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How To Be a Participatory Facilitator

By Susan Grove

The attitudes, presence, and skills of participatory facilitation can be learned and practiced, in order to unleash the potential of all participants of a working group.

The process of facilitation design prepares the facilitator, helping them to organize their ideas for how the gathering can flow, and also setting intentions about their own attitude and presence. Alongside having a clear plan, participatory facilitators can model an alert, kind, open, and responsive energy. This sets the tone for a space where people feel heard, comfortable, and included while creating the conditions for a powerful and effective space.

In a conversation about her book, The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker talks about the “generous authority” of the facilitator or host that is used:

for the good of the group, to achieve its purpose…when a host uses their power to protect, connect, and equalize the guests… it allows everyone to actually then engage and feel enough so that they can be, then, whatever they need to be for that moment, for that event.

You might think that you have to have a certain personality or charisma to pull off being an effective facilitator, but I can assure you that this is a skill you can cultivate even if you don’t see yourself as an extrovert! Preparation and a sense of your own purpose in the room sets the stage. 

As R. Brian Stanfield writes in The Workshop Book:

Charisma without expertise provides great drama but possibly no product. An infallibly applied technique without a beckoning style may provide an impeccable product, but a session without passion or joy. The challenge is to combine both art and science in the act of facilitation. The workshop facilitator’s style and attitude are key factors in establishing a participatory environment. Facilitators who assume the group can work together in a positive and creative way will find ways for that to happen… The root of this skill is the understanding that the process for arriving at the results is just as important as the results themselves.

These are learnable skills, not innate personal qualities. The participatory attitudes, type of presence you might want to create, and facilitation skills can be learned, practiced, and refined as you experience different group settings and goals. 

Some examples of skills that effective facilitators employ include:

  • Succinctly reflecting back what the facilitator hears
  • Giving clear and complete instructions
  • Offering questions and prompts confidently (that were ideally thought-through in advance!) 
  • Pausing in silence to give participants space to tune into their own thoughts

In their book Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation, Sam Killerman and Meg Bolger define facilitation as actively involving participants in their own learning process, and they see the facilitator as the person responsible for guiding that learning. They also emphasize that facilitation is a skill that evolves and grows with you, that there is no one right way to do it. They acknowledge that you might come to this work without specific credentials or experience, and that everyone in a room is bringing perspectives and expectations that are reflective of different backgrounds. 

The only way to get good at facilitation is to practice it, and the ideal facilitator is someone who is willing to try.

Conventional vs. participatory approaches to facilitation

You may be wondering about my use of the word “participatory.” I believe not all facilitation is equal. Different approaches to facilitation may be more or less participatory, and therefore more or less effective. Writers and thinkers on the topic of facilitation refer to less participatory approaches as “conventional.” 

Presentations, managed discussions, status updates, brainstorming, and open discussions are examples of conventional approaches to conducting group meetings. They may be useful for certain purposes – for example, a presentation can be a good forum for learning about what exists – but conventional approaches are not necessarily designed for people to contribute and collaboratively refine new ideas or come up with innovative solutions to problems.

Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, from Liberating Structures, point out the limitations of conventional approaches:

The unintended consequences of these conventional routines are that they exclude, stifle, and over- or under-control full-throated participation in shaping next steps and the future. They frequently fail to provide space for good ideas to germinate, emerge, be shared, combined, and refined… On a broader level, change at any scale in organizations or communities will not ‘really’ happen, or will not last, unless there are changes at the level of the individuals involved, namely changes in their daily habits, practices, and interactions. Change cannot be broad enough to make a real difference unless a large number of people become fully involved, not only as participants but also as change agents in shaping their future.

With participatory approaches, people’s creativity is unleashed. Instead of passive acceptance of the status quo, people begin to see the potential for transformation and the power that the group has within itself to generate ideas and come up with solutions they can all get behind. 

I have observed that operating from participatory values yields entirely different norms that can unlock this transformation. Sam Kaner talks about this at length in the introduction to the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, which includes the chart below. We often refer to this chart as it shows the qualities of participatory and conventional groups side-by-side. It is telling to read them through this way! It usually evokes a sense of recognition.

Everyone participates, not just the vocal few.The fastest thinkers and most articulate speakers get more airtime.
People give each other room to think and get their thoughts all the way out.People interrupt each other on a regular basis.
Opposing viewpoints are allowed to co-exist in the room.Differences of opinion are treated as conflict that must be either stifled or “solved.”
People draw each other out with supportive questions. “Is this what you mean?”Questions are often perceived as challenges, as if the person being questioned has done something wrong.
Each member makes the effort to pay attention to the person speaking.Unless the speaker captivates their attention, people space out, doodle, or check the clock.
People are able to listen to each other’s ideas because they know their own ideas will also be heard.People have difficulty listening to each other’s ideas because they’re busy rehearsing what they want to say.
Each member speaks up on matters of controversy. Everyone knows where everyone stands.Some members remain quiet on controversial issues. No one really knows where everyone stands.
Members can accurately represent each other’s point of view – even when they don’t agree with them.People rarely give accurate representations of the opinions and reasoning of those whose opinions are at odds with their own.
People refrain from talking behind each other’s backs.Because they don’t feel permission to be direct during the meeting, people talk behind each other’s backs outside the meeting.
Even in the face of opposition from the person-in-charge, people are encouraged to stand up for their beliefs.People with discordant, minority perspectives are commonly discouraged from speaking out.
A problem is not considered solved until everyone who will be affected by the solution understands the reasoning.A problem is considered solved as soon as the fastest thinkers have reached an answer. Everyone else is then expected to “get on board” regardless of whether s/he understands the logic of the decision.
When people make an agreement, it is assumed that the decision still reflects a wide range of perspectives.When people make an agreement, it is assumed that they are all thinking the exact same thing.
From Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making

As you reflect on the role of the facilitator, and how to create participatory environments, I want to leave you with some last words, this time from Michael Doyle’s foreword to the Facilitator’s Guide, that summarize what you might hold in your mind, or develop over time, as you practice different skills to effectively hold space for a group.

A participatory facilitator cultivates:

a deep belief in the wisdom and creativity of people; a search for synergy and overlapping goals; the ability to listen openly and actively; a working knowledge of group dynamics; a deep belief in the inherent power of groups and teams; a respect for individuals and their points of view; patience and a high tolerance for ambiguity to let a decision evolve and gel; strong interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills; an understanding of thinking processes; and a flexible versus a lock-step approach to resolving issues and making decisions.

Recommended Resources

Community at Work: a list of their publications, including The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making

Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation by Sam Killerman and Meg Bolger

Liberating Structures article describing 33 practical methods to engender true collaboration

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Susan (she/her) is energized by opportunities to learn and facilitate learning; to design participatory gatherings and organize information; to tap into the power of effective collaboration and the generative potential of conflict; to connect across differences and contribute toward more equitable futures in the Mahicantuck Valley.

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