Dynamic Facilitation Method
written by Rosa Zubizarreta
©2006 Rosa Zubizarreta
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use only.
For any other uses, please contact the author.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Who is this Manual For?
The Relationship between Theory and Practice
History and Overview of Dynamic Facilitation
Similarities and Differences with other Approaches
B. Basic Elements of the Facilitators Role
What We Mean By "Really Listening"
Trusting and Supporting Self-Organization
Recording Participants Contributions
Using the Charts to Keep an Open Flow
C. Getting Started
Introducing the Process
What About "Ground Rules"?
D. Key Aspects of the Initial Stage
Welcoming Initial Solutions
Welcoming Concerns and New Problem Statements
Working with Advocacy
Drawing Out Group Divergence
E. Transition and Intermediate Stages
Allowing Convergence to Emerge
Helping Groups Through the "Yuck"
Remaining in a Creative Process
Each Arrival as a New Point of Departure
The Appearance of Convergence
A "Meeting of Minds and Hearts"
Letting Go and Allowing
F. Concluding Stages and Follow-Up
Closing Stages of a Meeting
Creating "Outcomes" and "Bookmark" Charts
Harvesting the Charts After the Meeting
When is Dynamic Facilitation Appropriate?
Exploring the Larger Context
In The Promise of Mediation, Bush and Folger acknowledge that many practitioners of mediation have been intuitively practicing a transformational approach, long before they wrote their definitive book describing the philosophy and practice of Transformative Mediation (1994, 2004) .
In a similar vein, I want to acknowledge that many practitioners of facilitation have been intuitively practicing a transformational, "emergent process" approach as they help groups address practical issues. The spirit of what they do may be very similar in some ways to what is described in this manual.
At the same time, Jim Rough is one of the first who has begun to explicitly name, define, and teach a transformational approach to the practice of group facilitation, which he calls Dynamic Facilitation.
This work originated in an industrial setting, helping production teams find creative answers to the practical and logistical problems they were facing. It was originally designed to help groups apply creativity to practical issues, including ones in which people are highly invested or emotionally charged.
At the same time, practitioners have discovered that this approach can be used effectively to address a broad range of human concerns. In the last twelve years, participants in Jims seminars have learned Dynamic Facilitation by facilitating small-group dialogues on a host of human issues, including homelessness, drug abuse, the "health care" crisis, etc. In the process, we have learned a lot about the power of this approach to help groups address community and social issues.
With Jims encouragement and support, I have written this manual in order to make Dynamic Facilitation available to everyone. The challenges we face as a species in our world today call us to share our tools as freely as we can, and we want to make this work as widely available as possible.back to TOC
WHO IS THIS MANUAL FOR?
You may be interested in this work if you are:
A professional facilitator, mediator, or consultant wanting to expand your repertoire of ways of working with groups
A layperson interested in learning to facilitate creative group dialogue and/or practical group breakthroughs
Someone who is engaged in an ongoing exploration of self-organization, creativity, collective intelligence, and transformation
While many professional practitioners have found this work extremely helpful, we would also like to see Dynamic Facilitation become a lay movement. We believe this is possible, given that there are many people in our culture who have been developing the basic skills that we see as foundational for this approach to facilitation.
These basic skills include:
Many laypeople who have been active in the self-help, personal development, and spiritual growth movements have developed a strong foundation in these skills. Dynamic Facilitation offers a way that these skills can be put to use, for the purpose of helping groups experience the transformational power of generative dialogue.
Of course, to practice Dynamic Facilitation professionally, it helps to have a number of related skills as a consultant that are not the subject of this manual. In order to support sustainable change, it is not enough to help a group engage in a creative and transformative process. Every group forms part of a larger organization or network. As a result, we need to be able to work with the larger system as a whole.
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THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEORY AND PRACTICE.
Dynamic Facilitation is a distinctive and powerful approach to group facilitation, that can help groups arrive together at creative, practical, and elegant solutions to challenging issues. With this manual, we aim to not only help you understand this approach, but also to be able to practice it.
At the same time, in the lasting words of Kurt Lewin, "there is nothing more practical than a good theory." If we understand how something works, we are able to creatively adapt its design, figure out when and where to use it, and even improve on the original process. On the other hand, if we simply "follow a recipe," we might leave out a key ingredient and not understand why we did not obtain the desired results.
Therefore, this manual includes not just a "how-to," but also an explanation of the deeper principles at work, as best as I understand them. I am not asking you to simply believe in any of these views or philosophical approaches offered here. However, I do suggest that you try them on and use them as working hypotheses.
One of the basic assumptions of this work is that the facilitators stance or view is an integral part of this practice. This includes:
How we understand ourselves and one another,
Our understanding of our role as facilitator,
Our ability to trust the groups own process.
All of these are, of course, related. Our view includes not only the possibilities that we see for ourselves or one another individually, but also the possibilities that we see among us collectively.
This principle influences how we teach Dynamic Facilitation. When we lead a seminar, we do not simply offer a collection of techniques. Instead, we lead an experiential process that is designed to help participants expand their view of what is possible in groups. To the extent that we are successful, that experience gives participants enough confidence to continue practicing on their own, and acquire additional experiences that will confirm and deepen their sense of what is possible.
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HISTORY AND OVERVIEW OF DYNAMIC FACILITATION
Jim Rough first created Dynamic Facilitation while working as a quality consultant with teams of hourly employees at a sawmill, as a way to help work teams to address "impossible-to-solve" problems. He designed a process to help teams tap into their creativity in order to arrive at practical solutions through collective "ahas," otherwise known as "breakthroughs" (Rough, 2002, 1997, 1992, 1991.)
One characteristic of this approach is the ease of follow-through accompanying decisions that "emerge" in this manner. Implementation is rarely an issue, given the high energy and commitment that accompanies the groups shared discoveries.
When Jim began to teach, a further application became evident. Since Dynamic Facilitation works by evoking genuine shifts of mind and heart, Jim did not want to use role-plays. And since participants at his seminars came from a wide variety of settings, the only "real issues" they shared in common were larger human issues. Therefore, Jim began asking his students to work in groups on human issues, such as homelessness, the AIDS crisis, abortion, etc., in order to practice their facilitation skills during the seminars.
The usefulness of this process for hosting dialogue on difficult social issues soon became apparent. One strength of Dynamic Facilitation in this arena is its ability to work with participants "as they are.". This approach does not ask people to adhere to any ground rules, nor does it require participants to learn new ways of communication in order to engage in dialogue. Instead, the facilitators very active yet non-directive role welcomes participants advocacy, while at the same time creating the container for transformation.
There is an understandable concern among some "progressive" consultants with regard to facilitator-dependent approaches. Dynamic Facilitation certainly requires that someone actively hold the role of facilitator, or designated listener. However, the simplicity of this role means that lay people are quite capable of learning to "hold the space" that is required for this process to work. In fact, beginners are often able to grasp the process more easily than experienced consultants.
In the arena of personal development, there are many effective self-help models based on peer support, where people have learned to take turns holding space for one another. Our experience with Dynamic Facilitation leads us to believe that peer-exchange facilitation networks are quite possible, where trained laypersons take turns holding space effectively for a group. We hope that this manual becomes a step in that direction.
