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)



Skills building with the London Cycling Campaign

A few weeks ago Matthew and I facilitated a one day workshop for the London Cycling Campaign. It was for their newly recruited group of volunteer Campaign Organisers and local group members who will be working hard on the Space4Cycling campaign in the run up to the local elections in May. This aims to get local candidates across every borough committing to specific demands to make cycling safer in their neighbourhoods.

The brief was to design and facilitate a day that built their confidence and skills in lobbying local candidates, communicating campaign asks to their local community and getting into local and social media. Some participants had been involved with LCC for a while, some were new to the organisation and the campaign. Most participants hadn’t met each other, so time getting to grips with the campaign and getting to know each other also had to be factored in.

LCC posted a good summary of what we did and their thoughts on how it went on their blog, written up straight after the event, in a much timelier manner! I thought we’d add a few more reflections from our perspective and a selection of comments from participants.

We designed the day to be very interactive and participant led – lots of discussion and activities in workshops and smaller groups, plus a big chunk of open space. Many participants said this was the best thing about the day – it enabled them to meet other and share experience and expertise. Comments included “my head is buzzing”, “it was intense and I am tired” and “the best thing was ‘doing it’”.

However on reflection we might have leaned too far towards active participation and we didn’t include a presentation about the campaign and their role in it. Although they had all had a written briefing in advance a number of participants felt that a quick update on the campaign at the start of the day would have been helpful and a couple of people still felt confused about what they were there for by the end of the day. This made us ponder that perhaps we can be so determined to do things differently and make things participative that we forget that sometimes a plenary presentation is exactly what’s needed to set the scene.

Plus, while lots of people really valued the open space session and felt they had necessary conversations relevant to their groups, others were less sure. A couple of participants felt that it was a bit “too open”, not structured enough, and that conversations veered off into irrelevant tangents. We’ve been facilitating a few open space sessions recently and having a few discussions about them. Pondering a blog post soon on the joys and challenges of facilitating open space, so watch this space! As always, we’re keen to hear your views.


Training activists with Labour Behind the Label

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend with Labour Behind the Label a Bristol based co-operative who campaign to support garment workers. They focus on efforts worldwide to improve working conditions and campaign on a range of issues, from getting compensation for the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster to fighting for a living wage.

They have recently recruited a group of Regional Co-ordinators across England to raise awareness in their local communities of the issues garment workers face and to encourage people to take action. They invited Rhizome to help facilitate a two day training workshop for the volunteers to develop their confidence and skills in speaking to people, running awareness raising workshops for local groups and putting on public actions to generate interest.

The workshop was a mix of information giving about garment worker’s rights and the changes Labour Behind the Label are campaigning for and skills building and practice activities. We practiced giving out leaflets to members of the public, adapting information for different audiences, and designing and delivering a mini-workshop. By the end of the weekend the group has also generated a number of ideas for public actions and shared experience of putting on successful fundraising events. The group took well to this “learning by doing” approach and feedback was generally pretty positive, though the task of delivering a workshop was quite challenging for some. One piece of feedback was that more modelling or examples of good practice would have been helpful, which did make me reflect on how I set up the task and think about how I could incorporate this next time I run a similar activity.


Virtual facilitation

Video conference imageI recently found myself facilitating a two day meeting for a large campaigning organisation where the group were discussing strategies for a potential new campaign. Most of the participants were in the room, but three joined us by video from two different locations. I was a little apprehensive about this as I have never facilitated a meeting with virtual participants before!

One of my main concerns was how to ensure the three participants joining by video could effectively and confidently participate with the main group in the room. I didn’t want them to feel hesitant about contributing or shy about responding to others in the conversation (or at least no more so than they might have had they been present in person). The meeting was very much about creating an inclusive discussion, not about listening to expert presentations and asking questions, which I thought was a more straight forward task with video participants. On the other hand I was also concerned that the video participants might dominate the discussion too much, as the main group in the room were acutely aware of involving them.

Other challenges were three different time zones meaning that the video participants joined at different start/ end times to main group – how would they know where we were in the conversation and what had/ had not been covered? How could we best arrange the room so they could see others and be seen? How would they view key flipcharts? And finally the ever present worry about the technology breaking down, losing the video or audio or both.

A couple of actions before and during the workshop helped to alleviate these concerns. Key was preparation before the workshop – calling each of the video participants in advance and asking what would help them, confirming when they would be joining/ leaving each day and talking them through the agenda. Sending them a more detailed agenda and instructions for the discussion activities in advance was also important. During the session a couple of techniques helped to keep them up to date about where we were in the conversation, taking pictures of key flipcharts and emailing them over seemed to work well, as did lots of summarising and synthesising key discussion points.  Breaking into smaller groups was also helpful and the participants fed back that they found contributing easier and more engaging in these smaller groups of 3 or 4. As for technical hiccups, one of the more technically savvy participants took charge of this, which was really helpful! Plus we had a back-up plan to move to a conference call if the video link broke down. In the event it all worked fine and no major problems.

