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Key Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses

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August 20, 2018
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cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.
Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:
I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force
• • •

Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy

In order to do great work, facilitators need to be able to master two core skills:

You have to be able to manage content, and you have to be able to manage energy. Let's examine them one at a time.


At the most basic level this means hearing accurately what people are saying, and discerning what matters to them and why. It's a skill set that most would think of right away when asked what facilitators do. That said, there are levels of subtleties. Not only should the facilitator always know where the group is at, but they should have a damn good idea about where the conversation is headed—and whether it will be a good thing to go there.

On a more subtle level, it is rarely sufficient to simply open up a topic for discussion and expect that natural conversation will be safe enough and inviting enough to draw out all the relevant input (not because meetings are inherently unsafe, but because not everyone processes ideas and is ready to articulate their thinking at the same pace, and because not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group). The skilled facilitator needs to offer a variety of ways to elicit input from participants.

(Coincidentally, mixing up formats has the synergistic benefit of keeping the energy up as well, as groups are typically energized by doing something new, rather than slogging through the same old same old.)

When working content, the facilitator's bread and butter skills are not hard to imagine: 

• Contact statements
This is the ability to distill down to its essence what the speaker just said, both so that others in the room  can hold the Cliffs Notes version of the input, and so that the speaker will be affirmed (among other things, this is an effective preemptive strike on those who are prone to repetition). While this tool needs to be applied judiciously (if the speaker was clear and the group is tracking well there's no need for a contact statement), it can be amazingly effective at keeping the ball rolling.

• Paraphrasing
Some of the time the speaker's point has not been well understood. When that occurs, it useful to be able to restate the speaker's point(s) in such a way that the input is the same (in the eyes of the speaker) yet the frame of reference has been shifted such that the audience now gets it. The fog lifts. Simply repeating the original statement (perhaps a bit louder) rarely succeeds.

• Summarizing
The skilled facilitator knows when the group is approaching the limit of how many worms it can tolerate crawling around the floor before anxiety starts to build (because it's getting too hard to recall where all the worms have gotten off to). In a complex conversation where many viewpoints are expressed, it is quite helpful for the facilitator to periodically offer up a summary of what been heard so far. The summary both separates signal from noise and clumps like opinions, creating ease for the group and helping them maintain focus.

• Fishing
A good facilitator is agreement oriented. While you might not think that's remarkable, it is. In a dominant competitive culture (which is unquestionably what we have in the US), people are conditioned to think first in terms of differences; not similarities—because there is ingrained in us a psychological imperative to identify how we are unique as individuals and you can only be sure of that when you distinguish yourself from others; not when you agree. 

Thus, if the facilitator has done sufficient personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning, they can replace it with an agreement orientation which seeks first to identify similarities. And because people tend to find what they're looking for, it's not unusual for the facilitator to be among the first to see how a proposal could hold the whole (while others are obsessed with differences) . When that happens, the facilitator should offer it to the group as a possibility. If it works, great (maybe you can get done early). If the group balks, just back out gracefully and let the conversation continue to mature. Maybe you missed something and you don't want to sacrifice your neutrality on the altar of your insight.

The point is that it's OK for the facilitator to offer possibilities (rather than sureties) if they think it might lead to a breakthrough. Don't withhold in deference to group ownership (the mistaken notion that the solution somehow won't count unless it bubbles up from the rank and file). If the group likes your brilliancy, they'll own it soon enough. If they don't buy it, oh well, you tried. Let it go and move on.

Another version of fishing is when the facilitator is unsure what someone said or is uncertain of the motivation underneath it. Starting with the assumption that everyone is trying to be helpful, sometimes it pays for the facilitator to take a stab at what they think might have been intended, in the hopes of forestalling less friendly comments from others who are confused. This is the facilitator jumping into the breach, in service to maintaining an attitude of cooperation and curiosity. If the facilitator gets it right, all manner of mischief may have been sidestepped; if the facilitator gets it wrong, the facilitator can gracefully accept corrective comments from the speaker and on we go.

• Weaving
This is a more advanced skill, whereby the facilitator connects the dots between what was just said with what had been said before (either by the same person or someone else). It is all the more impressive (and often more helpful) when the time gap between the two is large (perhaps not even the same day). This simultaneously accomplishes a number of good things: a) the group tends to relax because your tracking  what what's being said longitudinally and able to access it at need (in IT-speak it's extremely handy for facilitators to have a large RAM—random access memory)—the group will feel safer in your hands; b) it tends to comfort the earlier speaker, as they will be touched that you've been holding their input and weaving it appropriately—which serendipitously undercuts the motivation for the prior speaker to repeat their input (hurray!); and c) it reduces the number of variables in play, bringing the group that much closer to resolution.

Note that weaving could either work in support of the current statement or in contrast to it. The key is that you are bringing up the connection to sharpen the conversation, to get the group to focus in the right place, either on a potential point of agreement or on a potential pitfall that needs to resolved. Either can advance the ball.
• Partial agreements
When a topic is complex (most of the juicy ones are) it is often beneficial to break it into digestible chunks and tackle them one bite at a time, rather than cramming your mouth full and trying to swallow the solution whole, as this often results in choking down food that is insufficiently chewed and you get indigestion. Yuck. A skilled facilitator will develop a sense of how large a bite the group can masticate, develop a sequence for tackling the various tidbits of the topic, and then methodically guide the group through the multi-course (and perhaps multi-meeting) meal.