While the process itself is not complicated, the greatest challenge for facilitators is to learn a completely different mind-set than the one conventionally assumed in attempting to "manage" the process of a meeting. In Dynamic Facilitation, we do not try to persuade participants to "stick to the topic." Instead, participants are supported in addressing whatever issue is of most concern to them in the moment. I often compare this experience to a family sitting around the dinner table, working on a very large jigsaw puzzle. Someone might be working on the clouds, someone else might be working on the tree line, while yet another person might be working on the building. However, as each participant contributes his or her "piece," the larger picture becomes clearer and clearer.
While the facilitator is not attempting to guide or manage the process, he or she is working very hard, listening deeply to each participant in turn, actively drawing out his or her contributions. In addition, the facilitator is creating a shared map by recording all of the various ideas, perspectives, problem statements, and concerns.
As participants experience being fully heard, their focus naturally begins to expand. Instead of needing to remain narrowly focused on their initial perspective, their attention is now freed to begin exploring the larger picture that is unfolding. Everyones intrinsic motivation to discover meaningful patterns, to make sense of conflicting information, and to create new possibilities begins to emerge, and participants begin to spark off each others creative efforts.
Throughout, the facilitator encourages a diversity of perspectives. He or she holds space not just for new ideas, but also for concerns about solutions that others have proposed. Everything is included within the creative space. As a result, whenever collective "ahas" emerge, they have already been shaped and refined by the groups best thinking.
Perhaps most importantly, participants naturally become more curiousand welcoming of difference as the process unfolds, since they have begun to experience that difference as a rich source for greater creativity. Each participants unique and individual perspective is contributing to the power of the larger shared experience.
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SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
WITH OTHER APPROACHES
Most approaches that are designed to help groups address practical difficulties and challenges do not utilize emergent process. Instead, they tend to rely on structured agendas, pre-determined sequences of steps, and negotiated decisions. Dynamic Facilitation takes a different approach, inviting participants to remain within a creative process where group "ahas" can occur.
There are other approaches to group facilitation that also follow the "emergent process" of a group, such as Bohmian Dialogue and T-groups. Facilitators practicing these processes also refrain from leading the group through any set series of "steps," and from "managing consensus" in any way. However, these approaches have not been designed for the purpose of addressing practical issues, and quite understandably do not lend themselves well to that purpose.
In Bohmian Dialogue, the main purpose of the group is to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the thinking process. In T-groups, the purpose is to develop interpersonal understanding. In contrast, the purpose of Dynamic Facilitation is to help people discover creative and practical approaches to challenging issues. This can include anything from "How do we design a better workplace?" to "How do we address the homeless problem in our community?"
In the process of arriving in a non-directive manner at new and creative solutions, people tend to also arrive at better interpersonal understandings, and they may even have some realizations about "the nature of thought." But while these can emerge as "added benefits", they are not our principal focus.
While markedly different in some respects, there are other ways in which Dynamic Facilitation is very similar to the practice of Transformative Mediation (Bush and Folger, 2004). Both of these approaches have very active interventions at the micro level, designed to support each participants contribution. And, at the macro level, they both refrain on principle from any effort to "manage" or negotiate convergence, choosing to "follow the process," instead of directing it.
Dynamic Facilitation also bears some strong resemblances to Dialogue Mapping, a computer-assisted version of cognitive mapping (Conklin, 2005.)
OF THE FACILITATORS ROLE
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WHAT WE MEAN BY "REALLY LISTENING"
In Dynamic Facilitation, the main role of the facilitator is to listen deeply, and to create a space where each participant can be deeply heard. To do so, he or she takes a very active and consistent role in supporting the emotional safety, unique perspective, and creative contribution of each participant.
As mentioned earlier, the facilitator is NOT leading the group through any prescribed series of steps. Instead, he or she is very involved on the "micro-level," providing empathy, respect, and support for each participants contribution.
These "micro-level" interventions in Dynamic Facilitation include:
In addition, he or she is:
These interventions will be described more fully in this manual.
In addition to all of the above, the facilitator is also:
These last three items could be categorized as a "macro-level" interventions, since they have to do with the group as a whole. Another "macro-level" intervention is described in the section on "Creating Outcomes Charts and Bookmark Charts", which describes how to bookmark the process at the end of a meeting.
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TRUSTING AND SUPPORTING
In Dynamic Facilitation, we support the development of a self-organizing process in a group. This means that we do not lead the group through any step-by-step sequence of events, but instead support the natural unfolding of the group. For some people, this might seem like a contradiction in terms. Why would self-organization need any support?
Yet when we think about it, we realize that nothing is able to "self-organize" in the absence of supporting conditions. An acorn does not need anyone to tell it how to develop into an oak tree. Yet in order to do so, it needs water, sunlight, and air, all in the appropriate quantities. If it does not have a sufficient amount of any of these, it will not grow. If it has less than the optimal amount, it will grow in a stunted manner.
Human beings also need some basic conditions in order to be able to grow. In addition to food, water, and air, people also need to feel understood by others and respected for who they are. People also need to feel that others are dealing with them honestly.
Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, described these three emotional conditions for growth as:
unconditional positive regard, and
Rogers found that these conditions are "necessary and sufficient" for supporting self-organization and growth in a variety of different settings, from individuals in therapy to groups of students in a classroom (Rogers, 1983.)
These three conditions are also a key part of Dynamic Facilitation. When we offer each individual in a group empathic and respectful attention, the group as a whole is able to discover its own creative and practical answers to any challenges it is facing. We do not need to lead them through a "problem-solving process" or teach them a series of "communication tools" in order for the self-organizing process to take place. Of course, these other tools and processes may have great value in their own right. Yet if we are dependent upon them, it can cloud our ability to trust the natural flow of the group.
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RECORDING PARTICIPANTS CONTRIBUTIONS
In Dynamic Facilitation, a key aspect of our work is recording each participants contributions on chart paper, as an extension of listening deeply and reflecting back what one has heard. One main purpose of recording is to create an ongoing "map" of the emerging dialogue, including the full diversity of perspectives contained in the group. This includes different views of "what the real problem is," or "what we should really be talking about." It also includes all of the "quick fixes," pet theories, and creative solutions that participants bring in with them as they walk in the door, as well as participants concerns about each others "solutions." Also included is all of the data and information participants see as relevant to their concerns, including any strongly-held beliefs they may hold.
In general, participants contributions can be understood in terms of one or more of the following categories:
The facilitator does not attempt to control the order in which these contributions occur, nor to keep the group focused on any one particular subject. Instead, he or she simply listens, draws out participants, reflects, and records their contribution on chart paper. Each chart contains a numbered list of items. Each contribution is added as a new item to the list. And since we are recording the contribution of each person, each list can consist of many pages. Whenever we fill a page, we begin a new one.
Keeping a separate chart for each of the above categories offers the facilitator a way to welcome, value, and track any kind of contribution. Whatever the subject matter, each participant's offering can be added to one or more of the following charts, one for each of the categories mentioned above:
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USING THE CHARTS TO KEEP AN OPEN FLOW
Each chart consists of a numbered list of items. We are not asking the group to "decide" on any one problem statement. We are also not asking the group to focus on exploring the pros and cons of any one solution. Instead, we are listening deeply to each participant in turn, and recording the various problem statements, solutions, concerns, and data that emerge.
