The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

Join Laird Schaub at the 2017 National Cohousing Conference where he is presenting several sessions, including this intensive: Building a Better Meeting: Facilitation Skills for Everybody

The art of facilitation is analogous to a set of nested Russian dolls: it's as many-layered as an onion.

Casual observers may not notice that meeting facilitators—especially skilled ones—are doing anything more than managing hand-to-mouth dynamics, such as:
—Coming up with a clever opening.
—Making sure everyone has good sight lines to the white board.
—Deciding who's going to speak next.
—Determining when it's time to move to a new topic.
—Otherwise coping with what's unfolding in plain sight.

But there's a good deal more to it than that. Good facilitators are expected to work at subtle levels, too. Here's a dozen examples of what I mean:

o Looking ahead of the curve
Projecting where the current conversation is heading and discerning whether they (or the group) will be glad to arrive there. If it looks like a dead end (or worse, a train wreck), it's probably time to tack now, before they hit the shoal water. When executed with aplomb, most group members may not even be aware that there was any danger.

o Busting ghosts
Is there a presence that's alive in the room even though the person triggering it isn't there? (perhaps the influence of a dead founder, whose charismatic and powerful persona continues to guide conversations from the grave; maybe it's fear of potential retribution by a bully who is on vacation but is bound to find out if anyone speaks critically of them). First you must sense what's happening; then you must decide what to do about it. Is it better to exorcise (calling the ghost out) or exercise (restraint by not dignifying the threat with the group's collective attention)?

o Feeling the undertow
Though similar to the previous point, this is about an energy that is pervading the conversation, rather than a person. Some may be aware of it; others may not. Is it a fair wind or foul? When the facilitator chooses to surface an unnamed undercurrent, it is not a magic act, or someone playing with planchette; it's just someone paying close attention.

o Describing the interesting case
In discussing policy proposals it is often illuminating to think of examples that it might apply to, thereby grounding the consideration. However, not all hypotheticals are created equal. It is generally not a good idea to craft agreements designed to cope with rare exceptions. It's better to bring forward a representative example to showcase a proposal's strengths, and/or expose its liabilities. How will things play it in the situations you are most likely to actually face?

o Sussing out when to be direct
Many groups fall into the habit of working indirectly—mainly because they are not confident of handling tension well and are afraid that directness will lead to reactivity. When does cutting to the chase help illuminate the key dynamic; when does it lead to brittleness that inhibits creativity and short circuits compassion? In my experience most people prefer their medicine straight, and don't require a sugar coating—so long as it's not delivered with bitterness, salty language, or a sour attitude.

o Reading the energetic tea leaves
Skilled facilitators need to be able to work with the energy in the room as well as with the content of the conversation. It is not enough that they can guide the group to an agreement; it needs to be a decision with which there is high resonance. If participants feel run over or bullied into alignment, the implementation is likely to suck (because their hearts will not be in it).

o Noticing mismatches between content and energy
If you're handling the preceding point well, you'll notice when the conversation is out of alignment with the energy (say, for example, the group is working inexorably toward agreement, yet there are half a dozen folks sitting with crossed arms and scowls on their faces; or perhaps when the conversation is lost in the weeds and everyone's chuckling and having a good time). If the energy does not match the rhetoric, then that becomes the thing to talk about.

o Knowing when to slow down and when to speed up
In a typical two-hour meeting there may be two or three moments that are pivotal to the outcome; moments when a crucial difference is illuminated and the group can either find a way to thread the needle (and manifest the joy of an inclusive solution), or it can devolve into cantankerous discord with each side bunkering in. It's generally a good idea to slow things down at delicate moments (say when a surprising thin gets said, or when a person gets vulnerable), and to pick up the pace when slogging through portions where there is no new information.

o Following the energy more closely than the clock
While a good facilitator does their level best to end meetings on time, the prime directive is productive engagement, rather than ending a 20-minute agenda item in exactly 20 minutes. By "productive engagement" I mean progress on the issue and enhanced relationships among members (that is, participants will know each other better as a consequence of the consideration). These dual objectives are far more important than how fast can you find a solution that everyone can live with.

o Mapping out the engagement
A good facilitator will sit with the draft agenda ahead of time and see into the concerns, teasing out the key questions that are likely to arise. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in what order questions are addressed (perhaps because the outcome of one question is crucial to how a subsequent one will be viewed); sometimes it doesn't. If possible, good facilitators will build the conversation toward a solution just as they'll manage the energy, moving from turbulence to laminar flow.

o Riding the bucking bronco of fulminating distress
Essentially this translates into not freaking out when someone freaks out. It's being able to function with a clear head and a strong heart in the presence of nontrivial upset. On the one hand the facilitator needs to be fully present—without judgment or side-taking—for anyone who's upset, to help them feel safe and understood. On the other, the facilitator needs to make sure that the topic is neither sideswiped nor dominated by the distress. If, in the process of examining an issue, you manifest tears or anger, you'll get heard; but there's no guarantee that you'll be agreed with. The facilitator needs to be compassionate, yet fiercely neutral.

o Integrating body and mind; heart and soul
For most groups the default style of meetings entails a great deal of sitting around, where the focus is on rational discourse (and a calloused butt). Unfortunately, that's only one way humans work with information and decide what they want. We also "know" things in our bellies and in our hearts (not just in our heads) and thinking is not everyone's first or best language. A skilled facilitator will offer participants a variety of ways to get at topics, offering multiple on-ramps into the consideration—which translates to opportunities for people to share feelings, intuitions, and body-knowing; not just their "best thinking." A savvy facilitator will not just get ideas in motion; they'll get bodies in motion, too.

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