Facilitation Friday #8: Help Surface the Invisible


Effective facilitation helps individuals and groups identify and discuss the important issues they may be unaware of or unwilling to address, as well as the assumptions or beliefs behind the opinions being expressed or decisions being considered.  These may be issues or thinking perceived as too “hot” or fraught with potential conflict to be brought into the open. That's why last week's discussion about creating a safe climate is so important.  Without it, individuals may not raise difficult questions, contribute alternative perspectives, or challenge assumptions behind others' thinking.

Facilitative leaders use skillful questioning or non-intrusive observations to help bring surface those concerns, perspectives, or ideas:
  • Are there other important questions we have yet to discuss today?
  • What other perspectives might we need to consider?
  • I'm wondering if we are really talking about the core of the issue.
  • What are the assumptions behind the course of action being considered?
When facilitating, we must help surface the unacknowledged or invisible beliefs, thoughts, patterns.  When someone says "Well everyone thinks that we need to change things around here" the facilitator hears that one individual is asserting an opinion as universal truth and probes it non-judgmentally:  "Jeffrey has suggested that people are in agreement about needing to change. Is that how other see the current situation?"  Similarly, when individuals suggest a course of action or a particularly strong opinion, effective facilitation can help them share the thought process behind their perspective to help others gain a better understanding of it:  "Susan could you tell us a little more about what's led you to that conclusion"? And because facilitators tend to be listen to the conversation as a whole, we also can reflect back patterns we are perceiving and check to see if the group concurs:  "It seem like everyone gets very excited when talking about XXX, but less interest or enthusiasm is present when we are considering YYY.  Is that your sense also?"

The more that work groups learn to address issues openly and honestly, the more productive their relationships and work activity will become. In some cases, speaking freely may simply not yet be possible, so we use techniques to get the right content into the conversation.  Example of a group activity: Provide all participants an index card and ask them to write down one question or issue that really needs to be discussed, but that people are unlikely to raise directly in the group.  Explain that you will anonymously read those thoughts back to the group. Doing this gets the issues on the table so that they can be discussed, a short-term tactic, but long-term success requires us to also facilitate conversation about what needs to happen for individuals in the group to feel free to express their opinions directly and openly in the future.

By attending to the relationships among individuals in a group and the natural dynamics that unfold as they work with each other, facilitation can increase people’s comfort in engaging in open and honest dialogue. Individuals feel supported in making statements that previously would have been considered too difficult to share, such as opinions that run counter to conventional wisdom or the perspective of those holding the greatest power.They learn to share in a respectful manner how certain behaviors are affecting them and their work.  

The Quakers have a wonderful belief that "Everyone holds a piece of the truth." The riskiest behavior is when a group doesn't deal with the truth as individuals truly see it, but rather with the glossy abstractions they might offer to avoid rocking the boat. We must help people have conversations with meaning, ones that talk about the ideas and issues that matter most.  Issues and opinions can only remain below the surface for so long before they need to escape.  When facilitating we want to help them "come to the top" in a helpful way, one that increases the robustness of the conversation and the quality of the decisions made.