Our main purpose is to listen well and to draw out each person, not to "categorize" someone's statement. As we listen, it may become clear that beneath a participant's initial concern about someone else's solution, he or she has their own solution to offer. Or, maybe the participant is really wantiing to suggest an altogether different problem statement. ("This is what we should really be talking about ") As we listen further, what had initially seemed to be a concern, may turn out to be a new solution, or a new problem statement.
There is no need to be overly concerned about where exactly to place each contribution. If we are unclear about where to place a particular contribution, we can always ask the person themselves. It's also ok to write something down in two different places. The main purpose of the four charts is to make room for each person's contributions, regardless of how divergent it may appear. As we reflect, record, and verify each participant's contribution, our intention is to give participants the opportunity to connect with what they are really wanting to say, beyond their first attempts and underneath their initial hesitations.
The numbered lists are helpful way to create space for the co-existence of opposing views. Instead of attempting to reconcile differences, the facilitator simply listens deeply and makes room by adding each contribution as a new numbered item on the lists.
The facilitator attempts to record complete sentences, or at least phrases. It is helpful to use participants words as much as possible, while also listening for the gist of what they are saying.
Each participant owns their own contribution. The purpose of the list is to keep a faithful record of the dialogue. Therefore, the facilitator continually verifies whathe or she has written with the participants, inviting them to offer any changes or corrections that might be needed.
The facilitator posts everything he or she is recording on the walls so the group begins to get a clearer picture of all of the various creative challenges, solutions, concerns, and information that are "in the room."
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
DYNAMIC FACILITATION AND BRAINSTORMING
By this point, some folks may be wondering, how is the process we are describing here different from brainstorming? While both brainstorming and Dynamic Facilitation are designed to help people be creative in a group context, here are some key differences among the two approaches:
In Dynamic Facilitation, we welcome any concerns that people may have about one anothers ideas and solutions. In brainstorming, safety is created by asking people to refrain from commenting on one anothers ideas and suggestions. In Dynamic Facilitation, we also create safety for participants' creative contributions. However, we do so in a different way. By asking participants to direct their critical comments to the facilitator, instead of to one another, this allows us to welcome and listen deeply to any concerns that participants may have about one another's ideas.
In Dynamic Facilitation, we encourage and support participants to stay in a creative space throughout the entire meeting. In conventional facilitation approaches, brainstorming is often used as a technique for stimulating creative thinking during the early part of a meeting. Later on, the facilitator draws on other techniques to help the group "move" toward agreement. In contrast, Dynamic Facilitation is an entirely different approach to facilitation. Whether we are at the beginning or near the end of a meeting, our approach is consistent: we welcome divergence. We also welcome any convergences that occur naturally as part of the creative process. However, we do not attempt at any point to "move" the group toward agreement. And if any agreement appears to have been reached, our role is to make sure that people have the opportunity to disagree and disconfirm the apparent agreement. What we find is that if it's a real breakthrough, it's unshakeable!
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"JUMPING IN" AS A WAY TO OPEN A MEETING
If a facilitator has a great deal of experience, or if he or she has already established trust with the group, the facilitator might start the meeting simply by asking, "What do you all want to talk about today?"
1) The facilitator begins working with the first person that responds, helping to draw out their response and to frame their issue as a question. For example, if the issue were interpersonal relationships, the facilitator would ask the participants help in reframing that as a question. The end result might be something like, "How can we improve our interpersonal relationships so that everyone feels respected and heard?"
2) After recording the question, the facilitator asks that same participant whether he orshe has any ideas on how to address this issue, and records those ideas as well. To draw out participants, the facilitator might ask a question such as, "If it were completely up to you, what would your solution be?"
3) When the facilitator completes the process of listening fully to the first person, he or she turns to the next person. The next participant might share a concern about an existing "solutions." Alternatively, he or she might share a different solution, or suggest an altogether different issue.
4) The facilitator ensures that the second person is also fully heard, before proceeding to the next person (and so forth!).
By this point, the facilitator is no longer at the beginning of the meeting, but instead, well into the initial stage. A closer look at the facilitators role during this initial stage is offered in the next section.
In some contexts, the "jumping in" approach we have described above could work well on its own. Yet in many other situations it can be helpful to offer participants some initial framing, to give them a sense of what to expect from the meeting before "jumping in." I shall describe some ways to do that in the next section.
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INTRODUCING THE PROCESS
While Jim Rough often prefers the "jumping in" approach, others have found that it can be helpful to begin a meeting with a brief introduction to the process, before jumping in to the issues.
For example, you may want to:
1) Let participants know that this is a process designed to evoke creativity, and it may feel somewhat unfamiliar at first.
2) Use the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle, to describe how the group might jump around a bit as it explores various issues, but that a larger picture will be taking form
3) Explain that as facilitator, you are only able to listen to one person at a time, and so you will be asking people to take turns.
4) Emphasize that you will be listening to each person fully before proceeding to the next person, and acknowledge that this is a little different from what usually happens at meetings.
5) Invite participants to "be themselves," and remind them that their individual contributions are key to the process. This is especially true whenever they feel the most out of step with the rest of the group. Their unique perspective may well turn out to be the missing piece of the puzzle, even though at first it might not seem to fit in with the rest of the pieces.
These five brief framings are usually sufficient for introducing the process to a group. If you are planning to interview individual participants before the meeting (see the section, "Exploring the Larger Context") that can be a good opportunity to offer participants a preview of the framings. Even so, you may want to review them again at the beginning of the meeting.
Since the way that agreement emerges in this process is so different from a conventional approach, it can be helpful to have framed the broader purpose of this series of meetings as the creative exploration of an issue, rather than any kind of formal decision-making. Participants can feel more comfortable knowing that any formal decisions that need to happen will take place afterward, using their customary process.
It is true that number of issues which will need to be "formally decided upon" afterward tends to be greatly reduced as a result of engaging in the creation of shared understanding, as the way forward becomes patently obvious to all. However, it can create unnecessary anxiety and/or unrealistic expectations to overemphasize this point beforehand. It may be preferable to let participants discover this for themselves.
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WHAT ABOUT "GROUND RULES"?
In Dynamic Facilitation, we place a strong value on creating a safe space for participants. At the same time, we also value being able to meet people "where they are," instead of asking them to behave differently or to censor themselves. Therefore, instead of using "ground rules" in an attempt to create safety, we emphasize instead active facilitation and modeling.
As the facilitator listens deeply to people, he or she is modeling good listening. Even more importantly, the facilitator is helping participants feel heard. In the process, participants naturally become more able and willing to listen to others.
Of course, this approach takes time. In the meantime, the facilitator is actively intervening to "protect" participants whenever necessary. For example, if someone interrupts during a sensitive moment, the facilitator might say, "Excuse me, I really want to listen to what you are saying, but first I want to make sure that I have really heard what this other person has to say." As soon as the facilitator has finished with the first person, he or she will turn back to the person who was interrupting, to listen and draw out that person's contributions in full.
