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Facilitating Reflection

What is Facilitation?

[Silhoutte Drawing of Group Discussion]

The Difference between leading and facilitating

Understanding facilitation begins with an awareness of the difference between facilitating and leading. It has been said that leadership is something you do to a group, while facilitation is something you do with a group.

Although many leaders can (and should) be effective facilitators, the facilitator differs from a leader in that the former is cognizant about the use of power, authority, or control and places limitations on uses of it. A facilitator should be "a neutral mediator whose job is to provide information and accommodate the exchange of dialogue among ... participants" (from Catalyst).

Facilitators assist groups as they work together toward achieving group goals, and in most instances do not interject their own personal opinions or agenda. By expressing their opinions to the group, facilitators risk discouraging others with differing opinions from speaking. They remain alert to group dynamics and encourage challenging reflection while maintaining respect and safety within the group. Although facilitators may help guide a discussion, they also recognize and foster the groups own ability to lead itself. Thus unlike authoritative leaders, good facilitators relinquish control to the group and promote open, democratic dialogue among group members.

Effective reflection requires that facilitators demonstrate an open-minded attitude, communicate appropriately, manage group dynamics, incorporate diversity, and provide closure. Developing skill in each of these areas involves learning and becoming comfortable with numerous facilitation practices. An explanation of practices pertaining to each area follows. Also refer to the "Activities" section of this manual for ideas about promoting certain behaviors in the group.


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
-- Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

[Margaret Mead Photograph]

* Be honest: Effective facilitation requires that he facilitator be honest with him/herself and with the group. This includes being honest about the limits of one's own abilities and knowledge. If the facilitator doesn't know the answer to the group's questions, s/he should admit it and work on finding the answer. Honest facilitators gain the trust of the group and model the importance of honesty from all participants. However, facilitators should be careful not to stray from preventing a neutral stance while maintaining honesty.

* Managing dual roles: There is some disagreement among expert, facilitators as to whether a facilitator should always maintain a neutral stance, particularly if the facilitator is, an active member of the group and a decision making is taking place. A skilled facilitator will calculate the potential impact of his or her interjections into the group and determine if it will result in a misuse of power. Sometimes, a skilled facilitator will state that s/he wants to suspend his or her role as facilitator for the sake of making an opinion or perspective heard. These instances should be handled with extreme caution and some forethought.

* The facilitator is not an expert: Facilitators must keep in mind that their role in the reflection is to moderate and guide communication, not make personal contributions to it, or push their own agenda. By controlling the group, facilitators threaten the open sharing of thoughts and feelings, and may close themselves off from the group's feedback. Instead facilitators should remain flexible and responsive to the group, and encourage evaluation of the, process. The facilitator's neutrality throughout the process is crucial. An effective way for facilitators to avoid voicing their personal opinion is to reflect question back to the group. For example, when asked whether s/he supports the death penalty, a facilitator may say "The death penalty is, a controversial topic. What do you think are the main issues for and against it?" By responding in this way the facilitator has remained neutral and encouraged further reflection by the group.

* Everyone can learn: Facilitators should view reflection as a learning opportunity and should communicate this attitude to the group. This means that facilitators themselves remain open to learning from others, and that everyone's contributions are treated as credible and educational. This serves to validate group members and helps to avoid arguments between them.

Other qualities of an open-minded attitude include:


If I do not speak in a language that can be understood there is little chance for a dialogue.
-- bell hooks, Writer and Educator

[bell hooks Photograph]

* Set ground rules: Ground rules establish a foundation upon which the group's communication will occur. They help to create a safe environment in which participants can communicate openly, without fear of being criticized by others. Ground rules that have been arrive at by all members are the most useful and can be repeated if tension rises during reflection. Sample ground rules follow.

* Use "vibes watchers": In order to monitor ground rules the facilitator may choose to identify one or more "vibes watchers". The vibes watcher observes the reflection and takes not of group dynamics that are potentially problematic (for example, one person dominating the discussion, a participant's ideas being attacked, etc.). S/he can interrupt the discussion if the situation is particularly problematic, and explain, in a non-accusatory tone, what s/he observed. The facilitator can decide if all participants should be encouraged to voice such concerns during the session. At the conclusion of the session the facilitator should ask for a report from the vibes watcher, so that future session may be improved. Participants should not be forced to vibes watchers, but should volunteer. Ideally, all members of the group will become sensitive to group dynamics, and, in a sense, monitor themselves.