Next time I’d do a couple of things differently, particularly planning the agenda. I’d try to think more carefully about splitting the workshop into more discrete chunks, including more breaks and where possible allowing more time for each part. This seemed important as discussions seemed to take a bit longer with the video link, but breaks really necessary as it is tiring work listening and contributing remotely without the energy in the room carrying you along. I’ll also try to remember to look at the video participants and direct my contributions to them more – sometimes I found myself momentarily forgetting they were there, oops. Finally I’d work more on my summarising and synthesising to make it more clear and concise and helpful in moving the discussion along.

Not sure when will be asked to facilitate such a session again, but do feel this will become more common, at least in the internationally focused NGOs as they shift to increasing their presence in the global south. I’d be interested in others thoughts on lessons for facilitation and participative training – do share your experiences if you have also virtually facilitated!


Facilitating Change: Changing Facilitation?

On Thursday I got an early train to Manchester to meet with Adam, Kathryn and Lucy – my ‘Facilitating Change’ co-facilitators before travelling to Wales together the following day. On Monday evening I got the train back from the event – a little battered and bruised from the experience, oddly exhilarated too, and very tired. I left the others three and a half more days of work to do and with a sense that Monday morning’s work has shifted the dynamic. But I get ahead of myself. Whilst there (there being The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Ecocabins), I kept a rough and ready journal. Here’s a few extracts and some reflections from 48 hours on:

“I’m typing this on Saturday morning before the inevitable early morning facilitator planning session. Friday evening – we started ‘work’ at 7pm, after 2 intensive days of conversation, planning and deep sharing about our needs from each other. We started just as I was really feeling I’d had enough for the day. Our preparation was exciting, revealing and exhausting. We were treading the line between holding to a vision for the event, and our own anxieties about facilitating that vision and sustaining ourselves for a week long event.


In the end we went with our vision – working with the group of 22 participants (from the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and Spain) as the material for the event, and with the event as laboratory. The design of the event? Emergent. We planned as far as ¾ way through Saturday, knowing that even that plan might (would) change. Our intention is simply to give the group an experience of itself and see where that takes us, working with whatever emerges. Handing over to participants as often as we can get away with for them to discern where the group is at, and design and facilitate the next step. Nothing too radical there if process work or similar is your background. But for us it’s a step (and a big one) but one we’ve been working towards for a long time. We expect conflict, we expect strong emotion, we expect difference and divergence. And we expect a hell of a lot of learning for facilitators and participants alike.

We discussed at length whether we’d also have all our facilitator planning and debrief meetings in public. It’s the one area where we strayed from the vision. It felt like too much on top of other risks we’re taking as a facilitation team. Ironically at the end of our first debrief meeting one of us uttered “I wish we’d had that meeting in front of the group”. The result of that first debrief? We’re on track… the approach is working for now and the group are willing to go with it (for now). We discussed the gender dynamics of a 2 women/ 2 men facilitation team. Are some norms already starting to show? Are we dealing with them less than skilfully? Are we letting the task of being ready to meet and greet the participants, and begin the workshop get in the way of us processing these dynamics? Aren’t they themselves “group as material” and shouldn’t we process them in the wider group? Answers on a postcard.

After a brief sentence of welcome we threw the group straight in with a question – “What have you already observed or intuited about this group?”. After some personal reflection and paired sharing we had a group discussion, and only then started covering “housekeeping” information, and introductions. We took our time over the introductions, letting them run for the rest of the evening.


Saturday: I’m tired. Very. And not a little bruised. It’s been an eventful day. This morning we asked the full group to sort 45 or so words and phrases into 3 categories – values, attitudes and behaviours in around 20 minutes. After a few initial thoughts as a full group, they broke up and shared why they had made the decisions they had – to put which word or phrase where. The flip charts they produced were beautiful . From a facilitation perspective there was also plenty of material to work with – the groups issues were definitely starting to show. The next question was “what values were we embodying in the activity so far”. Different small groups then shared one of the values they had experienced in the group in tableau form (by creating a group statue to represent the value). It was a kind of alternative version of Pictionary. The energy was high and there was a definite frisson in the group when one group sculpted ‘Elitism’.


We took the same question to the full group and tried to reflect back the dynamics we saw at play and the approach of group as content for the workshop really came into its own. A strong theme was the restraint, the politeness, and strong grip on emotion. There was resistance – of course there was. Hold a mirror up to any group and there will be resistance – hence my feeling a little bruised. And channelling the emotion of the group – giving myself permission to feel it and reflect it to the group was intense, tiring. As was alienating some of the mainstream voices in the group. It’s the first time I’ve properly gone out to consistently and persistently act as that mirror to the group. Some marginal voices were heard more powerfully than they otherwise might have been. My co-facilitators assure me it worked, but I’m no diplomat and need to work on ‘framing’ my observations in ways that challenge but also support.


It proved to be the backdrop for the rest of the day – an experience that has, to an extent, divided the group by opening up those mainstream and marginal dynamics.