Or, depending on the circumstances, the facilitator might redirect their attention to someone who is in obvious distress, and then come back to the person who was originally speaking. Regardless of who goes first, the larger point is that each person will be heard, and it is the facilitator's job to hear each person fully.
Sometimes our role as facilitator will require us to walk up and place ourselves physically between two participants in order to interrupt a heated "back-and-forth." In such a situation, we might say, "I really want to hear what each of you are saying. But I can only listen to one person at a time, so I will need to ask you to take turns." Then we invite each participant to re-direct their heat toward us as facilitators instead of at one another. In this way, people are able to speak their truth openly, "overhear" one another, and experience safety in a group setting.
Sometimes a group may insist on creating "ground rules," if that is how they are used to working. The key element here is the conversation itself. More powerful than any particular set of "rules" or "agreements" is the shared understanding that is created as group members explore what these agreements might mean to them.
Even if the group has come up with some ground rules, our role as a facilitator is not to enforce the rules, but to facilitate in such a way that rules become unnecessary as a result of the shared understanding, valuing of diverse perspectives, and synergy that develop in the group.
KEY ASPECTS OF THE INITIAL STAGE
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WELCOMING "INITIAL SOLUTIONS"
Part of what people are bringing with them when they first come into a meeting are all of the individual "solutions" that they have been generating in response to the challenges at hand. As facilitators, we want to support and encourage peoples creativity. We want participants to feel heard, so that they are in turn better able to listen to others. We also want to help participants empty themselves of what they already know, so that they are able to come up with new ideas. We find that the best way to do all of this is to welcome and listen deeply to initial solutions.
Therefore, we do NOT ask people to wait until agreement has emerged around a problem definition, before sharing their initial solutions. Instead, whenever a participant offers a problem statement, we assume that this problem is something that particular individual has already spent some time thinking about. As a result, we encourage the same person who has offered a problem statement to share whatever solution they may already have in mind.
This can be more difficult that it might appear. Often people need active encouragement to share the solutions that they are harboring, as they may have often felt criticized in the past for their creative contributions. They will begin to say something, then stop: "I've said enough. It must be someone else's turn by now." Usually, people tend to only share the tip of the iceberg. We want the whole iceberg.
Of course, some participants may be quite eager to share their ideas. If a facilitator is not receptive, they will persist in their attempts to do so. Yet once they feel heard, once the facilitator has welcomed their idea, reflected it, recorded it and verified it, it's extremely rare for someone to not feel satisfied. In truth, we do not find much difference between those who are reticent and those who are voluble. In either case, the process of listening to, drawing out, and acknowledging a persons "initial solutions" helps that person develop a greater readiness to listen openly to others perspectives.
As the facilitator draws out each person, participants will naturally discover that others have different perspectives, and begin to sense the larger complexity of the situation. In the process, the limitations of their initial solutions will quite readily become apparent. However, it is not the facilitators job to point out flaws in the initial solutions, but instead to help each person feel heard and to record all of the data that emerges.
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WELCOMING CONCERNS AND
NEW PROBLEM STATEMENTS
Initial solutions contain valuable information for the group, as they offer insight into participants various perspectives. They serve as a valuable source of raw material for the much more comprehensive solutions that emergelater, once the group has had an opportunity to digest the larger picture that is emerging. Initial solutions also serve the group by eliciting concerns from other participants.
Any concerns offered by participants in response to others solutions are valuable sources of information for the group. In addition, underneath a participants concern, there is often another alternative solution. The facilitators task is to draw out the concern, as well as the alternative solution that may lie beneath it.
In general, we do not want to use concerns and alternative solutions to go back and modify the original solution proposed by someone else. Instead, it is more helpful to continue moving forward. First, we record the concern on the Concerns Chart. Then, if the concern contains an alternative solution, we add it to the list as a new solution, even if it is a modification of an existing solution.
The reason for this is the importance of protecting the particular shades of meaning inherent in each person's creative efforts. Often we tend to think that two people are saying "almost the same thing." Yet the vitality of creative expression and complex thinking lies precisely in allowing room for apparently small but ultimately significant distinctions. Along the same lines, if someone offers a new problem statement that is a modification of an existing statement, the facilitator will record it as a new addition to the Problems Chart, rather than going back to modify the original problem-statement.
NOTE: Every once in a great while, the group may experience a real breakthrough during the initial stages of the meeting. As the facilitator is drawing a person out and helping them to present their perspective in full, the group may discover that person's answer to be the key for which they have been searching. The person may have made previous unsuccessful attempts to communicate his or her perspective to others. Yet it is not until the group has the opportunity to listen to that person in depth, that they are able to discover the answer in their midst.
Of course, this is not usually the case. The occasional "pearl of wisdom" that we may find is NOT the rationale for welcoming initial solutions. It is much more likely that all of the various initial solutions offered by participants will end up as "compost", extremely useful raw material for the group's later work. However, these early breakthroughs do happen often enough to be worth mentioning.
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WORKING WITH ADVOCACY
In Dynamic Facilitation, the facilitators role is to create an environment where each individuals advocacy can serve the group. We do this by listening deeply to each individuals strongly-held positions, reflecting and recording each contribution. As we do so, this creates a context where participants are more able to listen to themselves. We find that positions tend to become more nuanced, as participants connect more deeply with what they are really wanting and feeling.
Also, as each participant begins to feel more heard, we find that he or she naturally begins to shift into a greater openness and curiosity about others experiences.
Of course, some individuals may need more time and support than others in order to express what they are really wanting to say. It may require greater encouragement on the facilitators part to "draw out the gems" that these participants are bringing to the group. Yet in the process, we often find that "challenging" individuals are holding a particularly valuable piece of the larger puzzle.
Our own role as facilitators is to meet people where they are, not to ask them to change in any way. To the degree that change happens as part of a naturally unfolding process, we welcome it. Yet our activity is not focused on getting participants to establish or adhere to any communication guidelines beyond the practical necessity of taking turns so that we can hear each person fully.
Instead, as facilitators, we take an active role to protect participants from one anothers advocacy and intense emotion by inviting them to direct their energy at us, and welcoming their contributions with openness and receptivity. If necessary, we will physically step in the middle of an exchange, and invite each person to take turns addressing their strong concerns to us so that we can listen, reflect, and record his or her position. This allows other participants in the group to listen better, by offering them the opportunity to "overhear" one another's advocacy, rather than having the emotional energy directed at them.
While listening to someone, the facilitator will often notice changes in participants posture and body language. As individuals are given the opportunity to connect with their own thoughts and feelings more deeply, and to feel fully heard and received by at least one other person, they tend to visibly relax and soften. The presence or absence of these signals can help us realize whether we need to continue in our respectful attempts to understand someone more fully, or whether we have succeeded at doing so.
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DRAWING OUT GROUP DIVERGENCE
In Dynamic Facilitation, our most difficult challenge is how to draw out participants fully, so that their various perspectives adequately inform the creative work of the group.
Often, some individuals may choose to "hold back" initially, waiting to see if it is really safe before sharing their perspectives Or, they might feel that their own views are too different from the rest of the participants. Whenever it appears that only one side of an issue is being expressed, we may need to explicitly ask the group whether anyone present might be feeling the opposite perspective.
