Teaching Facilitation: Brain Science to Legitimize?

For the second term now, I’ve been asked to give two guest lectures on facilitation for the PPPM 494 Leadership & Change course, which now serves as the undergraduate capstone course for the PPPM department. During this first class I present a Facilitation 101 workshop, which includes some underlying constructs of group process and facilitation that can guide good meeting design, as well as introducing the use of agenda design. I frame the workshop by re-defining the goal of facilitation as strengthening the culture and skills of a group to do their best thinking. Framed as a thinking and decision-making exercise, I then provide a series of design tools for facilitation including: the big rocks theory to design objectives, Kaner’s diamond of decision making and divergent-convergent thinking, types of participation and meetings, the curve of participation, the satisfaction triangle, and the importance of closure.

In addition, using the triune brain model, I talk about the importance of getting people into the best brain space for engaging and making decisions, the neocortex, and the importance of helping people to get out of the reptilian brain where they are limited to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn forms of participation. To demonstrate the value of thinking about brain space, I tell the story of facilitating a strategic planning session two days after Trump’s November 2016 election. It was a very liberal group and the strategic planning effort was already bringing forward many difficult conversations and decision-making points for the future of their organization. Recognizing that people were consumed by fear and frustration over the recent election, I integrated an exercise designed to release those fears and re-set the parasympathetic nervous system. I tell the story because it really, really worked and led to an incredibly brave, productive planning session with 20+ participants, which naturally impresses students.

The triune brain model

However, based on both their questions during the class and the feedback cards collected at the end, I’m beginning to think that connecting facilitation to brain science might be a bit problematic. I don’t feel this way because I don’t think that the connection is not true, nor that the insights gleaned from an awareness of neurology and psychology are not valuable. Instead, I worry that without the prospect of hard science backing up this art form, then facilitation will not be seen as legitimate. This is an issue that plagues the social sciences and human services fields: without scientific proof, how can we demonstrate value? We know qualitatively and anecdotally that facilitation (or mediation or therapy or…) works because we can experience it as having a positive effect on a situation or an individual, but there is little to prove these effects since longitudinal and control studies are rarely, if ever, done. I’m a huge proponent of science, which is why I’m interested in the role of brain science in my work, however, I do worry that if people new to this work only recognize its value as connected to what is a very young understanding of the brain, then they both won’t appreciate the more subtle art of the work and could negate its value if/when our understanding of the brain shifts. I will most likely continue to use brain science to teach facilitation, but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially when thinking about the not infrequent facilitation skeptics and cynics: do we need science to legitimize our work?


Learning “New” Things: Weaving & Funnel

This week I assisted Lysbeth with teaching her all-day Friday facilitation course for the CRES Cohort 12 students. At this point I have done a lot of facilitation training, however, you can always learn “new” things, or at least slightly different approaches or names for things. Two concepts that I had never heard of before, but recognize that I frequently put into practice with my own facilitations are weaving and the funnel, both of which come from a Quaker tradition.

Weaving is a very subtle form of moving a divergent group of ideas towards a single concept in an effort to build consensus. Difficult to describe, with weaving the facilitator names the threads of a conversation and periodically helps to reframe them under common interests or values, or bring them together as decision points. With good listening and reframing skills, most threads within a given topic will be able to be woven together. There are times, however, when some threads will not naturally “weave” together, such as the orange/red and green threads in this diagram. In these situations, it is up to the facilitator to decide how much acknowledgment is given to these potentially tangential, but also potentially invaluable threads. Sometimes the energy behind these inputs will organically dissipate as the individual either recognizes that they are tangential or moves past them as they recognize their own deeper interests reflected in the weave, in which not giving them extensive attention or maybe even not verbally naming can be okay, as is the case with some of the red and orange threads here. However, this tactic can also backfire if someone does not feel heard, which can have particularly toxic consequences in a consensus-building space. And sometimes, as is the case with the green thread, it is important to work with the idea in parallel to the larger weave and recognize a separate decision about the idea that can be worked with or implemented separately going forward. From a training perspective, this is a really tricky technique to teach and indeed the students in their feedback sheets for the day felt that they did not understand or were able to identify when Lysbeth was demonstrating weaving, which seemed to really frustrate the students and make them doubt this concept. I think that this type of nuanced strategy would be better taught as a general theoretical concept and less of a specific technique, especially given how these students have been taught mediation with very precise and easily identifiable strategies.

