Turning A Story of Challenges into a Story of Delightful Discoveries

On New Years Eve, 2017, I was celebrating the completed publication of Getting to the Bottom of ToP: The Foundations of the Methodologies of the Technology of Participation with a colleague. The last year of getting the book published was extremely challenging, and I have been stressed with having to deal with one obstacle after another. As I was talking with her, I realized that there were several amazing events of synchronicity that happened during the publication journey. I suddenly realized that I could shift my story to emphasize the high points rather than the struggles.

One such event was discovering the book At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails as I read the books section of the newspaper. Sarah Bakewell not only describes phenomenology and existentialism in plain language, but also includes biographical sketches of the philosophers, which provides relief from the intensity of understanding their philosophy, and insight into what motivated them. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and ended up using quotes from her book as section and chapter titles.

Another event was even more synchronistic. IAF (International Association of Facilitators) asked me to go with a team to present at a conference of NCDD (National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation). When I arrived at the conference, I saw a name that I recognized – 25 years ago I had had many interesting interchanges on an early IAF listserv with Rosa Zubizarreta, but I had never met her in person. So as soon as I could find her, I connected and we enjoyed continuing our conversation. Then, at a table, she started to talk to another participant about her mother, who had done bilingual education in California. When she gave her mother’s name, I gasped. In writing my earlier book, Art of Focused Conversation for Schools, a colleague had sent me a book by Alma Flor Ada which had a guided conversation method she had created for classrooms (in both Spanish and English) which mirrored the focused conversation method and I had quoted her extensively. I had no idea that she was Rosa’s mother! Then Rosa introduced me to Tom Atlee, with whom she had collaborated to publish The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World that Works for All. Tom’s book was in the conference bag, and upon reading it, I realized that he had some rare insights into how the methods work with groups. I also used a quote from his book to introduce Section 2.

Although the journey of writing, editing, and publishing this book was difficult, I learned a great deal that I had not anticipated in the process. And this is a story of success, not of challenges alone.

(Getting to the Bottom of ToP, by Wayne and Jo Nelson, is now available from iUniverse.com  and also from Amazon.com)

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It’s Hard to Predict the Impact of a Facilitated Event

On October 20 this year, I attended the “Courage to Lead Award” event held by ICA Canada, the charitable organization that is  co-owner of ICA Associates, Inc.

The award was to be given to a woman I didn’t know, Anne Gloger, who is the CEO of a remarkable grassroots, inclusive, diverse, participatory community organization in Scarborough, Ontario, called The Storefront.

Before the event began, I noticed the woman coming over to me with deliberate intention.  When she got to me, she asked with intensity, “Did you facilitate an event at the 519 Community Centre in Toronto in 1999?  I remembered the unique building, although I didn’t remember what I did, or anyone who was there, so I said “Yes!”  She said “That event was the inspiration for everything I have done here at Storefront!”  I gave her a big wordless hug, as I was so blown away by what she was saying.  Then in her acceptance speech for the award, she showed a slide of the Working Assumptions that I created and use, and told a story that I had told back then, 18 years ago.

It is certain that whatever I did at the 519 did not have the stated aim of inspiring someone to go out and create such an organization.  But the simple use of respectful, participatory consensus methods inspired her to do great things, far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Thank you to the Universe for allowing me to catalyze respectful, inclusive community development well beyond the mundane.

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Remembering the MLK Weekend, April 6, 1968

MLK Weekend, April 6, 1968

49 years ago, I participated in a history- and life-changing event on the West Side of Chicago.

I was 19 years old, in my second year at the University of Iowa, and traveled with my campus Wesleyan Foundation group to take a course called “Cultural Studies I” at the Ecumenical Institute on the West Side of Chicago.

The day before the course was scheduled to begin, Martin Luther King was assassinated. From our small-town Iowa perspective, though, we saw no reason not to go to Chicago for the course.

When we arrived in Chicago after a 5-hour drive on Friday, it was clear that the assassination had catalyzed unrest, but it wasn’t clear what was going to happen. The others in the car decided to turn around and go home, just in case. My brother and his family (David and Linda Zahrt, Jay and Heidi) were working at the Institute, and they weren’t fleeing, so I decided to stay.

The first session on Friday evening began as scheduled in a lower floor room with windows at ground level.  I remember sitting next to what seemed to me to be an older man, Sheldon Hill, and thinking “there is no generation gap”, because we seemed to be on the same page of understanding. As the session progressed, we heard shouting out on the street and saw legs running by with gun barrels.

After the session ended, I went up to my dorm room and looked out. I could see fires burning within a block or so on 3 sides of the building, and on the fourth side was the Eisenhower Expressway filled with cars getting out of the city.

I went to my brother’s apartment to talk with him and hang out with family. I didn’t want to be alone, as it was pretty scary and I was stranded. After a little while there was a knock on the door, and we were told everyone was evacuating the building, as someone had broken in and tried to start a fire in the building.