* Promote "active listening": Staying quiet and considering others remarks can be challenging when controversial topics are discussed, but is crucial to respectful communication. Facilitators should discourage participants from professing their opinions without considering and responding to others' comments. Instead, facilitators should model communication in the form of a dialogue, in which participants listen and respond to each other. The type of communication used (whether "polite conversation" is favored over informal or slang conversation) can very, and should be determined according to such factors as the group's cultural background, familiarity with each other, goals for reflection, etc.

* Encourage participation by all: Facilitators should clearly communicate that reflection is an egalitarian process in which everyone has a right to speak, or to choose not to speak. Group members who have not spoken should be encouraged to do so, if they wish. This can be accomplished by creating a space for more introverted group members to speak. This can be accomplished by stating something like, "Let's give an opportunity to hear from some people who haven't spoken yet..."

* Use "stacking": In order to promote full participation, the facilitator should guide the allocation of speaking time by "stacking" (or "queuing"). This involves the facilitator identifying and placing in some order those individuals who wish to speak. One example of this technique is to list the names of the four people who have raised their hands, invite them to speak in order, and then indicate that you will recognize others who whish to speak after the four people have finished. Another technique is to simply give a nod to a person who wants to speak, acknowledging that they have been noticed and will be called upon soon. Additional strategies for inclusion can be found in the "Activities" section of this manual.

Other practices for effective communication include:



Group Dynamics

Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be unlocked from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal.
-- Marilyn Ferguson, Educator and Writer

* Create a safe space: The key to open and honest reflection is an environment in which participants feel safe and comfortable. In order for group members to express their thoughts and opinions they must feel that they can do so without fear of attack or condemnation. It is the facilitator's job to create such an environment, to monitor participant's comfort levels, and to take the necessary steps to maintain safety. This includes understanding and planning for individual differences in needs, abilities, fears, and apprehensions. Participants who feel safe are more likely to make honest and genuine contributions and to feel camaraderie and respect towards other group members.

* Manage disagreements: It has been said that "whatever resists will persist." Facilitators must be adept at recognizing tension building in the group, and respond to it immediately. Among the most useful strategies is to repeat the ground rules established by the group, including a reminder that criticism should pertain to ideas not to people. In addition, facilitators should not permit any disrespect or insults and should clarify misinformation. It is important that negative behavior be handled immediately so that participants do not get the impression that the behavior is condoned by the facilitator.

* Promote equality: As indicated, effective reflection is not designed around the leadership of one person. Equality of participants should be communicated and modeled by the facilitator. Again, the facilitator must be an alert observer, identifying signs of a developing hierarchy, or of divisive factions within the group. S/he should not permit arguing up against any group member(s), and should not take sides in any developing debate. Such situations can be counteracted by recognizing all members, and encouraging their participation equally.

* Be mindful of power, and who has it: All groups have opinion leaders or people who most others look up to. Often, these opinion leaders will set the tone for a discussion, thereby limiting active involvement of the more reserved members. Identify who these opinion leaders are and if it appears as though their power and authority is dominating the discussion, ask them, politely, to entertain other opinions.

Other keys to managing group dynamics include:

* Build in diversity: In order to appropriately handle diversity issues in reflection sessions, facilitators must begin by recognizing their own attitudes, stereotypes, and expectations and must open their minds to understanding the limits these prejudices place on their perspective. The facilitator will be the example to which the group looks, and should therefore model the values of multiculturalism. It is important that diversity be integrated throughout the reflection programming, rather than compartmentalized into special multicultural segments.

Monitoring communication for expressions of bias requires the facilitators attention and sensitivity. Facilitators should be aware that some language and behavior has questionable, different or offensive meaning to some people, and they should encourage them to share their perspectives and information. Specifically, facilitators should watch out for statements or situations that generalize groups, or that identify race, sex, age unnecessarily (for example, just as it is inappropriate to say "Bob Dole, White presidential candidate," it is also inappropriate to say "Colin Powell, Black political hopeful"). When qualifiers are used that reinforce stereotypes by suggesting exceptions to the rule, facilitators should ask for clarification. For example when a participant describes his/her experience working with a "respectable gay resident" of a shelter, the facilitator should ask the participant why he/she included the word "respectable." Is this a statement about gay people's respectability? About shelter residents? Is this based on his/her experience with specific populations of one shelter, or a generalization about all such people? Helping participants identify the assumptions inherent in their statements fosters greater understanding and sensitivity.

