses people’s concerns. And it reaffirms the sense of group and leaves people energised, creating a virtuous circle.

Other posts in this series:

Post on the process of consensus

Facilitation? Why bother?

Just a quick signpost to Adrian Nixon’s On facilitation blog, and especially today’s post Why do we need facilitation anyway?, I particularly appreciated these 2 bullet points:

  • Good facilitators do have their preconceptions and expectations but have the ability to put these aside and create fresh improvements
  • Facilitators have the ability to listen to what is said and not said (my emphasis) and reflect this back to the room

Dreaming of Transition: sharing assumptions

There’s a joke amongst facilitators that groups of facilitators are the hardest to work with.

Last week’s Transition Network’s Dreaming Circle saw 24 facilitators drawn from diverse cultures and facilitation approaches come together to talk groups. It was an immensely creative space, but inevitably there were things that could have worked better. Apologies in advance for concentrating on the “could do betters”. It’s where I do most of my learning.

Here’s a couple of things that stood out for me….

The common thread is making assumptions. Every group does it, and it’s a stumbling block to good process in groups. We make assumptions about what the group believes. We make assumptions on the process the group will use. We make assumptions on what the group wants to achieve. We make assumptions about what the group knows or understands. Usually these are based on what we as individuals believe, know, understand, want to achieve, and the processes we are familiar with. Making some of these things explicit early in the life of a group can save a lot of pain later.

What it means to facilitate:

In the Dreaming Circle group we didn’t do that explicit work. At one point on the second day 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 (from Transition Network) 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.

Do you speak facilitator?

Every group of people has a certain amount of their own language – in other words, jargon. Facilitators aren’t exempt. What I feel that we should be exempt from, however is assuming that everyone shares our jargon or at least understands it in the same way. There were regular requests for clarification of terms such as ‘pattern language‘, and ‘constellation’.

It felt like this was one area in which the group was less successful in learning and modifying its behaviour, at least in the 2 days I was there. After so many requests we really ought to have been taking greater care to check out the assumptions in the language we used. It’s hard – when you speak these words so often, and when they’re part of your identity as ‘facilitator’, but it needed to be done.

A concern that I have about this ingrained jargon is that we might carry it with us when we work with groups who are not facilitators, and embed it into our training materials, embedding the assumption that it’s universally understood with it.

“What assumptions am I making?” is a powerful question. And the Dreaming Circle has reminded me to ask it all the more often Inevitably I’ve made some in this post, so feel free to point them out.

The agenda-less meeting?

too much on the agenda?

Thanks to Dwight Towers for nudging me towards Chris Johnston on social change. In particular I’m mulling over Chris’s post Death to the agenda meeting. Like Chris I’d also invite you to take a look at Dwight’s post Adventures in the Liminal Zone – why do newbies not come back? and the discussion that it provoked.

Getting rid of the agenda – baby and bathwater?

Chris suggests that the agenda is a major obstacle to newcomers at a meeting getting involved in the group long-term. Here’s a taste of his argument:

The agenda meeting is designed for informed and committed people to share information and make decisions.

It’s an awesome format to use if you have a load of interested, experienced, and bought-in people sat in a room who want to get from A to B. It marshals interest and energy in a fair and disciplined way. It’s great at this. Go the agenda meeting….

The agenda meeting is not designed to satisfy the needs of inexperienced and not yet committed people for socialising, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

I find myself agreeing with the intention to find ways to make meetings more accessible to newcomers, but not with his conclusions. I don’t want to get into a point by point rebuttal because we’re not in conflict – we’re both arguing for the same outcome, and frankly they get dull very quickly. So I’ll keep it quick and then meander off into my own thinking. Chris says:

Strength #1 of the agenda meeting is information sharing. But why would you share info with newbies this way? Just have a comprehensive website – quicker, easier and more satisfying for the newbie.