• Knowing when to delegate
It is a common error for cooperative groups to start in the right place and end in the wrong place. Plenaries need to be diligent about only working topics at the plenary level, and then showing awareness and discipline about handing details off to a manager or committee once the plenary work has been completed. All too often groups are seduced by the good feeling of making progress and slide right past the correct stopping place to extend the high—essentially jumping a fence and micromanaging a subgroup. This can result in the subgroup feeling stepped upon (why bother to do the work if the plenary is just going to override us?) resulting in demoralization. With an eye out toward this possibility, the facilitator needs to be on their toes, to ensure that the plenary is not on the subgroup's toes. 

On occasion, the skilled facilitator needs to ask the group, "Are we done working this topic at the plenary level; is it time to hand over final details and implementation to the subgroup?" thereby gently reminding the group of how it intended to operate.

Now let's cross the aisle and focus on the second horse.

• • •


Is the engagement bringing everyone into the conversation? Is it deepening an understanding of one another, or is the energy fractured and brittle? Are people reactive or curious when divergent views are expressed? Is the group energized or drained? Are there undercurrents swirling in the room that aren't surfacing? Are distracting side conversations starting to pop up? Is there sarcastic humor being dripped into the room like dark ink tainting clear water? Are people getting bored? Do participants need more oxygen or a bio break?

...the skilled facilitator learns to regularly toggle between a focus on content and a focus on energy

All of these are energy questions, and a skilled facilitator will regularly scan the group for signs that any of these conditions obtain, and then have an internal conversation about which horse to be riding at any given moment: is it more productive to focus on content or energy right now?

Unfortunately the skills needed to ride these two horses are almost completely unrelated. A person could be good at both, good at neither, or proficient at one and not the other. 

In general, the most difficult horse to ride well is the one with unbridled reactivity (which will be the subject of the next blog in this series), and it's important (even crucial) that the facilitator not promise an ability that they do not possess. Thus, even if you're convinced that working emotionally is a needed skill, you can't fake it. You have to be able to do more than explain the theory of working emotionally; you have to be able to deliver in the dynamic moment, most of which will be unscripted and chaotic.

While content work is largely cognitive, energy work relies heavily on intuition and relational skills—which expressly includes reading nonverbal cues (pace, tone, volume, eye contact, body language, facial coloring, etc) and understanding cultural context. (For example, people talking over each other may indicate indignation in some groups; in others, the same behavior only signifies interest. You have to understand what you're experiencing in context.)

While a good deal of content work can be reasonably anticipated; with energy you have to be ready for anything. Thus, facilitators need to be centered, open, and light on their feet. You have be able to hit the curve ball, not just the fastballs down the middle.

One of the challenges of working with energy (which is invariably a factor whether it's recognized or not) is that many groups have not made a commitment to go there, and thus the way may be complicated by resistance to certain concepts and vocabulary ("We're here to solve problems, not navel gaze") if the facilitator attempts to bring the group's attention to an energetic concern. So packaging may be an issue.

Many groups steer clear of energy as a focus because they're not sure they can contain it and are afraid of its potential for enabling wild behavior that may turn destructive. (If people are allowed to get excited who knows what will happen—it might lead to dancing) But even if you banned passion from the room (which I don't advocate), it'll creep in anyway and you'll have to deal. Ignoring it or bad vibing it are not particularly effective strategies. [I'll develop this theme more fully in my blog about Semipermeable Membranes—coming soon.]

If you buy what I'm selling about needing to ride both horses, you may wonder about how to manage that in real time. Physiologists will tell you that it's not possible to hold more than one thing in your  consciousness at a given moment, so the skilled facilitator learns to regularly toggle between a focus on content and a focus on energy, so that there is a steady flow of fresh data about what's happening in each regard. Over time, the facilitator learns patterns and relies on them as an alert that something may be off. (I have a good friend who refers to this kind of sensory input as "niggles," which she's learned to deeply respect.)

• • •

In short, if you aspire to be a reliable, stable facilitator, I recommend that you build a reliable stable—large enough to house, feed, and exercise both horses.

About Laird Schaub:I’ve lived in intentional community for 41 years: 39 years at Sandhill Farm (a small, income-sharing community I helped found in 1974 in northeast Missouri), followed by 20 months at nearby Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage started in 1997 with a core mission of modeling how to live a great life on a resource budget that’s only 10% of the US average. Today I live in Chapel Hill NC, where I’m trying to pioneer a new community with close friends. For the last 28 years I’ve also been integrally involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community—a North American network dedicated to providing the information and inspiration of cooperative living to the widest possible audience. Recognizing the value of what is being learned in intentional communities about how to solve problems collaboratively and work constructively with conflict, I started a part-time career as a process consultant in 1987. Today, I’m on the road half the time conducting trainings, working with groups, and attending events all over the country. Recreationally, my passions include celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, wilderness canoeing, and the New York Times Sunday crossword.

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