Sunday: If the last entry saw me bruised, this evening  I’m bloodied and bruised. It’s been another intense day. We saw a mainstream in the group exerting its power, unconsciously resisting avenues that might empower the margins. Through Theatre of the Oppressed and a long debrief we persisted in trying to open up the possibility that there might be other forms of communication, other meeting structures and cultures, other ways of facilitating, that made room for the margins to participate. That persistence, coupled with allowing ourselves to feel the anger in the room and express it in the way process workers fill the ghost role – the role of what’s there but not acknowledged – opened up a rift between facilitators and the highest ranking participants. It was a risk. Has it paid off? Too early to say, but the margins are more vocal and they are demonstrating their support for the facilitation team.


What we’re almost certainly not communicating as clearly is the connection between this work and our role as social change facilitators. We’re not here for group therapy or for an anti-oppression workshop, valuable though both may be. We’re on this journey because we believe that social action groups and movements are tied into cultural norms theoretically informed by beliefs in equality and democracy, but which lock out behaviours that deviate from those norms. Ironically these democratic structures exclude those who can’t or won’t conform to those norms. We lose many people who might join our struggles because the culture and process of our meetings fail to show solidarity with their struggles. In our meetings we simply can’t handle strong emotion, we deal with conflict poorly, and difference of any kind is a real challenge in whatever form it takes. If we facilitators cannot support groups through these inevitable processes, what are we doing?


2 participants picked up the baton this afternoon with a ‘group process’, drawing on one of their experiences as a student of process work. Again, we were reminded that the UK activist scene needs new approaches to move forward. And process work has a lot to offer. As is so often the case it was facilitation from the group that was pivotal in moving the group on from a stuck position.


We’ve stretched people a long way. We’re aware that we need to keep going, but we also need to ensure that everyone has the support they need to work through the conflict that has arisen.


Monday: We were only working together this morning – the participants got the afternoon off. We facilitators fielded questions and conversation, and had a short debrief meeting. Kathryn, Adam and Lucy pick up the baton again at 7.30 this evening. Or rather they hold the space whilst a pair of participants design and lead the evening session.

This morning’s work was about consolidation and repair – acknowledging that the work so far has been tough, and stretched people. We gave them a chance to get to know each other more deeply, to support their experience so far with a firmer understanding of the theoretical models, such as margin and mainstream, that underpin it, and then a chance to take another look at the struggle of the margins through a diversity interview. One of the key learnings of the morning’s work was to broaden understanding of margins to the invisible (or less visible ones) such as mental health.


I’ve never facilitated an event at which so much of the work took place outside of the session – all 4 of us were engaged in a series of sometimes curious, sometimes furious conversations with a range of participants. Many of these conversations saw movement and helped us and them process what was coming up during the sessions. They were also an invaluable way for the facilitation team to keep its finger on the pulse of the group. So much was changing over a lunch break, or overnight that the snapshot we had of the group at the end of a session or a day’s work was rapidly out of date.


If last night we were feeling out of our depth (and I think we were), today we saw the clouds lift a little. There is very rich learning happening. The approach of continued dialogue and diagnosis of the group dynamics shaping the design and flow of the work was tough but rewarding. Holding to roles that challenged the group’s status quo was vital to deepen the work, but came at a personal cost – emotional and energetic. We need to reflect more on that and find ways to make it sustainable for us and our groups.


I’m hoping Adam will take over where I’ve left off, posting his learning, that of the group, and the facilitation team at some stage in the future. But he has a full week of this and needs to conserve his personal resources.”

48 hours on and back to ‘normal’ life’ it seems like another world. Knowing that the event is still in progress is mildly surreal. I got a text this evening “Going well, moving forward at least on M&M [margins and mainstreams] and rank. Now leadership is emerging as an issue as well. Positive learning being taken from your work with the group. Sorry you not here to see that…”. Having expected to be quite low after the event I was surprisingly uplifted. We received a lot of support from the margins of the group that made difficult facilitation possible and confirmed that we were doing the right work (even if we need to refine how we do it). Will it create a step change in facilitation here in the UK and elsewhere? Who knows. Will there be a Facilitating Change 2? Who knows. Will there be a lot of learning on facilitation for facilitators and participants alike. That’s guaranteed.



Common values, Common Cause

I spent a stimulating day at the Common Cause Assembly in London on Friday discussing the case for working with values and what this might mean in practice. Common Cause is an initiative led by the Public Interest Research Centre that grew out of a report published by a coalition of NGOs in 2010 that makes the case for civil society organisations to find common cause in working to strengthen a set of ‘intrinsic’ values that they suggest underpin the work of the sector, regardless of what particular issues individual organisations focus on.

Common Cause draws on a seam of academic research from psychology around human motivations, values and behaviour. This argues that people are motivated by their values, which influence their attitudes which in turn have an impact on their behaviour. Research shows that there are a set of consistently occurring human values throughout human societies which can be distilled into two broad concepts – ‘intrinsic’ values, which are values that are inherently rewarding to pursue (e.g. connection with nature, concern for others, social justice, creativity) and ‘extrinsic’ values, which are centred on external approval or rewards (e.g. wealth, social status, social power and authority).

This matters to civil society organisations pressing for change because people who prioritise intrinsic values are more likely to be politically engaged, concerned about social justice and demonstrate more environmentally friendly behaviours – generally all the ‘’progressive” or “good” things that we want people to do! We all hold all of the values to different degrees and in different ways during our lives, but the research also suggests that values can be strengthened, like muscles. So the more these intrinsic values are appealed to and engaged, the stronger they will get, and the ripple effect on our attitudes and actions will follow.

