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What Is A Non-Participating Yet ‘Strong’ Facilitator?

One of the core aspects of IF is that our sanctuary projects have non-participating yet ‘strong’ facilitators for their discussions. But what, exactly, is a non-participating yet ‘strong’ facilitator?

The non-participating part is relatively easy. IF facilitators facilitate their panelists’ discussions by asking questions, by managing the flow of the discussion, and by seeing that everyone gets involved and has a chance to express their ideas. But they do not (or at least are not supposed to) push their own policy ideas in them. A good non-participating facilitator is concerned that a discussion achieves its goals–and, more specifically, that the participants do not get stuck arguing or telling irrelevant stories.  The ‘strong’ part is more complicated.

IF discussions aim at exploring an area of concern and developing a set of contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing it that might be useful for public discussion. But they also try to avoid advocacy, and debate, and narrow problem-solving. And an IF facilitator must be strong in a number of different ways in order to achieve these goals. An IF facilitator must, for example, be strong enough to:

  • Manage the flow of discussion amongst panelists who may have very different political ideas, social positions, educational levels, beliefs, values, goals, and interests so as to keep it both civil and moving toward the development of policy possibilities that will be useful for public discussion–which in practice often means helping the panelists to explore their differences without having their discussions devolve into heated debates
  • Keep the project panels together and functioning–which in practice often requires the management strength to ensure that everyone actually gets to the meetings at least most of the time
  • Prevent their discussions from degenerating into attempts to advocate specific policies for addressing an area of concern–which in practice often requires the intellectual strength to recognize how the use of certain terms and descriptions might frame an issue and bias people for or against a possibility
  • Push the panelists to develop truly contrasting policy possibilities even if they do not want to–which in practice often requires the strength to push the panelists to describe real contrasting possibilities instead of straw men possibilities that neither threaten nor interest anyone
  • Keep their discussions on the conceptual level–which in practice often requires strength to prevent the discussion from degenerating into attempts to solve specific problems pertaining to current policy
  • Allow the panelists to take their discussion where they want it to go instead of trying to direct or control where it goes–which in practice often requires strength to avoid the temptation to end the panelists’ discussion just as it begins to take off

This last point is an important one. The idea of strength is often associated with control. So it is natural to assume that a strong facilitator is one who keeps a panel’s discussion on a short leash. And it is natural to juxtapose this image of the strong facilitator with the image of the ‘weak’ facilitator who ‘simply stands in the front of the room and takes notes on the flip charts’.

I personally would not want to see a facilitator do much more than stand at the front of the room and take notes on the flip charts–if his or her panel’s discussions were moving along nicely, if they were civil and no one was stuck in heated debates, if they seemed to be interesting and productive, and if no one was trying to push the panel into advocating some possibility in its report.

This, indeed, is what our panels’ discussions should be like when everything goes right. And if everything is going right, then why mess with a good thing? But it is worth noting that both of these images can be deceptive.

When a facilitator exerts too much control, a discussion can easily become a series of dialogues between the facilitator and the various different panelists, who direct their remarks either directly to the facilitator or indirectly through the facilitator to the other panelists. This type of thing is simply too artificial to be a real discussion, and panelists are seldom satisfied with it for very long. The irony, however, is that a facilitator who is ‘strong’ in this sense may easily get frightened when he senses that a discussion is getting out of his control–when the panelists actually begin to address their comments directly to each other instead of to or through him–and try to put an end to a real discussion before it can get too far off the ground.

The image of the weak facilitator who simply takes notes at the flip charts is the other side of the coin. It belies the fact that a quiet guy with a felt tip pen may all too easily control a discussion and determine its outcome by encouraging his panelists to develop some thoughts and not others.

Neither of these facilitators is what we want. But unless a facilitator has recruited panelists who all think alike, or weak panelists who are sheep ready for the slaughter, there may be little to worry about. For he or she will eventually be confronted by the ‘strong’ participating panelists who will simply talk more loudly when he or she tries to shut them up, or who will pointedly ask him or her to record what they just said on the flip charts too.

This is just a round-about way of saying that a strong IF facilitator must be strong enough to recruit panelists who have ideas of their own that they are ready and willing to discuss with others; strong enough to let a panel’s discussion go where the panelists themselves want to take it, regardless of what his or her plans for the discussion might have been; and strong enough to pull the panelists back if it becomes apparent that they are debating an issue in a totally unproductive way, or are engaged in narrow-problem solving, or are moving toward advocacy, or are simply shooting the breeze.