When someone who has not previously shared finally offers their perspective (sometimes quite tentatively or after some hesitation) it is particularly important that the facilitator draw out and protect that participant, reflecting and affirming their contribution. As others are able to overhear the new perspective in depth, it becomes additional information that helps the group reach a new level of thinking. As the group begins to experience how the creative process benefits from listening to unfamiliar perspectives, a sense that divergence is truly welcome starts to emerge.
Despite the facilitators best efforts, he or she may not realize that someone has been holding back until a later stage in the process. When attempting to verify what appears to be a group "breakthrough," the facilitator may be surprised to discover that a participant has not been really ready to voice his or her perspective before that moment.
It can be quite frustrating in the moment to realize as a facilitator that the group is not as far along as we had thought. While many of the participants may have entered a phase of creative synthesis, it is not possible for their work to include or take into consideration the still-undiscovered perspective of the person who has not yet "purged."
Regardless of timing, the only way to move forward constructively is to accept this situation as a gift -- a valuable opportunity to 1) genuinely welcome and draw out the "missing" persons contribution, and then 2) proceed with the open-ended, non-directive creative process. As the group obtains a more complete picture of the diverse perspectives contained within it, the natural process of creative synthesis will continue on a deeper level.
TRANSITION AND INTERMEDIATE STAGESback to TOC
ALLOWING CONVERGENCE TO EMERGE
Many facilitation approaches include a variety of techniques to help draw out divergence. If you are a professional facilitator, what we have described so far could appear to be simply a novel way for helping bring forth the divergence that is already present in the group.
Yet the radical gift of Dynamic Facilitation is that we never "shift gears" to "lead" a group into convergence. Instead, we help a group remain within the creative process, so that any convergences can emerge naturally.
While we do not lead a group through steps, we do find that groups tend to move, of their own accord, through a series of stages. One pattern we frequently encounter is the shift from
"how will we ever reconcile all of this?" toà
In the first stage, the facilitator is "purging" people of what they already know by drawing them out, helping them feel heard, and recording their contributionsto create a "mind map."
The second stage is similar in some ways to the creative block that an artist sometimes feels when facing a blank canvas, or a writer facing a blank page. Except that in this case, the group is facing walls and walls full of chart paper, and wondering, "How will we ever reconcile all this?"
While this stage is challenging, it is relatively brief. Of course, when the facilitators main job is to hold the creative tension and refrain from jumping in to steer the process, a few minutes can easily feel like hours!
In the third stage, the facilitator continues recording peoples individual contributions, just as in the first stage. Some things are different: the energy has shifted, the ideas being offered are new, and often the facilitator is able to fade into the background while continuing to record participants' contributions. However, he or she remains alert in case there is a need to step in and "create space" for apparently conflicting perspectives by listening fully to each as in the first stage.
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HELPING GROUPS THROUGH THE "YUCK"
After the initial "purging" stage of a meeting, we find that there is generally a critical transition stage that can last for several long minutes. The facilitator has already drawn forth the various perspectives that are present in the group, the walls are covered with chart paper, and the participants are often feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the divergence that they are facing.
At this point, we might use the following interventions:
At some point during this brief but challenging phase, someone in the group will inevitably come up with a creative inspiration. "Wait! I just had a thought! What if we ." This spark, in turn, will evoke additional solutions, concerns, and questions from the rest of the group, and the group is off and running again.
While the process the facilitator uses remains the samecharting peoples ideas, perspectives, inquiries, and concerns on the various chartsthe quality of the groups thinking tends to be fresher and more inclusive at this stage. The solutions participants are proposing are no longer the ones that they walked in with. In general, people are attempting to respond to the diversity of perspectives that has emerged in the first phase.
Most significantly, the facilitator does not take up any of the suggested proposals and does not attempt to lead the group into a negotiated process so that they can all "decide" upon a solution. Instead, he or she helps the group to continue in a creative process, and continues recording the flow of the dialogue. However, in this third stage, the facilitator often finds that he or she can recede into more of a background role, while remaining alert to being "on call" as needed.
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REMAINING IN A CREATIVE PROCESS
In our experience, the flow of divergence convergence divergence convergence etc., happens quite naturally when a group is in a creative process. Therefore, once the facilitator has helped a group enter a creative process, the task becomes to help them remain in the creative flow.
The facilitator does this by continuing to listen deeply, and to record the flow of the conversation. In the third stage, since participants have usually become more comfortable in sharing their ideas and concerns, the facilitator may not need to work as hard to draw them out. Also, since participants have begun to listen to one other more deeply, and express curiosity about divergence, the facilitator can often take more of a background role.
However, it is vital that the facilitator continue following the conversation very closely, and jump in when needed to create space for divergence, especially whenever it seems that people may begin to become polarized around apparently contradictory ideas.
Perhaps most importantly, the facilitator helps a group remain in a creative process by refraining from any attempts to "manage" the process in order to reach formal agreement or consensus. This includes voting, show of hands, or any other forms of "agree or disagree" thinking conventionally used in the struggle to arrive at formal decisions.
Most of us have learned to define "agreement" as what ensues after a formal decision-making process. Therefore, refraining from formal agreement is one of the ways in which Dynamic Facilitation differs most profoundly from conventional facilitation.
At the same time, we are not interested in false consensus or in groupthink. Therefore, instead of attempting to negotiate consensus before it happens, we take time a few minutes after the fact, to verify with the group any shared understandings, convergences, or breakthroughs that appear to have emerged.
When we are in a creative process, any convergences that the group reaches will quite quickly open up a new level of divergence. We do not call attention to convergence in the moment, but wait until after the group has begun working on a new level of divergence to check in with them to see whether everyone is really on board.
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EACH ARRIVAL AS A NEW POINT OF DEPARTURE
As an example of what an ongoing flow of divergence convergence divergence might look like, let us imagine for a moment that a family is planning to take their next vacation. At the beginning of the conversation, each person starts out with a different idea of where he or she wants to go. Everyone talks for a while about their particular preference, and then begins coming up with new ideas. At some point, the teenage son mentions that he has heard about a dude ranch out West. If the family goes there, Sis will get to go horseback riding, Mom and Dad will get to camp, and he can sit around the campfire practicing his guitar.
It is apparent that everyone is excited about this new idea, and then Mom brings up the question of how we will get there. She has always wanted to ride a train, but it will take an extra three days to get there that way. Dad mentions that if the family drives out west, everyone could visit Uncle Bob along the way. Meanwhile, Sis is accumulating frequent flyer miles, so she prefers to fly.
It is obvious that once the transportation issue is decided, the family will need to figure out a whole new set of questions. These might include what to take on the trip, what kind of arrangements to make to take care of the house in the family's absence, etc. In fact, from a pessimistic perspective, we could say that every "convergence", or agreement about what we want to do, just opens up a whole new set of "divergences"! At the same time, the group is in fact making progress.
In the absence of a conventional agree-disagree process, the group can easily miss that they are now working on a whole new set of challenges, having already solved the original issues they were facing at the beginning of the meeting. In fact, this often happens in Dynamic Facilitation. Taking a moment to stop and verify the convergences provides the additional opportunity to pause and help the group acknowledge the progress it has made.