I spent much of the day in a workshop looking at how we might strengthen these intrinsic values in how we engage with others, and had some thought provoking conversations around what values mean in terms of facilitating and working with groups. How do we demonstrate intrinsic values such as helpfulness, honesty, equality and universalism when facilitating? Is it just about trying to model these values in our behaviour and interaction with the group? Is it being mindful of the values we want to encourage in creating the activities we run? Should we make a conscious effort to find out about the values of the people in the group and seek to meet them there, but nudge them towards intrinsic values if extrinsic values like authority and ambition are displayed? Is it right to attempt to challenge and change people’s values and attitudes? In terms of groups there was also an interesting open space session on the value of deep, immersive learning experiences vs. short workshops or training sessions in developing values driven action. We didn’t get very far in answering any of these questions, but had a great time thinking and debating. I’d be really interested in others reflections and experiences on this.

One other thing I found inspiring on the Common Cause website is a TED Talk by Dave Meslin, ‘The antidote to apathy’, arguing that people don’t fail to act out of apathy, but because there are significant external barriers to getting involved in our communities. If we break down these barriers we can make it much easier for people to act on their intrinsic values.

Facilitating Change

Tomorrow I head to Manchester to meet up with my 3 co-facilitators for the Facilitating Change event.

Facilitating Change is an exploration of the values that underpin and support effective facilitation. It’s an antidote to the view of facilitation that’s all “tools and techniques”. For a while the event had a nickname – a working title of “Super Intuitive Ninja Facilitation” or SNIF for short. It gives you a sense of what the event is working towards – grounding participants in themselves, in trusting their intuition and building on their and the group’s values (and yes, I acknowledge that there are those uncomfortable with aspiring to be compared with ninja… violence, assassination and all that).

The event itself starts on Friday evening and runs for a week. Yep, a whole week. When the idea was first mooted a couple of years ago part of the frustration was that we rarely if ever got the time to get deep enough to really do values-based work. The only way to get that time was to put on an event ourselves. We toyed with 10 days, but pragmatism won out and it ended up as a week. Not that I’ll be there that whole time – other commitments to juggle. The group will have the dubious pleasure of my company for the first half of the event. Rhizome’s Adam is made of sterner stuff and will be there throughout, so we hope to bring you reflections on the whole process.

There should be plenty to reflect on – it’s an event that will stretch all those involved, including (especially?) the facilitation team. I certainly hope to come home a changed facilitator. There are edges I’ve been skirting for a while and I hope to plunge over them during the week. Some of them are common to many facilitators from certain cultural backgrounds – issues to do with facilitating conflict, facilitating strong emotion – how to do so effectively from  base of the values of facilitation, for example.

I’m not sure whether we’ll be blogging from the event – depends on time, energy and the consent of the group. But we’ll certainly share some learning afterwards.

Facilitating Change: Supporting Effective & Sustainable Action Groups

Facilitating Change: Supporting Effective and Sustainable Action Groups
A 7 day residential workshop in rural Wales, 15th-22nd March 2013.

Effective group-work and high quality decision-making. That’s what we all long for, right? Yet bad process is rife in our grassroots action groups and can lead to a lack of trust and respect, frustration, resentment, burnout and ultimately group failure.

We can’t fix this overnight – Facilitating Change is an opportunity to start doing some of the work needed to build strong and sustainable direct action groups and networks.

This week-long workshop will be an opportunity to develop and strengthen our practice as facilitators and trainers, increasing the capacity, effectiveness and sustainability of our social change groups and movements. We hope to go beyond the current facilitation tools and develop our intuitive skills to help us support groups as much as possible.

We will do this by:

  • Deepening our understanding of the values, attitudes and behaviours needed to facilitate effective group-work.
  • Working together to develop strategies, tools, support and resources to help our groups and movements identify shared values, build trust, develop open communication and handle conflict positively.

This will help our groups make good decisions, implement them and stay sustainable and effective for the long haul!

Facilitating Change is a collaboration between activist trainers from
Rhizome, the Tripod Collective and Seeds for Change. You should apply if:

  • You are involved in grassroots activism in groups, movements or
  • You’ve ever noticed how grassroots groups can be effective and
    inclusive one week and shockingly bad at working together the next.
  • You have some experience of facilitating meetings, workshops or
    trainings within grassroots movements or if you don’t consider
    yourself to be a formal facilitator, you are familiar with
    participating in meetings and try to foster good process to support
    your group to work effectively together.
  • You have ideas about how to help groups work more effectively.
  • You are keen to improve your facilitation and / or training skills.
  • You intend to share your learning with your own group and your wider networks.

We have funding to cover some costs. We will also be asking participants to contribute to the costs of the event on a sliding scale of £30-£150. We don’t want to exclude anyone on the grounds of cost so please contact us if making a financial contribution to the event would prevent you from participating.

