The Value of a Good Chart Writer, Part II: PWS

Earlier this term, I wrote about the value of a good chart writer in regards to having Lauren’s assistance at the Church Women’s United retreat, now the tables have turned and I can speak to it from the chart writer’s perspective. Although I took a lead in case development and agenda design, I specifically requested to not take a lead with facilitation as I wanted the opportunity to both observe someone else’s style and to be in the assistant role, something I’ve done surprisingly little of given my jump into the deep end of facilitating and teaching solo.

Well chart writing is thus what I signed-up for, and chart writing is what I did! Over the course of seven hours, I chart wrote 35 sheets, which when transcribed equated to more than 10 pages single-space, size 11 font. I’m taking it as a mark of honor that I not only went through an entire pad of chart paper, but that I also wore out the four main colors from a brand new set of Mr Sketch markers. At one point in time, I was tracking no less than four different topics—adding notes and symbols to charts lining the walls, easel and even some on the floor. Honestly, being able to track and record a complex dialogue of 40+ people is in the top three facilitation experiences of my young career.

There are a number of reasons that chart writing is so important. First and foremost, it is a visual and physical way for people to know that they have been heard. This is why it is so important to use bits and pieces of people’s own language when recording their thoughts. To quickly reference back to ye olde brain science, seeing your own words up in writing helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system which cues our “fight and flight” responses, with that system calmed our parasympathetic nervous system can rise to the service and let us “rest and digest.” Whether helping a group to heal or to make decisions (or both), participants are much more likely to find common ground if they can tune into their parasympathetic nervous system. Of course, if you misunderstand their intention, they also see that lack of understanding in big, fat permanent marker too.

Over the course of the process, I saw both of these responses take place. First, I had multiple people come up to me during the breaks and tell me not only how impressive it was to watch me speed writing, but more that they didn’t realize how important what they had to say was until they saw it written before everyone else. This was especially true for two different contingencies around the narrative of “having to do it”: seeing that narrative written so explicitly provided opportunity for the sense of trauma to be recognized, while also opening the door to question if this is the type of organizational culture and spirit that they want to now perpetuate. I also saw someone who got more flustered with her words on the paper. In capturing one of the thoughts she voiced to the group, I jotted down: “we need to not be afraid of asking tough questions.” Which received wide agreement among the group. This frustrated her and she eventually sent me up a hand-written note that said: “Not being willing to ask certain questions and give the space to really look at these.” I’m ashamed to say that I still don’t know what the difference was for her, my only guess is that her emphasis was on the second part of the comment. Regardless of my ignorance, as soon as I wrote this exact sentence on the observations sheet, her entire presence shifted to one of openness and engagement with the process—she, at last, felt heard.


Finally, the second major value of chart writing is the creation of a group memory that outlasts the individual event. As previously mentioned, when transcribed my charts became over 10 pages of notes which formed the backbone of a report we created memorializing the event. Even with 40+ people in the space, there was at least a dozen others who really should have been there. Being able to provide a detailed and organized report with the voices of the participants provided the school with a way to help “bring along” those who were not present in body, as well as a launching pad to move forward generated ideas.


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?