Help Surface the Unacknowledged or Unexpressed
One of the core principles for effective facilitation
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 938 words.
If you only facilitate what is said in a meeting, a group may never have the discussions that matter most or address the most important questions it needs to consider.
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 expressed or decisions considered. These may be issues or thinking perceived as too “hot” or fraught with potential conflict to bring into the open.
That's why creating a safe, equitable, and inclusive climate is so important. Without it, individuals may not raise difficult questions, contribute alternative perspectives, or challenge assumptions behind others' thinking. Facilitators identify how to best support participants making what they may see as a difficult contribution to the discussion.
One approach is to use skillful questioning or non-intrusive observations to support participants and make it easier for them to share concerns, perspectives, or ideas:
What other important questions need discussion today?
What other perspectives might we need to consider?
I wonder if the current conversation gets at the core issue(s) or addresses what matters most to you.
What assumptions are behind the course of action under consideration?
What unintentional biases might be at play in this discussion?
Don’t be surprised if participants sometimes avoid directly answering these queries or initially remain silent, particularly if they perceive that responding might put them in a vulnerable position. Hold the space. Allow some time to pass. Someone often responds and others follow.
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 should hear one individual asserting an opinion as universal truth and probe it non-judgmentally: "Jerome suggested that people are in agreement about needing to change. How do others 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 (the observations leading to their inference) to help others gain a better understanding of it: "Susan could you tell us a little more about what's led you to your conclusion?”
And because facilitators tend to listen to the conversation as a whole more than participants, we can note patterns we perceive and check if they ring true for participants: "It seem everyone gets very excited when talking about XXX, but less interest or enthusiasm is present when considering YYY. What is your sense?”
The more that teams, boards, committees, and work groups learn to address issues openly and honestly, the more productive their relationships and work activity can become. When speaking freely may simply not yet be possible, facilitators can use techniques to help get the right content into the conversation. The Exchange format is an approach I often leverage, but sometimes you need something a bit faster and simpler. Try this:
Provide all participants a large 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 the card responses back to the group. After all cards are read, help the group identify how they want to address the topics just surfaced.
This exercise quickly gets the issues into the open so that they can be discussed, a short-term tactical success. Long-term group progress requires us to also facilitate conversation about what individuals need to happen for them to freely 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 they might have found too difficult to share, such as opinions that counter conventional wisdom or the perspective of those holding the greatest power. They may also become more comfortable respectfully sharing how work conditions or others’ behavior affect them and their efforts.
The Quakers have a wonderful belief that "Everyone holds a piece of the truth." One of the riskiest meeting behaviors is when a conversation doesn't surface and explore the varied truths that individuals experience, but instead addresses the glossy abstractions they might offer to avoid rocking the boat.
To help a group continually progress with discussing what matters most, you may find it helpful to periodically (or regularly) ask these two evaluation questions or otherwise improve your meeting evaluations:
What percentage of this meeting dealt with the most important issues or questions?
What issues or questions were not addressed, but you think should have been?
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 lest they suffocate a group’s effective and forward momentum. Effective facilitation makes it easier for them "come to the top" in a helpful way, one that increases the robustness of the conversation and the quality of the decisions made.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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