How do I apply?
Places are limited, so we have a selection process. Please contact us for an application form or download it. Get in touch to ask any questions about the course: facilitatingchangeATriseupDOTnet. Applications by 14th December, please.

DOWNLOAD: Application_Form_for_Facilitating_Change

Rhizome, Oxfam, and the power of facilitation

Here’s a guest post from Naveed Chaudhri, Activism Team Leader, Oxfam Campaigns:

Oxfam is planning to pilot a new annual campaigning event, and we recently decided to ask our activist network for help in working out what it could look like. Staff had already been through a rigorous innovation process, and we wanted to consult on the initial outcomes. But we didn’t think our ideas were strong enough, and were looking to their grassroots campaigning expertise forto add a bit of inspiration.

We provided a really challenging brief for Emily and Maria, our Rhizome facilitators, for a one-day creative workshop, held in October. Inevitably, our internal priorities and plans stopped us from being objective; working with Emily and Maria freed the process from the straitjacket of our organisational thinking. Understanding that our very specific needs from the day could easily hamper people’s creativity, we basically briefed them to manage us! Ceding control allowed the three Oxfam staff members present to observe ideas as they emerged, and participate in discussions, without limiting the productivity of thoughts and conversations (this definitely wasn’t a focus group!).

What resulted was a very sophisticated piece of facilitation, controlling (not a comfortable word!) the space and the energy in it to generate the kinds of outcomes we had hoped for, opening up possibilities by stimulating “left brain” thinking, before helping the group sort, evaluate, and then develop its ideas.

This word “control”. Anyone who regularly facilitates groups has at hand a range of more or less powerful techniques to guide processes, manage interactions, and help groups achieve tasks, whether operating in fairly open spaces, or to more predetermined briefs, as here. In my own facilitation life, I’m interested in the power of relinquishing control to others, collaboratively exploring things like notions of identity, and releasing motivation through story telling (this learning document, co-written with Richard Watts from the everyone foundation, sets out a few of my preoccupations!). But a power relationship inevitably exists between the members of a group and its facilitators and organisers. This can sometimes be based in part on relative levels of skill and self-awareness, but more often, is just a function of the leadership that is tacitly assumed by people with roles assigned to them by organisations such as Oxfam. Of course these roles come with a certain set of skills and access to knowledge. But fundamentally, it is the participants in a session who decide, consciously or not, to give power to the people running the session, and/or to their fellow participants.

It was a real pleasure to watch two very skilled people negotiate these sensitivities, helping a big and well-resourced organisation with a very clear sense of what it wanted, do something which, by its nature, it couldn’t do by itself. Our exercise of control was to recognise our own weakness.

Note: these are my personal thoughts and not those of Oxfam GB.

Oh, time it is a precious thing…

Having limited time to deliver a workshop focuses the mind wonderfully. What can actually be achieved, in terms of getting people thinking differently and then doing differently, if you only have 60 minutes? This was the situation for a short capacity building workshop for LeedsTidal at their Crisis Opportunity event in late October.

If it is a group who don’t know each other well, if at all, how do the vital things, like making sure everyone knows everyone’s names and where they are coming from (in many senses) and feels safe and comfortable, come about? If a facilitator concentrates on that important process, only 40 minutes will be left at most, and probably only 35 if we start late due to toilet or smoking needs, people getting lost and so on.  So the choice is whether to sacrifice a high quality start to a workshop, getting people feeling welcomed and included, or trust that in the ensuing activities relationships will form and the group feel empowered and safe.

Another choice is the type of activities. Do you play safe, knowing that if the temperature in the room isn’t right, certain things may not work, especially something that is a bit more challenging than an ideas storm? Do you try role plays or even a forum theatre approach when, without the time to get people feeling really comfortable with each other, they might shrink from this? Or do you trust that the urge to learn and experiment will carry people through? Do you negotiate? “We don’t have much time, we could do this or this, what would you like to try?” “How would you feel about over-running by 10 minutes to enable us to reflect on our learning?”

I opted for a fairly traditional kind of facilitated discussion with a focus on thinking about motivation and what people want out of groups. We explored though private pair discussion and the use of post-its what made everyone in the room get involved in a group, what they actually wanted out of joining something. We looked at a couple of classic motivational theories –  Maslow and McClelland – then broke into small groups to think about an imaginary group member and how the group might meet this person’s needs – I handed out “character cards” for this – and ended with an ideas storm about what a group can do to make a new person feel welcome and involved, what roles or tasks they could be offered. On the wall, a flip sheet diagram to show the tension between task focus and people focus worked very well to help people see what needs doing to keep a group healthy.

I admit I was exceedingly anxious and spent far too long working on the design of the workshop, all the time worrying about the lack of time. I apologised frequently about having to be directive and pushing discussions along too fast, but at the same time noticed there were very thoughtful comments and exchanges in the discussions about how to meet the needs of various imaginary characters, and the suggestions for ways of including new people were sensitive and creative. Maybe I was focussed too much on the lack of time, and had not been trusting the creative cooperative spirit of the participants!


Facilitating Footpaths

Last weekend Emily and I co-facilitated another round of Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project’s Facilitator Training. 13 volunteers had come forward to take on the facilitation of small groups of people wanting to explore reducing their carbon footprint. This was the 4th such weekend we’ve run and we’re definitely crafting a stronger training each time.