Now we will apply this to the above example. A few minutes into the conversation about modes of transportation, someone taking on the role of facilitator might say: "Well, when we started, we were trying to figure out where to go for our vacation. Now it seems we are all happy with the idea of going to a dude ranch (taking a minute to look around for nods). And so now we are at the next step of figuring out how we will get there. It seems there are a number of different ideas on the table, so lets continue to think creatively about this "
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THE APPEARANCE OF CONVERGENCE
What if, in the example we just gave, something different happened when we attempted to verify that everyone was indeed happy with the idea of going to the dude ranch? What if Sis were to say, "Well " and then look down?
From a Dynamic Facilitation perspective, it would be clear that we had not, in fact, fully "purged" everyone. When we check an apparent convergence, we may sometimes find that one or more participants have not been feeling fully safe, and have been holding back their thoughts and feelings.
No problem! We know what to do. The facilitator needs to genuinely welcome this as an opportunity to listen deeply to the person who, up to now, has been holding back his or her concerns. The facilitator then continues with the process of listening to each person and helping the group remain in a creative flow. In this way, the next time the group arrives at a point of convergence, it will be something that everyone is truly excited about.
As we "circle back" to listen deeply to anyone who was not fully comfortable with what appeared to be a convergence, we are letting each member of the group know that their individual voice and perspectives are important. Participants begin to realize that their full participation is needed in order for the group to move forward.
What we do not want to do is to jump on convergences just as they are beginning to emerge. We might be tempted to ask the group to vote or have a show of thumbs to make sure that they are all in agreement before allowing them to proceed to the next set of problems. Yet if we do so, we will only short-circuit the creative process and shortchange the group.
When we ask people to enter into agree/disagree thinking, we are stepping out of the creative flow, and re-entering the arena of bargaining, limited options, and power struggles. Much better to wait for a few minutes until after the group appears to have experienced a shared shift, and then verify that everyone is in fact ok with the direction the group is going. If someone is not, he or she will speak up. If everyone is in fact on board, the group members may simply look at you like you have just asked a stupid question, and continue merrily along in their creative flow.
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A MEETING OF MINDS AND HEARTS
It is becoming clear, then, that when we speak of convergence in Dynamic Facilitation, we are not speaking about the kind of formal "decisions" that groups usually struggle to make. Instead, we are talking about "felt shifts" in participants' energy, attention, and focus, which we verify after the fact. This verifying process is an opportunity to make sure that all of the divergence present in the group is in fact being surfaced, and to welcome any voices that have not yet emerged.
On one occasion, a colleague and I were working with the sales and warehouse departments of a winery in Sonoma County. As part of a longer three-hour training session, we spent about 45 minutes using Dynamic Facilitation to explore a problem that the company was experiencing with some truckers. These truckers were showing up notoriously late for their pick-up appointments, to the great exasperation and inconvenience of the warehouse staff. The group explored a variety of possible responses to the problem. When the solution at last emerged, it seemed clear to the whole group that the problem had been solved, and there was no need to discuss it further.
Afterward, we debriefed the entire session. One of the participants mentioned that he particularly appreciated the part of the meeting where we had he started to say, "come to consensus," but stopped himself in mid-sentence. Instead, he thought for a second, and then said, " arrived at a meeting of the minds."
Although I had not explained very much about the process, this person knew that we had not struggled to reach a solution, in the usual way that "consensus" is negotiated. Instead, something else had happened: we had had a "meeting of the minds" and of the hearts as well. We call thiskind of powerful convergence a "breakthrough" and this is what the Dynamic Facilitation process is designed to evoke.
Sometimes breakthroughs arrive in the form of a new problem statement, around which the whole group coalesces, instead of in the form of a solution. In a group exploring the abortion issue in one of Jims seminars, the breakthrough came in the form of a shared inquiry. Instead of "What should we do about abortion?" or any of the other problem statements that had emerged in the process of that conversation, the group discovered that the real problem statement around which they had all converged was, "How do we create a world where every child is a wanted child?" (Of course, that creative challenge generated a whole new set of solutions, concerns, problem-statements, etc )
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LETTING GO AND ALLOWING
There is a degree of paradox at the heart of Dynamic Facilitation. For instance, in order to allow breakthroughs to happen, we need to release our attachment to having breakthroughs. After all, if we are greatly invested in the outcome, we might be tempted to try to control or direct the process in some fashion, which would make it very unlikely for a breakthrough to emerge. Instead, when we are willing to risk, to trust, and to let go of control, we create the conditions that allow breakthroughs to take placein their own time and manner.
Yet our trust in the process is not blind trust. Instead, it is based on our experience. A key element of the seminars consists of providing participants with enough experience in self-organizing groups, so that they can trust the process enough to apply it. As they do so, practitioners gain more experience, thus deepening their trust in this work and in groups potential for self-organization.
Another paradoxical aspect is that this approach is fiercely protective of participants individuality, never seeking to get people to modify their position "for the good of the group." At the same time, this same emphasis on continually making room for individual creativity is what allows powerful group breakthroughs to occur.
This paradox is not new. For example, in diversity work, participants often experience a much deeper sense of unity as a result of making room for everyones unique histories and identities. However, we are not accustomed to applying this insight to the realm of generating practical group outcomes. Instead, there is a strong conditioned pull to believe that we must bargain or negotiate in order to achieve any common agreement, or at least make an attempt to consciously distance ourselves somewhat from our individual position. (This latter strategy can indeed be a helpful one, especially when there is no facilitator available!)
In Dynamic Facilitation, we are instead continually seeking to elicit the fullness of individual creativity and diversity. We know that this fullness becomes the rich ground for "co-sensing," as the group begins to develop a shared sense of the larger picture in all of its complexity. In the process, participants are naturally able to open into a broader perspective. Through "co-sensing," the group is able to discover their own breakthroughs, arriving at "creative consensus without compromise."
Each time, the contribution that we later realize was a convergence or a breakthrough, begins as an individual contribution. The person who is offering that contribution may or may not feel particularly confident at the time that he or she will be understood. Sometimes a participant may be aware of saying something that will be of value to the group, but other times he or she may feel "out in left field". In either case, we recognize it as a convergence to the extent that, after the fact, the whole group has moved forward and is able to recognize itself and its situation more clearly by means of that contribution.
This may be a good place to add that often a particular point will emerge at various times, voiced by different people, until such time as the group as a whole becomes ready to 'hear' it.
CONCLUDING STAGES AND FOLLOW-UP
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CLOSING STAGES OF A MEETING
Since we are working with a natural flow of divergence convergence divergenceetc., there are no guarantees that our meetings will end nicely right when we are at a major convergence point. In fact, that is not likely to happen. The group may have experienced several convergences already, and be in the middle of exploring a whole new set of challenges when the time to end the meeting approaches. Alternatively, if the issue is particularly large and complex, we might still be in the midst of the initial purge stage.
At other times, the group might have a large breakthrough early on. If it is sufficiently major breakthrough, the group may not want to nor need to continue working on the next level of challenges right away. When this happens, we find one of the "laws" of Open Space quite useful: "When its over, its over," even if we are only halfway through the time that was originally allotted for the meeting (Owen, 1992.)
