Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

The facilitator's main task is to create a safe environment where each participant feels comfortable expressing ideas and responding to those of others.

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 9

In public participation, the rubber hits road when citizens begin talking with each other. Ensuring that these interactions work well – for citizens, public officials, public employees and other stakeholders – requires a number of key participation skills centered on managing discussions, including facilitating face-to-face groups, recording, moderating online forums, setting ground rules and giving feedback.

This week, we'll discuss skills for facilitating face-to-face groups. In subsequent weeks, we'll discuss the remaining topics.

Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

The basic definition of “facilitate” is to make easy or easier. Within the context of public participation, the word facilitate means to lead (and make easier) a group discussion. This is done, for example, by guiding conversations, asking questions, mediating between opposing viewpoints, ensuring that all participants’ views are heard, reflecting and summarizing what is said, following the agenda and keeping time.

The facilitator’s main task is to create a safe environment where each participant feels comfortable expressing ideas and responding to those of others.

There are many different kinds of facilitation. It is a skill that is used in fields ranging from counseling and psychotherapy, to corporate negotiation and organizational development, to mediation and collective bargaining. Some of these variants of facilitation require high levels of training and expertise, while others are simpler and can be picked up quickly.

In most public participation settings, the type of facilitation needed is on the simpler end of the scale. In projects engaging large numbers of people, the facilitators are often volunteers who have received a day-long training before they begin working with a group.

Facilitators do not “teach” participants, but instead guide the participants through discussions. They do not have to be an expert in the subject being discussed, because facilitators’ opinions and views should not be contributed. Facilitators should think of themselves as impartial “guardians of the process.”

Roger Schwarz identifies three characteristics to help ensure impartiality in his book The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches. He notes facilitators should (a) be acceptable to all members of the group, (b) be substantively neutral and (c) have no decision-making authority.

Although being and staying impartial is probably the most critical skill a facilitator can have, other skills and dispositions are important. For example, facilitators should have solid interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and a collaborative and flexible style. They should be good at activities such as active listening. Facilitators also need to have good time management skills. They need to follow the agenda and keep the group focused so it can move through all of the activities and discussions.

In addition to these skills, good facilitators believe in the wisdom and creativity of people and the power of groups and teams. They also believe in the need to search for synergies and find overlapping goals, interests or values. Doing so requires the facilitator to have patience and tolerance and to value full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions and shared responsibility. Facilitators need to respect individuals and their views (especially when those views conflict with those of the facilitator), diversity in thinking processes and ambiguity and the evolution of decisions.

The textbox below briefly lists some additional characteristics of good facilitators. For more on facilitation and facilitation skills, see http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/leadership/group-facilitation.

Characteristics of Good Facilitators

Good facilitators...

Are impartial; they do not enter their opinions as part of the discussion.

Help the group set and enforce ground rules.

Create opportunities for everyone to participate.

Focus and help clarify the discussion.

Effectively use discussion materials.

Restate and summarize key points in the discussion.

Help the group identify areas of agreement and disagreement.

Elicit points of view that have not been talked about.

Are self-aware and know their strengths, weaknesses, biases and values.

Put the group first.

Appreciate all kinds of people.

Are committed to democratic principles.

Facilitation can be a critical feature of public participation, particularly in situations where there are high stakes issues and people with different views and perspectives. Facilitation is also almost always essential in thick, deliberative participation processes, regardless of the stakes involved in an issue.

How a facilitator operates, and how many facilitators are needed, largely depends on the overall structure of a participation opportunity. If the participation opportunity uses a large group format, then a single facilitator can work to lead the room. If the participation opportunity uses a small group format, each small group can be led by one or two facilitators, with (or without) the assistance of another facilitator who manages the room overall. Co-facilitators can trade off the roles of facilitator and recorder (a skill we'll discuss next week). Between sessions, they should debrief together to see how things are going.

Regardless of how and how many facilitators are being used, the practice literature is rife with good tips that all facilitators should follow. Facilitators should clearly explain their role to participants at the start of a process, and never “take off their hat” and step out of that role. They should encourage and affirm each participant, ask for the group’s help in making the conversation work well for everyone and be aware of things they might do unconsciously (like leaning back when they disagree with a statement). Facilitators should also:

  • Be prepared. Effective facilitators are familiar with the discussion materials, and think ahead of time about the directions in which the discussion might go.
  • Set a relaxed and open tone. Effective facilitators welcome everyone and create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Humor is always welcome.
  • Establish ground rules. Effective facilitators should establish or help the group establish ground rules at the beginning of sessions.
  • Monitor and assist the group process. Effective facilitators keep track of how the group members are participating – who has (and has not) spoken and what points have and have not been heard. They do not let any one person dominate, and try to involve everyone in the discussion.
  • Allow time for pauses and silence. Effective facilitators understand that people need time to reflect and respond. They do not talk after each comment or answer every question, but rather allow participants to respond directly to each other.
  • Lean toward non-intervention. Effective facilitators try to intervene in discussions as little as possible, but recognize when intervention is necessary. When intervening, effective facilitators follow the “mouse principle”: they do as little as possible, as quietly as possible.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Part 8: Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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