We had an added extra dimension this time around. A third facilitator joined our team – one of Transition Leicester’s volunteers who is very experienced in facilitating the Footpath groups and wanted to build her skills and confidence in facilitating the facilitator training as well.

It was useful challenge because it forced us to revisit and articulate the reasons behind choices we had made as long ago as 2010. It also made us look at things that were safe to assume about each other but not so safe to assume about the new dynamic of a 3-way co-facilitation. And of course a new perspective helps shift some of those little stuck spots.

We made changes and real progress with Saturday’s ‘bad meetings’ activity, as well as with Sunday’s process-work inspired roleplay on facilitating problem behaviour. Both worked so much better this time than before. Our exercise on framing and weather reporting is getting sharper and clearer, but still has a little way to go.

In our debrief of this latter activity we identified some interesting dynamics and some changes we’ll make for next time. One dynamic we observed was the tendency of participants to resist and critique the activity because the task they’re given is a hard one – externalising the difficulty into the exercise itself. Of course that’s not to say that the exercise is flawless. Hence the changes we’ve decided to make.

The evaluations were positive, though not entirely, of course. The training was perhaps a little fast paced for some, and Leicester’s EcoHouse not the ideal venue (but one of the few that works for the Footpaths budget due to Groundwork’s generosity at letting us use the space more or less for free). And, of course, a whole weekend is a lot to give up for busy volunteers. Once again we’re reminded of the dedication of the people who volunteer to facilitate Footpaths’ groups, and countless similar projects.


Another one for the blogroll… Natasha Walker

I found a moment to look around for more interesting blogs to read the other day. Why, I have no idea, as I barely keep up with the couple of dozen blogs already in my feed reader. But I’m glad I did as I came across Natasha Walker’s blog with interesting posts on Teaching facilitation and Playing with workshop dynamics, for example. I like the emphasis on facilitation as a state of mind, on genuine connection, on service and humility. Here’s a brief snippet from her great list of the must have abilities of a facilitator:

“How to appreciate people who talk a lot, who dominate or burst with an almost uncontrollable need to push their opinion forward. And how to appreciate introverted people or people who would prefer to be anywhere else than in your meeting. How to hold back judgement even when you’re “warned” about certain participants. How to support all the individuals in the group to be part of the whole. You don’t want to change anyone, but you enjoy watching them learn and grow”



One, two, three

Here’s three posts that caught my attention this evening:

The importance of great facilitation for inclusivity and progress

The Edge Fund is a new grant-making body run by its members; who include donors, people directly experiencing and challenging injustice and those working in solidarity with them. From the beginning it was important to us that the power usually held by donors was devolved to those who do not usually have that power, but also who are the experts since they live and breathe the very issues we seek to resolve.

As our starting point was a desire to break down hierarchies of wealth and power it was important to live the values of social justice throughout the entire process of setting up and running the project. This had to be a project guided by many people, as diverse as possible, which meant meetings have mostly consisted of people who have not met
before, covering all levels of wealth, backgrounds and passions. We started in April with a fairly blank sheet so it could be built more or less from scratch and we’ve met five times since then with meetings attended by around fifty different people in total.

What are the chances of a group of strangers, brought together to talk about money, giving each other space and communicating with each other without falling out? Better than you might think! Whilst I’ve been part of many meetings which have broken down into shouting matches and achieving very little, for some reason I never thought for a minute that this would happen with the Edge Fund, even considering the often contentious subject matter. We have been extremely lucky to have meetings attended by people who are committed, smart, respectful and compassionate. If any one of them has an ego striving to take the lead, it’s been left at home.

Shared values and mutual respect have been crucial to being able to develop the project in a relatively short space of time. Having a committed facilitating group to do all the work behind the scenes so options can be presented clearly to the rest of the group, has also been vital. But without fantastic facilitation from Rhizome’s Perry Walker I very much doubt we’d be where we are now. I don’t have facilitation skills and neither do I usually feel very comfortable in large groups, so the idea of having the responsibility of facilitating the meeting was terrifying. That’s where Perry came in. Perry was able to help break the ice, allow people to get to know each other, keep an eye on who wants to speak, move the meeting along and clarify decisions made. We appreciated his laid back approach and willingness to play it by ear.  I especially appreciated the time he gave before the meeting to be clear on the aims, but mostly for being able to share the pressure!

At the last meeting 25 July, we decided on the structure of Edge Fund; we will have a large donor base (hopefully) and a smaller membership body who will make decisions collectively on funding and will make a financial contribution to the fund, no matter how small. Several other major decisions were made fairly smoothly and at the end of the meeting comments included “thrilled at energy levels, very exciting, great progress, definite hope for the future, awed by clarity and respect in the room, sense of achievement, sense of momentum…” and I put much of this down to the excellent facilitation.