Assuming this has not been the case, and the group is still hard at work, the facilitator needs to let the group know when the allotted time for the end the meeting is approaching. This helps the group to self-manage their time accordingly.
This is especially important if participants have stated a need to have a solution or decision by the end of the meeting. "In about 15 minutes, we need to be wrapping up, and you have not come to any shared agreements about how to proceed with x, y, and z."
Being aware of the approaching timeline sometimes helps participants shift naturally into a higher creative gear, and a breakthrough solution might emerge in the last few minutes of a meeting. However, this is not something that we can count on. Therefore, it is helpful to have explored both desired outcomes and default plans before the meeting or series of meetings. "If you are not able to reach agreement on what you need by the end of this process, what will happen? What is your fall-back plan?"
In any case, it is important to reserve some time at the end of the meeting to review the charts with the group, and elicit their help in c reating an Outcomes Chart and/or a Bookmark Chart for the next meeting.
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CREATING OUTCOMES AND BOOKMARK CHARTS
When it is time to end the meeting, we need to help the group experience closure. One way to do so is by reviewing the charts with the group, and pulling out any significant convergences that the group has experienced onto a new Outcomes Chart.
In order to prepare for closure, we can highlight, during the course of the meeting, the various statements that have been major turning points or convergences in the conversation. In this way, they will be easier to locate when it is time to create an Outcomes Chart.
Even if the group has experienced a number of major breakthroughs, it may be currently in the midst of a critical divergence. In that case, we may want to create a Bookmark Chart in addition to the Outcomes Chart. On the other hand, if the group is still in the initial purging stage, there may not be anything to record on an Outcomes Chart. In such cases, a Bookmark Chart is especially important.
The purpose of bookmarking is to:
Especially when in the middle of a significant divergence, it is helpful for the facilitator to help the group acknowledge all of the work that they have accomplished toward obtaining a fuller picture of their situation.
One way to do so is to ask participants for help in summarizing the larger flow of the conversation. What are the main themes that have been explored? What is the current landscape, including any unresolved divergences or polarities? It often helps to spend a few minutes reviewing all of the charts that have been created during the session, in order to help the group answer these questions.
The facilitator might also ask participants if anyone could come up with a symbol that represents the current state of the conversation. If so, that person can be invited to come up and draw the symbol. Whether composed of words, symbols, or a combination of both, this "bookmark" page becomes a useful way to open the groups next meeting.
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HARVESTING THE CHARTS
The Problem Statements, Solutions, Concerns, and Data Charts that have been created during the course of the meeting constitute a useful record of the groups dialogue. Even when a group has already arrived at their desired outcomes, the record of how they arrived there contains a wealth of information. It can serve as a rich source of questions for ongoing inquiry, and a storehouse of creative ideas and information for later review.
The notes from the meeting also have a more immediate use. Experiencing the full scope of the Dynamic Facilitation process generally takes a series of three or four meetings. Transcribing the charts and creating a written document to share with the group before or at the beginning of the next meeting is an essential part of the process. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, the meeting notes allow both facilitators and participants to "stand back from the conversation" enough to perceive its larger flow and coherence, in a way that we are often unable to notice when right in the "thick of things."
Transcribing the charts is usually much less tedious than we might fear at first. Facilitators often experience a sense of re-living the meeting as they transcribe the notes. This can help the facilitator to reconstitute the original statements. For the sake of readability, he or she may choose to expand the notes somewhat from the abbreviated manner in which they may have been originally recorded. Of course it is important that the meaning not be altered in the process.
Since long lists of any kind are hard to read, it makes sense to "chunk" the material for ease of presentation. For example, we might group together a set of four items, and then add an extra blank line between one group of items and the next.
Depending on the circumstances and the purpose for which the notes will be used, the facilitator may choose to make some minor edits by re-grouping similar items together. For example, I recently finished facilitating a two-day strategic planning process. While reviewing the transcript at the end of the first day, I realized that, with a minor regrouping of a few items, I could create series of distinct content categories. These categories, in turn, addressed each of the major aspects of this particular business.
In fact, it is a hallmark of the creative process that it leads to results that, in hindsight, appear perfectly linear and logical. (Edward de Bono explains this brilliantly in Serious Creativity, 1992.) While the process of Dynamic Facilitation might feel somewhat unpredictable at times, often the greatest surprise is the natural order and practical clarity of the results that we obtain, in addition to how much ground a group has been able to cover.
APPLICATIONSback to TOC
WHEN IS DYNAMIC FACILITATION APPROPRIATE?
Dynamic Facilitation is a powerful and effective approach for practical problem-solving situations as well as for hosting dialogue on difficult social issues. Below are some considerations to keep in mind as you apply this approach in a variety of situations.
Dynamic Facilitation evokes outstanding outcomes in a wide variety of practical contexts. It is especially useful for obtaining full participation, real creativity, and wise decisions.
Dynamic Facilitation is especially useful when:
--a group is facing a complex situation
--there are no easy answers
--there is a lot of divergence, tension, and/or conflict.
There are other situations in which Dynamic Facilitation may be less useful, or where we need to take into account certain considerations:
a) When a decision needs to be made quickly
Since Dynamic Facilitation helps participants develop a complex understanding of the big picture and evokes high levels of creativity, it may not seem to "fit" at first glance for a situation where a group is in a hurry to arrive at a decision. However, even though this approach generally does require a greater amount of time invested up front, it also tends to be much more efficient in the long run.
Decisions that are made on the basis of negotiated agreements can fall apart afterward, leading to difficulties in implementation. In contrast, the breakthroughs that emerge from a process where divergence is fully welcome tend to be more stable, and are accompanied by high levels of commitment and energy. This can save much time in the implementation phase.
Even when there is not sufficient time available to allow convergences to emerge naturally, Dynamic Facilitation can still be used for a shorter period of time as a support for creative exploration. At the end of that time, the group can return to their "fall-back" decision-making process. Even though it's unlikely that the group will have had enough time to arrive at any major breakthroughs, they will have gained a fuller understanding of the complexities inherent in the situation and may have even begun to think creatively about it.
b) When the choice is constrained to a fixed set of options
Since Dynamic Facilitation excels at evoking creativity, it may not be a good fit in a situation where there is no room for thinking "outside the box." However, a group might decide to spend a meeting thinking creatively anyway, even with the knowledge that at the end of the day, they will need to limit themselves to choosing from a constrained set of options. (It's always possible that along the way, they will discover that there really are more options that they initially realized )
c) When the decision has already been made
Dynamic Facilitation is not generally applicable for situations where the only desired outcome is "buy-in" with regard to a decision that has already been made. However, it is sometimes possible to reframe that kind of situation in a constructive and ethical manner.
For example, a manager might be willing to participate in a group exploration to see whether a better option can be found than the one that he or she has already decided upon. If this is undertaken as a good-faith effort, it becomes a win-win regardless of the outcome. Given enough time to arrive at a breakthrough, one possible outcome is that the group will indeed come up with a solution that is truly better in the eyes of everyone present, including the manager. The other possibility is that the group will "re-discover" the manager's original plan and make it fully their own.
However, if there is not enough time to do the method justice, the benefits would be limited to a greater understanding of the various perspectives present in the group with regard to the situation that the decision is attempting to address. In this case, it is possible that the disadvantages of using this method could outweigh any possible advantages, as stimulating people's creativity in a situation where there is no real opportunity for their input can lead to greater frustration.
