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Dynamic Facilitation as a Resource for Self-Organization


by Rosa Zubizarreta


Our intention with dynamic facilitation is to support a group's self-organization, so that the creativity and synergy characteristic of non-linear, transformational kinds of conversation, can be brought to bear on practical problems.

Many of the key principles in working with a group are similar to what we do when working with a person to support their self-organization. For example, it's crucial that we not have any agenda of our own, beyond supporting the well-being of the person (or group). Also, we need to hold a space where all of the different voices, feelings, and perspectives within that person (or group) can emerge, be acknowledged and validated. And, maybe most importantly, we need to have faith and trust in the person's (or group's) own process, and their ability to find their own answers, given some good attention and empathy.

So how what does this look like when we are facilitating a group? In dynamic facilitation, one of the facilitator's main roles is "designated listener", ensuring that each voice within the group is fully heard. In the beginning stages, this can involve a fair amount of reflection ("active listening") as well as inquiry, to draw out the participants much more fully than is usually imagined. It can also involve actively intervening to halt a "back-and-forth", in order to allow each side to express their perspective fully without interruption.

The second main role of the facilitator is to help create a kind of "mind map", by recording all participants' contributions. The contributions are usually recorded on four open-ended lists. The "solutions" chart is where we place all contributions that carry the energy of "I've got the answer here!" The "concerns" chart is a place for "well, that won't work because of"; while all of the inquiries, problem-statements, etc. that come up during the course of the conversation are recorded on the "problems" chart, usually in the form of a question: "How can we....?" The fourth chart, the "data" chart, is a catch-all, where any statement of information, perspectives, feelings, opinions, etc. can go.

The third main role of the facilitator is to help create the container -- opening and closing the meeting. Opening can be a simple invitation: "What do you want to do today? What is the problem or issue here?" followed by jumping into the process through listening deeply to the various perspectives that emerge. When it's time to close at the end of the meeting, the facilitator invites the group to converge... not to agree on or decide anything content-wise, as that level of convergence is what we expect to emerge naturally at some point during the process... but instead, to simply summarize what the group has done and "bookmark" where the group is now, so that it can continue its work next time.

So that pretty much sums it up, in terms of what a facilitator does - listens (really listens), does a little bit of "traffic cop" stuff as needed (usually mostly in the beginning), records, helps open and close the meeting. Just as significant are the things that the facilitator does NOT do... for example, he or she does NOT try to get people to agree on what "the problem" is, but simply lists the various problem-statements that emerge... he or she does NOT try to get the group to "stay on topic", but instead "follows the energy" of the emerging process... he or she does NOT insist on people "defining the problem" before offering their solutions, but instead welcomes the opportunity for people to share their solutions whenever!

When, as a result of the emerging process, the group appears to be naturally arriving at a "breakthrough", the facilitator does NOT try to verify if folks "agree" or "disagree" in order to "confirm" a "consensus". Instead, the facilitator is usually silent when a "meeting of the minds" is taking place, and offers a process reflection back to the group some time later.

So there it is. There's a lot more that could be said, of course, but that is really basically it. Listening appreciatively and without an agenda - what Lee Glickstein calls "heart listening" -- is simple, but not always easy! And as Peter Senge says, a key aspect of facilitation is having the inner conviction, based on experience, that order can emerge out of seeming chaos. (Neither Lee nor Peter were talking specifically about dynamic facilitation, but I am finding a lot of parallels among various transformational approaches)

P.S. Some people object to "supporting self-organization" as a contradiction in terms. From my perspective, it's just a linguistic trap: if we look at it developmentally, it's very clear how a growing seedling or a growing child's self-organization can be supported OR thwarted. Of course, as long as there is life-energy present, some degree of self-organization always exists, even if its full expression has been damaged or driven underground. And, there is always the potential for healing and regeneration, given the appropriate circumstances...