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect. There have been people at the meetings who have spoken much more frequently than others and some who have hardly spoken a word all day. I would like to work out how to give those who find meetings difficult an alternative way to feed in, perhaps it means more personal follow-up afterwards. But our biggest challenge yet is engaging those outside of the usual activist networks; reaching out to those who are directly experiencing injustice for whom terms like ‘systemic change’, ‘activist’ or ‘consensus decision-making’ are alienating and the costs of travel, communication and time needed to participate are extremely limiting. Our efforts to reach out so far have, on the whole, failed, but we’re committed to making it happen and once everyone who needs to be in the room is in the room, we will need Perry more than ever!

Sophie, Edge Fund Co-ordinator

Group culture and fracture lines

It’s an interesting question for facilitators – how much do you challenge an organisation or group’s existing culture, or how much do you simply reflect it back to them?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself again in recent months, a reflective process aided by the peer review and co-facilitating we try to do in Rhizome.

If the group wants to talk in greater depth than time allows, to catch up when they don’t see each other enough though they work in the same organisation or network, with breaks expanding to swallow the day, if they want to problematise issues at every opportunity, or keep jumping around talking about different issues all at the same time, where do the boundaries lie in our facilitation role?  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this issue, and won’t be the last.

Despite a facilitator’s best strategies – careful structuring of the time, summarising periodically throughout where the group is at and where it still needs to go, reflecting from time to time if people come back from breaks late or talk at interesting tangents, sometimes group culture like a river will take the easiest route.  It can be uncomfortable knowing in advance that at the end of a session we will run into people’s dissatisfaction at not having fulfilled all their group or personal objectives.

So where does responsibility finally lie?  That’ll partly depend on the style of the facilitator, which can depend on the day and on the negotiated relationship with the group.  It can also be addressed in preparatory negotiations with the key contacts, as long as it’s made clear to the group during the session that you’ve been instructed to challenge their culture; negotiating whole group consent can help in this regard.

Sometimes it clearly helps groups to shake things up a bit – if people are used to hiding behind tables and laptops, why not a circle of chairs?  What warm-ups can you usefully utilise that will help people to step beyond their comfort zones, but not in a way that makes them feel unsafe or that they’re likely to plain reject.  You sometimes have to feel around the boundaries, and experience helps this process.  Thinking about how it’s possible to create a safe learning environment thus helping people try things out that might feel uncomfortable is a good distinction to reflect on.

This distinction was very clear at the recent Power and Privilege Training for Trainers weekend, led by George Lakey, formerly of Training for Change and the Movement for a New Society.  TfC are big on creating ‘containers‘, letting conflict bubble up so that it can be addressed – which is often not the same as resolved.  However, it didn’t go so well – in addition to cultural clashes and issues around the role of the facilitator, quite some people present where left feeling unsafe.  This feeling of lack of safety negatively impacted on the level of participation of some attendees; for others, they left the training feeling unsafe – shaken and stirred.  Not good – more on this in the future from your intrepid Rhizome facilitators who were there.


Trusting the ‘facilitation mind’ and not freezing to death

Recently I helped a UK NGO with their decision-making process to choose between five campaign options they’d prepared and consulted their wider network and allies on.

It was interesting to try to get the balance right between giving space to hear summaries of options and feedback and ask questions about both, and getting to the ‘real point’ of the meeting – decision crunch time. More space had been requested of me beforehand for the first stage than I’d initially allowed.

I’m not sure whether we got the balance right in the end. It’s important that everyone in the room has had enough time to think, ask and try to understand, even when others were already there, ready to gallop off into the sunset. The horses were getting frisky in the meantime, chomping at the bit.

It was hard to help the group move from the understanding/clarifying stage, to the analysing/deciding stage. At this point it felt like an uphill struggle to get people to trust in my skills and the process; the same was evident in the moments before some of the warm-ups and methods I had planned. This raised doubts even in my ‘facilitation mind’, though I knew how and why these were a necessary part of the process of taking a decision. Despite these slight moments of turbulence, the group went with the process, and finished the day ahead of time.

Laying the groundwork is key however, and that seemed to pay off later in the day, when to the surprise of many, we reached a decision that everyone was happy with. Concerns had been explored, and either addressed or will be by the group.

There is always a tension between making the right decision, and choosing a way forwards – being able to put the wider organisation needs first without trampling our individual positions. Hopefully the Position-Needs-Interest onion – which we tried to unpeel throughout the day – helped.

I was reminded of the film Touching the Void, which has been useful in some hairy direct action situations in the past. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter which direction you choose, as long as you make a decision. The wrong decision is often to not take a decision – even if we’re not up such a huge mountain as in the film, about to freeze to death!


The Four Roomed House

There are many ways to prepare people at an event for what may happen. The notion I find myself using most often is the four roomed house:

This version is 4rooms.gif from loosetooth.com. Those of you with particularly good eyesight may be able to see that it acknowledges a man called Claes Janssen and his Four Rooms of Change theory.

I explain it by saying that I hope most of those present manage to spend much of their time in the room of contentment. Even so, every so often something will happen that contradicts our understanding of the world. Our initial impulse is often to push it away, to pretend it hasn’t happened. We enter the Room of Denial. Sometimes it does go away. But often it does not, and we are then faced with the combination of our old view and this new fact or event that is incompatible with it. We enter the Room of Confusion. But if we can keep in our minds these two apparently incompatible things, we will find a new understanding of the world that reconciles the two, and move into the Room of Renewal.