There was a long-unused tunnel between the Institute campus and a hospital across the street. Somehow the tunnel was opened and we all went across to the hospital basement. By this time almost every participant had escaped via the expressway, so there were only a couple of participants and Institute staff. My brother and sister-in-law asked me to watch their two small children, who were wild with the energy around us. At various points the National Guard would come in to get coffee, and smoke would roll in with them. Someone had a radio, and we heard that inner cities were burning all over America. It felt like Armegeddon.

At daybreak on Saturday, when the rioters were exhausted and it was a bit quieter, we walked across the street back to the Institute. The entire staff (maybe 40 people) gathered in Room A to decide what to do. The children were in a nearby room with a couple of mothers. There were only 3 of us who were not staff, one of whom was the president of the Institute’s board. I watched as the staff talked through their profound commitment to help the community develop, and the dangers that staying there would have. In the end, they decided by consensus to stay and risk their lives to support the community, since they had made a commitment. They also decided to send out the children and the women who were pregnant to friends and supporters in the suburbs for safety, since the children had not made a conscious decision to risk their lives to stay.

As a non-staff family member who did not live there, I was also sent out with the children to the home of a suburban colleague who was mobilizing her entire network to find places for all the “refugee” kids to stay. I was then sent to a home in Lake Forest, Illinois, which at the time was the richest town per capita in the world, with two toddlers. David Prather was 1 and Dietrich Laudermilk was 2 years old. I had no idea of how to take care of toddlers, and spent the night putting them back on the bed after they had rolled off.

On Sunday morning I was able to get through to my brother and tell him where his kids were, and where I was. The one other stranded participant was a student from Nebraska, and got in touch with me to ride back with her. By Sunday afternoon we were on the road home.

The next day I got up for my first class, but couldn’t make it through. I came back to the dorm, and slept for 24 hours straight.

During that event in Chicago, I witnessed a group of people deciding by consensus to risk their lives to honour their commitment to work with the community. That is a rare experience. I realized that this group of people were no ordinary group. Their care was profound. It’s a big part of the reason I started to work with the Institute (which morphed into the Institute of Cultural Affairs) as soon as I graduated from university, and why I am still with it all these years later.

Some of the impact of that event was the catalyst that created ICA’s mode of radical participation in development: it became very obvious that communities didn’t thrive from nice (white) educated do-gooders trying to help, but that they change deeply from local people and local leadership working collaboratively. Outsiders have a role in the partnership, but the lead comes from the community. The facilitative approach as an equal partner is the only way to make a difference.

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Using Multiple Intelligences in Facilitation


Above is a graphic representation of nine intelligences identified by Howard Gardner, with a tiny summary of what each is about.

Howard Gardner[1] at first identified seven intelligences (starting at 11 o’clock and moving clockwise in this image), and then broadened his work to include two more. He was careful to say that we are all intelligent, in ways beyond the two intelligences (Verbal-Linguistic and Mathematical-Logical) that we measure in IQ tests. He says that we are all stronger in some intelligences and weaker in others. We can use our stronger intelligences to learn and process information, and do exercises to strengthen our weaker ones.

I think of multiple intelligences as a paint palette from which to choose tools to help individuals in a group access their wisdom. I try to include at least 2-3 different intelligences in every facilitation so that everyone has some opportunity to use their stronger intelligences.

Kinesthetic Intelligence

Years ago, I had a participant in a facilitation training course who had to move his body in order to understand concepts.  He sat at the back of the room and threw his arms around actively as he tried to take the concepts we were teaching and process them into visual and kinesthetic forms.  He struggled with the concept of “gestalt” as we use it in the Consensus Workshop method, until I found a simple jigsaw puzzle to put together during the break and talk through the process while he did it. We talked about how unique ideas are like the puzzle pieces. When we cluster them, they connect with each other to create a bigger picture that is larger than the sum of the parts. Since he was moving and connecting the puzzle pieces until a larger picture emerged,, the concept fell into place for him. I learned from him a new way of explaining the clustering process, (the “puzzle story”) which I have used extensively since then.

Having the group stand up and do a tai chi or yoga exercise, or perhaps act out a topic, draws on kinesthetic intelligence for understanding and focusing.

Visual-Spatial Intelligence

One client I worked for was a teacher, who had for many years struggled in school until she discovered graphic recording. She could understand things best when she drew them, and she assumed that everyone’s mind worked best in this way. She encouraged me to do a consensus workshop in which every participant drew symbols on cards instead of writing out their ideas. Each person had to explain their symbol in words to make sure others understand what they were symbolizing, but it was a very engaging workshop.

Some of our methods, like the consensus workshop method and the historical scan / journey wall, have a visual aspect built into them, as the ideas are related to each other visually on the wall.

Once in a northern First Nation community, I had a gifted graphic facilitator working with me as a documentor. He added visuals to the words people said as they were doing a vision workshop, and later to the historical scan they had created. The community was delighted with the visuals, and they bridged the gap between the two languages that different people in the community used. Some graphic facilitators use visual language almost exclusively to hold the wisdom of a group.

Musical Intelligence

When I design and facilitate a process, I am aware that in the back of my mind, I am feeling the rhythm of the process, using musical intelligence. As I facilitate, I sense I am a conductor, not producing the sound myself but keeping the group on pace, drawing out the quieter voices and gently softening the louder voices, bringing harmony to the group as they work.

