Facilitation: The Art and Craft of A Good Meeting

As I looked at my options of next pieces to write in this series, I realized that I can’t really write anymore about organizational development until I touch on facilitation. If the facilitation is not deep and efficient, soulful even, then the rest doesn’t really matter.

Read what follows if you are tired of tedious meetings that reach no decisions.

Read what follows if you often find yourself sitting in gatherings where tired critiques are thrown around with no solutions suggested.

Read what follows if you are done with weekly monologue battles cloaked as meetings.

Read what follows if you are tired of watching power misused in organizations, coalitions, boards, foundations … your family, wherever.

I have a deep faith in the power of facilitation to break, stop or slow movement building down … to even make the movement cry. I am fairly simple — roughly every thought I have can be reduced to a distinction between content and process. Nature is content, nurture is process. The world is content, art that responds to it and evolves our understanding of it is process. To me, facilitation is the bridge, tunnel, nexus, holy path between content and process.

For context, the American education system values content over process. Tragically, the content most public schools provide is not enough to piece together a survival plan. Recently I was offering facilitation training to the brilliant youth of Detroit Summer’s Live Arts Media Project. In a conversation on their CD project, which examines and offers solutions to the Detroit dropout rate, the youth said they wish they’d learned "real life" skills in school, including balancing bank accounts, driving, fixing things around the house, producing their own music.

I feel that learning to facilitate is as useful as learning to drive. To indulge in a kind of corny metaphor, at this very moment there are millions of people with no idea of how to drive on the roads of our interpersonal and professional communication. Much of what we call movement building is simply reeducating people, showing that there is a way of processing content that actually involves them. In fact, there is a way of processing content that can change their lives.

To clarify: There are content heads and process heads. Content heads want to place a fine point on the right analysis and believe deeply that if the information is right, and analysis is correct, then everyone will understand the way forward and the world will be changed. Process heads, meanwhile, can appear to have two motivations. First, they can seem to be driven by NO particular outcome, just loving the conversation. But under that there are process heads that seem to believe that having the conversation deeply, where everyone gets heard, is actually the road to freedom.

Process heads love questioning the order, going back to make sure things have been done correctly. Content heads love questioning the entire way of looking at the facts, placing an emphasis on the history.

Process head: "Bob’s agenda has us talking about the grass being greener on the other side before we discuss the state of our own grass, the history of our grass, and even who is standing on the grass. I think we should start with — what is the situation of our grass?"

Content head: "Actually, Bob’s analysis that the grass is greener on the other side is a false paradigm, at most a surface level approach to the real truth, which is that the earth is brown, and brown people should thus rule the earth, and that’s what we need be deconstructing here."

Confession: I think how people deal with each other, most times, is more important than what they are dealing with. History is repetitive, but we tend to see our moment in history as very important and unique, and we get mired in details. Content can keep us from being able to take a step forward, or drive us only to reactionary steps. What I have observed in great organizers is an ability to consistently deal with each other in a respectful and open-minded way.

That said, if the content is wrong, then people can spend an inhumane amount of time and energy in the wrong conversations. There must be a respect for the strengths of both types of people and a deep love and admiration of hybrids of the two.

I deeply believe that good facilitation can bring the best of necessary, relevant content to the forefront — from both content heads and process heads — of any session in a way that can engage everyone, and more importantly, can get everyone in solidarity. I am proposing that facilitation can lead to the sort of deep solidarity that comes from knowing you have been heard by those with whom you wish to act, the kind of solidarity that leads toward liberation (or at least knowing what everyone in the meeting considers liberation to mean).

Good facilitation is not a mystery. Some people are better at it than others. Here is a compilation of best practices I’ve been a part of generating popular education style over the past few years, double-checked against the collective wisdom from The Art of Change year-long training (for facilitators) led by Robert Gass.

Preparation:

The majority of the work for any gathering of people is preparation. This doesn’t mean merely having an agenda. If it’s the wrong agenda, then you will still have a hot mess on your hands.

1. Is the meeting actually necessary? Don’t have a meeting if it’s not necessary. Cancel it, fearlessly. But remember — necessary can include building relationships between folks.

2. Who is coming to the meeting and what do they want out of it? The wrong people can convolute the process because they don’t want or need to be there. Is anyone being left out who really should be there?

3. Do we need an outside facilitator? The person with the most positional power — the boss, the founder or the person whose been there longest — should never be the only one answering that last question. Anonymously survey the group if need be, because it is really important to get an outside facilitator if one is needed — the results without one can be devastating, damaging, messy. The common mistake of well-meaning leaders is to confuse the role of facilitator with the role of leader. An outside facilitator can allow the leader to really take up a more balanced amount of time in the meeting.

4. Do you have a Great Agenda? This includes realistic blocks of time for the conversations that need to be had; the right questions in the right order; content that can be completed in the time allotted; ways for folks to have some fun, interpersonal time. Are there different ways for people to engage with the material — discussion, visuals, exercises?

5. Have a clear decision-making process that everyone knows about and can exercise. I will have an article on decision-making later in this series. Voting, consensus — there are many ways to make great clear decisions.

Facilitation:

There are so many tips to great facilitation that it was hard to figure out a way to offer a short comprehensive list. However, the majority of the work is in your attention, in how present you are with the situation. If you are paying deep attention to the room, as opposed to merely your own agenda, then the right moves will literally occur to you. That said, these three questions continuously return me to a space of great facilitation:

1. Am I listening? The facilitation is great when I listen to each and every person as if s/he is my greatest teacher.

2. Am I asking the right questions? The facilitation is great when I ask questions to each and every person as if s/he is my greatest teacher.

3. Am I holding the community? The facilitation is great when I hold each and every person in a way that frees them to be respectful and loving and supportive of each other.

Evaluation:

Regular debriefs and evaluations of your meetings or gatherings is the key to their constant improvement. People proces
s information differently, some will have their feedback ready right away, others will take a while to know if it worked or not. I work with a few basic questions and have seen them offered in lots of creative ways:

1. What worked about this meeting or gathering?

2. What could have been improved?

3. What will you take away from this gathering?

4. What do you need next?

There are classes and institutions which train people in how to facilitate, many of which specifically teach folks to facilitate movement building. Here are a few I recommend.

Trainings:

SOUL — Youthec.org/soul
The People’s Institute — Pisab.org
Midwest Academy — Midwestacademy.com
Training for Change — Trainingforchange.org
And of course, The Ruckus Society (which I direct) — Ruckus.org

Books:

"Organizing for Social Change" by Kimberly A. Bobo and Steve Max (Seven Locks Press, 2001)
"The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997)

(Editor’s Note: Be sure to catch Adrienne’s next feature with more tips on organizational development in March by signing up to our weekly newsletter now. This feature is a part of "Building a Movement" — a series of opinion pieces in which a new generation of progressive leaders and organizers share their vision, strategies and reflect on the lessons learned. To submit your story idea, email us.)

Adrienne Maree Brown is a writer, activist, trainer, and the executive director of the Ruckus Society, which provides organizers with the tools, training and support needed to achieve their goals. She also serves on the boards of Wiretapmag.org, the Brower Center, the Allied Media Conference, and National Healthcare-NOW. As a co-founder of the League of Young Voters, Adrienne also co-edited the youth organizing collection How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She has been involved in the growth of many organizations, most recently the New Orleans Network, the Future 5000, and the Arctic Indigenous Alliance.

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