I add that most of us would like to shuttle too and fro between Contentment and Renewal – but it doesn’t work like that. The only way from Contentment to Renewal is via Denial and Confusion.

Finally, I say – and this is the point – that if at some point in the event people feel thoroughly confused, they should congratulate themselves. It is probably a sign that they have let in a new view of the world, a sign of success.

The more the participants operate in everyday settings that demand that they present themselves as knowing exactly what to do at all times, the more important it is to acknowledge the value of uncertainty.


What I’m really thinking – the facilitator

I wrote this for the column of this name in the Guardian Saturday magazine. They didn’t use it, so Rhizome blog readers have exclusive access!

Phew, they’ve all settled down at their tables. Was I clear enough on what they had to do? At table 3 that bloke in the suit is doing all the talking. A couple of others are looking bored. Should I intervene, or should I rely on the discussion leader remembering what we agreed about everyone having their say? I became too much the centre of attention in the first session – did I do enough to make sure they focussed on the task? Whoops – there’s another coffee cup kicked over. If I collect up the cups, am I looking after the carpets or just distracting myself from my anxieties? They’ll never manage to serve lunch in 45 minutes with the buffet laid out like that. I must make sure people can get to it from both ends. I think we might run out of bluetack: perhaps I should make the blobs smaller. On the subject of bluetack, will the people who run this venue mind that we have stuck flipchart paper over their newly painted walls? Shall I check how easily the paint comes off? I think we are going to overrun this session. If we take another twenty minutes, will we be able to make it up after lunch? Can I cut back that session on action planning and if so which bits should I cut out? Should I check that with the client at lunchtime? Yes, an extra twenty minutes it is. I need to make sure that the timekeepers at each table take on the responsibility for finishing at the new time. Here goes: “Hello everyone….”

… “Well, thank you, I’m glad you thought it went well. Nothing to it really.”



complex, conceptual and contentious

Adam and I co-facilitated a two day workshop with an international NGO about it’s future shape and governance. Two proposals were on the table. As we talked about them a tsunami of thoughts, reflections, ideas and contentions emerged. We scribbled furiously and summarised often and the group began to understand a shape to the discussions. This helped us to form ideas around themes. We’d already abandoned our client-agreed process plan and were now in emergent territory. But remembering the mantra of listen, reflect and clarify, the group nudged it’s way to a clear picture of what needed to be done to resolve the matter. We got to a resolution on some key matters and a wealth of emerging possibilities on how things might be implemented and what needs to happen next.

Aside from having to improvise, we also faced –

the challenge of a multi-lingual group (we worked in English, but contributions were made, and interpreted, in Spanish);

a range of involvement in the development of the proposals, from those who’d been involved for nearly two years to those coming with fresh eyes (as one participant’s research showed – …allowing for open discussion of differences, regardless of how time consuming… – is a sign of a healthy NGO);

a mixture of understandings and response modes, from detailed observations to those focussing on the big picture and keen to get on (I think we noticed and adapted to this variety of inputs);

the use of a block which wasn’t really a block (the participant resolved his block in his contribution);

a super-heated airless room far too small for the number of people;

the need to acknowledge privileged positions, be it on gender (the room was male dominated), geography (the global North was over-represented); language (it’s much, much harder to work in your second or third language);

the need to air what is happening now and what has happened with regard to people’s understanding of relations amongst the network, before any chance was had of shaping the future (late-ish manifestations of trust issues, which thankfully had some time to be aired);

and being brought in at a very late stage in the game when patterns and dynamics are pretty embedded, and some outcomes fairly inevitable.

I think they have more work to do, but am glad to have worked on something that made me really think on my feet and appreciate having a co-facilitator with me.

Facilitation training: the importance of practising your practice

My experience this week with members of the Detention Forum, working with fellow Rhizome member Hannah Clayton, crystallised some emerging thoughts about facilitation in general and facilitation training in particular.

First, I feel that some facilitation training sees facilitation as a discipline, as a body of knowledge to be passed on, albeit that that knowledge is about process and experience: it isn’t Latin. But I see facilitation as first of all a craft. Like all crafts, you can theorise about them. But no amount of theory will make you a decent potter if you never get your hands dirty. Facilitation is like pottery: it’s the getting the hands dirty that counts.

Second, most facilitation training starts with a syllabus. But most people, if they have tried out facilitation or are about to, have particular aspects that they want to feel more confident about and to improve. For the Detention Forum, for instance, we had a session on working with people with strong and opposing views, because that is what they asked for. One of the advantages of working with people all from the same organisation is that they are likely to have overlapping interests, making it easier to shape the agenda around those interests.

Thirdly, I have found that it is possible to set up role plays in the moment that give people a chance to practice ideas or techniques that have been presented and/or discussed. Using the Detention Forum again as illustration, members practised dealing with people with those strong and opposing views, on the one hand, and encouraging people who weren’t speaking, on the other. I’m fairly sure they learned more from such trials than from anything said by Hannah or by me!

Down with theory! Up with practice!