A few assumptions here I’m not comfortable with:

  • newcomers are less well-informed – it’s a broad generalisation and like all generalisations there are plenty of exceptions to the rule to trip us up. Like the student campaigner I spoke to who had been campaigning for 3 years at university, including a year as a sabbatical campaigns officer. He rolled up to a meeting of a ‘town’ campaign group who treated him like he knew nothing and had no experience…. The fact that he stayed involved was due to his passion for the issues and not for the group
  • newcomers all have web access/choose to use the web
  • they’re all using it to read the website of the group we’re thinking of joining
  • they’ve all done that reading in advance of the meeting
  • the existing members of the group are all equally well-informed and don’t need an agenda to equalise their understanding and through understanding their ability to participate in the meeting

Strength #2 is making decisions. But why would you ask newbies to make decisions about issues they have little knowledge of, on tactics they have no familiarity with, in a room with people who know far more than they do?

Again, so many assumptions – see my student campaigner example above. But primarily, why ask them to make decisions? Because it sends a clear message that they’re a valued part of the group, that their opinion and experience (however much or little) counts and because it’s empowering.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against different types of meeting. Some more social, some more planning or whatever. I’m against tha assumption that the more focussed planning type meeting can’t be made accessible to interested newcomers.

Ideas for saving the baby and just getting rid of the bathwater

The problem is not the agenda per se but how it’s structured and facilitated. Let’s look at some common agenda related problems and a few things you can do about them:

Agenda is overfull. The group alleges to meet from 7.30 pm to 9pm but puts at least 3 hours worth of material on the agenda and wonders why meetings run late. This also means there’s no room in the meeting for simple but vital things such as time to get to know newcomers (icebreaker, proper introductions), breaks that can be used to socialise and find out about the group and each other, space to explain the group’s process and quirks such as the use of handsignals, consensus decision-making. All this means that for newcomers it’s sink or swim, and the water is not inviting.

So the golden rule is do less and do it well. Realistic agendas with some open space to react to local or world events, to take time to get to know each other, and especially newcomers, and so on. If you’re facilitating and your experience tells you there’s 3 hours of material for a 1.5 hour meeting, pause. Be creative, and if necessary be brutal with the agenda. There’s what the group needs to do, and there’s what the group would like to do. Creativity might take you to small groups working on different items in parallel (and even with a meeting of only 4 people you still have 2 small groups!), tools such as roving ideastorms to get a lot of work done quickly without the potential tedium of small group feedback and more.

As for the other stuff – financial report backs, hours of announcements, personal hobby horses. Find other ways to communicate those: newsletters, emails, websites.

Agenda set in advance. Great for allowing facilitators to prepare a process for the meeting, but a recipe for inflexibility and exclusion if not handled right. A pre-prepared agenda can easily take away the ability of newcomers to offer agenda suggestions. Accepting those suggestions sends a clear message – we value your input. How many groups have enough members that they can afford not to send that message?

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. Of course planning in some open space can save a lot of hurried reworking….

And of course pre-set agendas can place power in the hands of those who set them. There’s enough written about informal hierarchies already so I won’t add to that here. Let’s just say it sends a message, deliberate or otherwise, that there’s “them” and there’s “us” within the group. Newcomers are left feeling alienated, or jumping on the bandwagon of politicking to become “us”. Bring on the unhealthy, and ultimately self-destructive group dynamics. This group will implode in 10, 9, 8, 7…….

Preset agendas usually contain lots of assumptions about the priorities of the group, about the level of knowledge, about who gets to speak and so on… “OK so on to  the X campaign…. Jo, you’re our resident expert, tell us what to think and do”. Assumptions need to be aired and if necessary challenged. They create weak groups that fall to pieces in moments of crisis. To quote Jeremy Hardy talking about “the rallying cry of the left: ‘I thought you were bringing the leaflets’“.

It might be an assumption about process (that we’re all familiar with and believe in consensus, for example), an assumption about priorities (that the action we’ve been planning for weeks is still more important than the war that’s just broken out), assumptions about knowledge (we all understand the issue well enough to discuss taking action on it). I’m sure you can think of others.

