I’ve been reading Roger Schwarz’s Book the Skilled Facilitator – a worthwhile book for anyone who is involved with working in teams, and in particular for anyone who helps groups work together more effectively.
It delivers lots of structural thinking, it’s dense and challenging. Schwarz lays out a structure by which you can judge if you, or participants, are being effective in their task. If behaviours don’t coincide with the goals or needs of the group, then something is wrong, and you (as the facilitator) need to intervene.
What follows are his ground rules for how groups should talk and behave.
1. Test assumptions and inferences The facilitator’s job is to listen hard to see if assumptions or inferences are being made and muddled up with fact/ truth
2. Share all relevant information… including feelings! Don’t hold information back – it will damage the group. You have to be careful about how you share information, and you have to be mindful of the consequences, but a group can only operate effectively if everyone knows all the relevant information. (My own experience as a moderator has led me to realise that self censure is an instinct, something we do to protect our place in the group, so it’s vital that the facilitator gently pushes against this instinct…)
3. Use specific examples and agree on what words mean… essentially to make sure that everyone is talking about the same thing. By using specific examples conversations become much less personal and much more neutral
4. Explain your reasoning and intent. Without the group member explaining their reasoning other people will make inferences – that could be wrong. So by saying what’s behind your thinking, or your purpose for doing something (your intent) you are delivering clarity for the group. It’s the facilitator’s job to make sure the team members are doing this.
5. Focus on interests, not positions. This is a good one. Rather than saying this needs to happen, share with the team what your interest or need is, then as a group you can weigh up your interest alongside others and develop mutually advantageous positions
6. Combine advocacy and enquiry. This is about explaining your thinking, your argument, but then inviting comments and builds from the rest of the team so they can respond to the ideas you are putting forwards
7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements – don’t unilaterally decide on how to progress but make sure that the group’s agenda is agreed on, and formally agree ways to examine opposing arguments and by what criteria you will come to an agreement
8 Discuss undiscussable issues – get it aired, but with kindness and compassion. Never avoid and issue that feels uncomfortable, it’s probably blocking the groups progress. Use a facilitator to help air the issue. Highlight the risk you feel by airing the issue, as this will help deliver full disclosure for the group
9. Use a decision making rule that generates the degree of commitment needed decide on who decides
These rules seem good-in-theory-hard in practise… However, if you can get the group you are working with to sign up to and believe in them, then you have a basis for good communication.
Above and beyond the ground rules are some bigger social rules too – about always being kind and compassionate, listening properly, making the project about the project and not about the person…
The book has brought home to me that a good facilitator can and should be listening out for when the ground rules are being transgressed so that they can nudge people back into good behaviour mode, keeping the group effective. Not easy, and requiring practice (rather than theory). But the theory is a good place to start.
Thanks to Caroline Pakel, Creative Consultant (Totheheart.com) for recommending the book.