In those circumstances -- a decision that has already been made, in combination with too little time to engage in an authentic exploration of possible alternatives -- it might be better to use another, less creative method to ascertain group members' perspectives in response to the decision.
Dynamic Facilitation can be especially useful for situations where we are seeking to generate greater understanding among different groups. People who have not experienced the process first-hand may be concerned about the focus on "problem statements," "solutions," and "concerns", wondering how these can be compatible with dialogue, especially in situations where the purpose of the dialogue is not to address practical situations but simply to increase intergroup understanding.
However, we know that nothing brings people together more quickly than working on a common problem. Framing an issue in terms of what can be done about it ("How might we find a way to .?") and eliciting peoples creativity in the form of "solutions" (I think we could .") helps create a sense of collaboration and shared purpose. We have found this to be highly effective even when a group is primarily focused on exploring an issue rather than taking action.
Of course, eliciting peoples creativity in this way requires the facilitator to play an active role in protecting each persons contribution and making room for a diversity of perspectives, especially in situations of high conflict. The non-linear, open-ended structure of Dynamic Facilitation frees the facilitator from any concerns about "managing" the process on the macro level, and allows him or her to focus on supporting each participant through these micro-level interventions.
Given the very active role of the facilitator, Dynamic Facilitation can be especially helpful for facilitating dialogue in difficult situations where people may have different ways of communicating and be unwilling or unable to agree to many "ground rules." It can also serve as a useful way to de-escalate a conflict that has already erupted. The facilitator's skill in welcoming and truly listening to each participant's contribution, can help people feel genuinely heard. As a result, they can often begin to calm down.
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EXPLORING THE LARGER CONTEXT
When using Dynamic Facilitation professionally, there are a number of consulting issues that come into play. I will touch on some of them here, but this is by no means a complete list.
A large part of creating a fruitful context for Dynamic Facilitation involves reaching a shared understanding with key decision-makers about a number of key points. Often known in the consulting world as "contracting," this remains a crucial element with Dynamic Facilitation, as with any other approach. The following list may be a good starting-point.
We need to arrive at shared understanding on:
1) The role and purpose of the meetings we are being asked to facilitate, within the larger "scheme of things"
This is perhaps even more important in the context of public participation projects than in a business context, since it is not just employee morale but also the public trust that is at issue. In a nutshell, one of the biggest disappointments is to hold a series of highly successful meetings, and then discover that the work that the group has completed will not be utilized.
2) The real bottom-line, in terms of the desired outcome or outcomes of the meeting
As mentioned earlier, Dynamic Facilitation is not appropriate for situations where what is required is fabricated consent or "buy-in." There needs to be a genuine need for a creative breakthrough in order for the process to be effective.
Even when key leaders are genuinely open to the process, it can take quite a bit of one-on-one listening and coaching beforehand to help them become clear about their desired outcomes. This time is well worth spending, as key leaders often play a critical role with regard to whether the groups decisions will be implemented or not. In addition, they often have key information about the links between the group meetings and the larger organizational process. So it is particularly important that they are able to participate fully in the process, and give a clear voice to their own perspectives and solutions.
3) The importance of leaders full participation in the process
Often, leaders have a tendency to hold back in a meeting, in a well-intentioned effort to encourage broader participation. In the context of Dynamic Facilitation, this well-intentioned effort is completely misguided. The last thing we want is to encourage group creativity, and then have everyones bubble burst as, toward the end of the meeting, the leader finally brings in the bottom-line constraints.
Instead, we need to let the meeting sponsors know that we will be drawing them out first, in order to get all of the relevant information on the table. In this way, group creativity can emerge within the context of all of the known parameters.
However, simply saying this may not enough. I still recall a situation where, three-quarters of the way through a meeting, I was quite surprised to see the director of a non-profit pull out a long list of issues that he wanted the group to address. Although I had spent quite a bit of time contracting with him, there had been no mention earlier about this list, nor any of the items on it!
The point of this story is to highlight the importance of drawing out the meeting sponsor beforehand, through the contracting process and our preliminary coaching sessions with him or her. We need to build enough trust with the group's leader or leaders, so that they are able to share with us beforehand what it is that they truly want and need. We can then remind them that the rest of the group needs to hear that information from them, early on in the process.
4) The real issues present in the group
Dynamic Facilitation excels at helping groups come up with creative and practical ways to address complex and difficult issues. However, its open-ended approach means that it is likely to elicit whatever is really going on, especially since there is no agenda to stick to, to keep us from talking about the real issues.
As a result, it can sometimes be very helpful to begin by conducting individual interviews with group members. If there are too many participants for us to be able to interview them all, we might choose a representative selection of group members, making sure to include anyone who might be identified by others as particularly challenging. These individuals may be serving in the role of scapegoat, and they often have valuable perspectives to contribute about larger issues that the group as a whole has not yet addressed.
The purpose of these interviews is four-fold:
a) To begin establishing trust with individual group members, by listening to their perspective of the group situation;
b) To begin getting a sense of the issues that are present, as well as the larger context;
c) To give participants the opportunity to begin thinking about what they want to share in the group;
d) To begin introducing the process to group members, so that they will have some familiarity with it (see the section on "Introducing the Process")
When conducting the interviews, it is helpful to use fairly open-ended questions. These are some questions that I often ask:
What is working well?
What could be improved?
What solutions do you have for this, if it were up to you?
How do you feel about sharing this with the group as a whole?
What are some issues that you might hesitate to even bring up in the group, because they seem so hopeless or difficult?
Once we have conducted the interviews, we can have a "courtesy feedback" session with the leaders. While maintaining individual confidentiality, we can review the general themes that have come up, offer our support and coaching, and invite the leader to decide whether he or she is ready to proceed with having these issues surfaced in a group setting.
5) The time-frame needed to address the issues
Often, when we hear about a new and powerful process, there is a human tendency to expect "magic fixes" or "instant solutions." From time to time, it does happen that groups using Dynamic Facilitation experience a major breakthrough very early on. However, as a general principle, we recommend a series of three or four meetings, each between two and three hours long, and ideally not more than a week apart. This configuration ensures enough time for participants to:
Of course, as we mentioned earlier, each arrival becomes a new point of departure. Still, by this point the group will have experienced one cycle of this process in it fullness. They will have accomplished a great deal with regard to practical outcomes, and have a clear sense of how to move ahead.
For the next phase of the group's work, they might choose to return for a time to their regular mode of working, until they find themselves at some future point of crisis or transition that leads them to again seek the help of a facilitator.
Or, if the group's leaders want support to help keep their team at a peak level of creativity and generativity, they might choose to begin another cycle of Dynamic Facilitation.
Once an intact group has experienced 3 or 4 complete cycles of Dynamic Facilitation (12 to 16 meetings) they are generally able to become self-facilitating. On occasion, they may still request the services of an outside facilitator (for example, when facing a particularly challenging situation in which each person on the team needs to be able to engage fully as a participant.) However, they will be able to direct the facilitator clearly, utilizing him or her as a support person holding a listening space for their own emergent process.
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