Most importantly, while expressions of prejudice should be interrupted, the person who spoke should not be publicly attacked. Placing guilt on the speaker is likely to increase the tension and stifle further exploration of the topic. The Building Bridges Coalition suggests the following appropriate ways to respond:

It is important that responses to prejudice to be nonjudgmental and non-confrontation, and that you express genuine concern and interest.

* Closure and Evaluation: As a challenging and meaningful reflection session draws to an end, participants may feel that their intended objectives have not been met, that questions have not all been answered, or that a plan of action has not been finalized. Nonetheless, the group needs to recognize that progress has been made and that he process must continue. It is the job of the facilitator to initiate this sense of resolution, and to invite feedback so that the process may foster as it continues. Suggestions for accomplishing this include:

As with any skill, the ability to facilitate effectively will develop through experience, feedback, observation, and reflection. Using the tools described in this and future sections of this manual you are equipped to begin refining your facilitation skills.

Trouble Shooting for Facilitators

Given the non-authoritative and flexible nature of facilitation, it is not unusual for situations to arise that can compromise the effectiveness of the reflection. Facilitators need to stay alert to these possibilities, and be prepared to deal with them. Following are suggestions for handling such situations, (taken from Catalyst):

  1. One Person Dominates the discussion or continually interrupts it.
    Make it clear that you want input from everyone: "Can I hear from someone that hasn't spoken yet?" "I've noticed that no women have said anything about this issue. Would any of the women like to say something about this?"

    Use activities that require everyone's participation, i.e., gathering questions and ideas. If a person consistently talks for long periods of time, without singling out that person specify that you would like everyone to be brief.

    If someone continually interrupts, don't become defensive or ignore him or her, Instead, acknowledge the value of their input. Point out that in the interest of the group, interruptions should be kept to a minimum. Offer to speak to them at length at the break or after the session.

    If someone keeps their hand in the air while others are talking, explain that when you hand is up for you mind is processing what you will say so that you are not listening to the person talking. Keep track of people who wish to speak by "stacking" (verbally list names of people who have raise their hands, indicating the order in which people will speak).

  2. Several people refuse to talk or participate.
    If some people refuse to participate in the large group, you might try dividing the group into pairs, threes, or fours. People who will not speak up in front of the full group will sometimes feel more comfortable sharing in a small group.

    Distribute index cards and ask participants to respond to a question on the card. This is more comfortable for those who are shy in groups; you can shuffle the cards and have each person read someone else's response. In this way, everyone participates, but no one has to know who wrote what.

  3. The group becomes distracted and loses its focuses.
    In refocusing a group it sometimes means interrupting someone or interrupting a two-way argument that is going nowhere. Although you may be hesitant about this, remind the participants of the original topic and put the tangent on hold, at least until the first topic is resolved.
  4. An offensive comment (e.g., pertaining to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) from a participant evokes angry reaction or shocked silence from the group.
    If anyone makes an offensive comment, expect conflict. Your job is to control the processing of what happened and allow the workshop to continue. You can ask people to vent, but without argument. (refer to the previous section on diversity for specific suggestions.)
  5. Someone asks you if you're prejudiced, against who, and tries to test you.
    The best response is honesty. Acknowledging that you - like everyone else - have learned prejudice and are working against it, will establish respect and lack of pretense in the group.
  6. Someone verbally attacks your leadership and completely throws you off.
    Usually they are very upset and are to blame. DO NOT TAKE THE ATTACK PERSONALLY. Explain your rationale. Discuss it with the person privately during a break. If you actually erred, apologize and continue.
  7. Someone presents inaccurate information or strays away from the focus of discussion.
    Allow participants to point this out and/or reject the comment. You should invite other participants to correct the misinformation; if they don't, correct it yourself. If you don't know the answer, acknowledge and commit to looking into it. Don't leave the group with any misinformation.
  8. Group participant states: "It's all hopeless anyway; you can't change people's attitudes. Why even try?"
    Acknowledge their feelings. Point out the hopelessness, without buying into it yourself. Point out the hopefulness of the training itself, and that you have seen attitudes change and grow by doing this work. Don't get into a debate about whether the work makes a difference - you wouldn't be doing it if it didn't.
  9. You find yourself disliking a participant.
    Remember that you are a human being and entitled to your own personal likes and dislikes. However, you must also keep in mind that as a facilitator, your neutrality is essential to the success of a workshop. Acknowledge your feelings to yourself, and move on.

It is helpful to practice responding to challenging situations by role playing them with others. As you gain experience as a facilitator you will discover additional responses to these and other situations and will develop your own style.

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