The second concept was the funnel. The funnel is a way of creating a consensus-based agenda that breaks down what would otherwise be a potentially overwhelming big decision into smaller component parts. In the example shown on this flip chart, a group is trying to decide on hosting a large event for the first time. Rather than try to get consensus right-off-the-bat on all elements of such an event, the facilitator has broken it down into design, location, budget, and timing with a period for open discussion at the beginning to help ground people in the overall concept and establish some common interests to build decisions from. After a discussion for each component, the decision and the level of agreement is clarified by the facilitator. At the end of the session, the facilitator can then run through each component and quickly re-cap what decisions have been made and where additional discussion is needed, making next steps and the next meeting’s agenda self-evident. For both of these techniques, I feel that I use variations of them in my work, whether in how I help a group move along or in how I design my agenda. However, I’ve never put specific names to these approaches, instead seeing them as off-shoots of interest-based re-framing, creation of group memory, and divergent-convergent design. In a microcosm this is one reason why teaching and practicing facilitation can be so tricky: there is no common, or at least not canonized approaches that allow for a shared language across facilitators or between facilitators and their clients. What one person calls a snowfield, the next calls an idea wall, and the next just calls using sticky notes for list generation. However, as long as we are open to new ideas and curious about each other’s approaches, we can continue to learn and understand the nuanced differences and fertile common ground with which we all approach this work.

The Value of a Good Chart Writer: CWU Retreat

Mar_8_(1) IMG_20170408_110145This past weekend I facilitated a three-hour retreat for the Church Women United (CWU), which is an inter-faith group of women who represent numerous churches in the Eugene/Springfield area. The group has been facing issues of leadership burn-out and difficulty with membership recruitment, especially engaging younger women of faith. To help them with these issues, I designed a retreat that would encourage the members to openly confront these issues that they had been avoiding. Specifically, we developed four objectives for the retreat: 1. Revitalize energy within the group, 2. Explore individual member’s motivations for involvement, 3. Identify current strengths & challenges of CWU activities, and 4. Develop strategies for membership & leadership capacity.

Although I am now used to facilitating solo, this time I was able to bring in one of the current CRES students in the facilitation course, Lauren Asher, who already has a strong background in facilitation. It was wonderful to have the assistance throughout the day. While we all want a chart writer that is an extension of our brain, that only comes with lots of working together. Nevertheless, she had a good sense of what to record and knew chart writing best practices to ensure it was easily readable (especially important for a group with an average age of 70). Having these charts to transcribe and bring back to the group, and having them created without losing my flow of facilitation, was super valuable. However, where she really shown was in her willingness to jump in and assist with small group facilitation. As always happens when dividing a large group into small groups, some of them will naturally “get” the assignment talking about the cues and writing them down as instructed, while others, well, they don’t follow instructions as well. Lauren jumped into one of that latter groups to help draw out their thoughts, and perhaps even more importantly, write them down on the flip-chart worksheets that would become part of the organization’s action plan for the year.

Mar_8(22) carla buckner, anne o'brien, lauren (l to r)IMG_20170408_110705

Lauren working with a small group to develop ways to improve their organization.

One of the hardest and most important elements I have discovered with facilitation is ensuring the creation of group memory.  You can facilitate the most transformative, participatory experience, but if there is no record of it then the likelihood of anything coming from it is pretty limited (which is why facilitation can have a bad reputation as wasted money with many parties). As a solo facilitator this is especially difficult as in-the-moment chart writing can really get in the way of doing my best, most active listening, re-framing, and caring that is needed for high-level participation, but at the end of the day it is those charts that will make or break the long-term success of the work. Having Lauren as a competent, pro-active assistant really helped me to ensure that no ideas were missed that day and that the organization had everything it needed to move forward after that day.