Agendas create a focus on tasks. Let’s face it, the agenda is usually about getting stuff done. Fair enough I hear you say – we’re activists, we like to get stuff done.

Building in time to your agenda to balance task with maintenance, that is how we feel about getting stuff done, is hugely undervalued but has such an impact on the life and effectiveness of a group. Meetings aren’t a penance. Well, at least they shouldn’t be. They best ones are a balance of effective action and, dare I say it, fun. We want to build groups that we enjoy being part of whilst getting stuff done.

Agenda formalise roles within groups. With each task tends to go “the person who usually does that thing”. Could be the facilitator – were not exempt! That closes the door to skillsharing, creativity, and change within group. Don’t let the agenda threaten a culture of openness, experimentation (And yes, some will fail. Pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off and chalk it up to experience) and challenge.

So, to-agenda-or-not-to-agenda? The agenda is a tool for your group. It’s not your group. It has no magical power over you. Use it to improve your meetings not ruin them. Keep it alive, flexible, spacious, welcoming and it will serve you well.

The Curse of Competence?

Imagine that you’re co-facilitating a day long training session for about 30 people. Towards the end of the day one of the participants expresses, in no uncertain terms, their unhappiness with the particular activity that you are in the midst of. You do what you normally do – try to explore and balance the particular needs of the individual and the needs of the group as a whole. It doesn’t work. In no time at all you realise that you’re in conflict with a member of the group. Fortunately you’re co-facilitating, so there’s another person to step in to the breach, and offer ways forward. The training continues, and those few minutes are a small part of a generally very successful day.

That’s a situation I found myself in last October. I’ve been looking for a chance to jot down some thoughts ever since. A few weeks after the training I had a chance to speak to the particular person involved. We spent about 90 minutes on the phone exploring, conflicting, learning, and I hope appreciating. Some of what stayed with me, from a very wide-ranging conversation, was to do with models of facilitation. Part of the problem seemed to be that as facilitators we’d taken on all of the explicit facilitation roles ourselves. Potentially we’d disempowered others, leaving them feeling “I’ll never be able to facilitate like that, so why bother trying”.

For any facilitator committed to participation, it’s a real challenge. I didn’t enjoy the interaction at the time but it’s proved very thought-provoking.

There’s a whole raft of arguments I can cite for why the way I’ve often worked is best – some of them follow:

  • I know that I prefer to juggle multiple roles when I’m facilitating – keeping an ear to the conversation whilst taking notes, keeping an eye on the clock and on who’s indicating that they’d like to speak next, and who hasn’t spoken at all and so on. Multiple roles allows me to focus and get into a rhythm. Practically speaking taking my own notes helps structure my thinking, allows me to see emerging themes, and begin to place them in the overall meeting process, for example.
  • I often facilitate at activist gatherings, where the facilitator is chosen as the meeting starts, and any co-facilitators are also drawn from the group in the moment. Potentially they’re strangers to each other. There’s no way of knowing how well they’ll do the job. There’s no time in the meeting format to get together, introduce yourselves, talk about facilitation styles and so on. There’s 80 people sitting in a circle waiting to begin.
  • And then, of course, what if the person who volunteers to ‘take hands’ does so rigidly, on a first come first served basis, whereas I might consciously overlook the vociferous and seek out new speakers. What if the person writing up the notes doesn’t accurately capture what’s been said, or worse still fails to write down some points at all?
  • By taking on all of the roles, surely I allow others to participate fully in the meeting?
  • Finally I placate myself with reference to all those facilitation skills workshops I’ve run over the years. If that’s not about empowering people to facilitate what is?

Good arguments perhaps. And yet there’s a nagging doubt that part of the problem is simply the desire to keep control. That task-focused bit of my brain which wants to deliver the best possible results and (arrogantly?) believes that facilitating alone, or planning ahead with a co-facilitator, is the best way of doing that.

Where am I going with this? Simply to share a dilemma and to ask for your thoughts and experiences. For me it’s a clear call to take a few risks in future, to let go a little, and to let roles as well as content and process emerge. I’ll keep you posted.