Intra-personal and Inter-personal Intelligences

I create quiet time for individual brainstorming, honouring intra-personal intelligence, and then provide time for small group and large group discussion, honouring inter-personal intelligence. The group benefits from intra-personal thinking as well as the energy of inter-personal connections.

Nature intelligence

Nature intelligence is more challenging to use in a facilitation session. I believe the description above in the graphic misses the point. Indigenous people know that when you are in nature, there is a different kind of thinking that happens, as your mind adapts to the rhythms of nature. So to use this intelligence in facilitation, I encourage breaks outside when possible, such as a walk in the woods to think through a challenging topic. Or I put an interesting rock and a plant or a bunch of flowers as table décor. One of my colleagues, setting up the room for a group to deliberate about growing trees as windbreaks, put a tiny sapling on every table. Then we used nature metaphors to name the historical scan.

Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence

I use this intelligence often in facilitation, as most discussion is in words! Thinking, writing, speaking, listening are all aspects of verbal-linguistic intelligence. I encourage people to write in the language they are thinking in, and then translate it if necessary. One time a Dogrib-speaking group was struggling with naming the clusters in a workshop. The cards in the cluster were all in English. I asked them to name the cluster in Dogrib, and then translate it back into English. Suddenly it was easy to name the essence of the cluster, because Dogrib is much better than English in capturing big ideas.

Storytelling is another great use of verbal-linguistic intelligence. I used a storytelling technique with my extended family at a family reunion, where old and young people were paired and told each other family stories, which we recorded. There were all kinds of insights into what makes our family strong.

Mathematical-Logical Intelligence

Clustering uses mathematical-logical intelligence. The challenge I find in groups is to steer them away from simple logical sorting to seeing the logical (and intuitive) connections between individual ideas to create new, larger, meaningful ideas. I encourage pattern-seeking rather than theming.

Existential Intelligence

I think this is where “grounding” comes in, an ICA behaviour I have had a hard time describing. I often ask people for specific examples of abstractions. When a group is “refreshing” a mission statement, I often take the statement apart and, phrase by phrase, ask “Where have you seen this in real life?” or “Give an example of how we actually act out this purpose.”


Each person in the room contributes to the final result when more than one intelligence is used as a tool in any facilitated event.

[1] Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

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The Rock Will Split

This is a story that my husband Wayne wrote, and that is included in the Historical Scan chapter of the book he started, that I am finishing, “Getting to the Bottom of ToP:  The Foundations of ICA Methods”.  Currently in the final stages, this book will be published in the next few months.   The “I” in this story is Wayne.  I was present during the time of this story.


In 1978, I joined the staff of ICA’s community development project in Nigeria. As I arrived and settled in, it became apparent that the previous year had been a rough one for them. Difficulties beyond their control seemed to interrupt their work constantly. People told me stories about crises and troubles of nearly every nature possible to such an organization. A couple of key staff members had left the project and the mood was pretty low. It was apparent that there were many positive things happening in the community, but they seemed lost in the fog of the team’s negative story.

When the time to do project action planning for the next year rolled around on the calendar, I found myself with the assignment to guide our planning retreat. It was clear to me that the team needed to look back, see their situation more clearly and make some sense of their past year. They certainly needed to identify and acknowledge their challenges and difficulties; so they could move beyond them. They needed to rediscover the real success and progress they had made. They needed a new way to see their situation and tell their story that would release them to engage and be more effective.

I chose the Historical Scan to begin the planning process. It had been developed quite recently and I was keen to try this new application. I began by drawing a horizontal line on our blackboard. I divided the line into 12 segments; one for each month of the past year. I then divided the group into six working groups of 2- 3 people and asked each group to brainstorm 5 – 10 events that were significant for the group. After working in small groups, we wrote each event on the timeline under the appropriate date.

What a full year it was. We filled the board with events. The brainstorm included over 50 events the group felt were significant. The number itself was a bit of a surprise to everyone, because they felt not much had really happened.

As we looked at the events, we identified those that were accomplishments. We noted those that were clearly setbacks. As we talked about the year, many stories were told. Events that had slipped from memory were remembered. The atmosphere in the room began to shift; changing from hesitance to fascination and people became more engaged.

I asked the group to describe its mood over the course of the year. It seemed to have begun on a positive note with a lot of possibilities. I placed the chalk on the board about two thirds of the way up and asked the group to help me complete the line throughout the whole year. The “mood line” started fairly high and quickly dropped over the next couple of months following a negative experience with a government agency. The line slowly rose as the focus was placed on work on a couple of quite successful projects. It dropped again during an especially ambiguous chaotic time and began to rise quite rapidly as the community street lighting project illuminated the night. We sifted through the timeline and marked several events as significant. The group found that the majority of the events they named as significant were more positive than negative.

We looked again at the events on the timeline; this time looking at the events that seemed to indicate shifts in our work, our results and the overall mood. We found three major shifts. After looking at each of the four time periods, we gave a title to each of them to describe the experience. This being a rough year, I was prepared to hear titles filled with doom and despair. The group had become so entangled in the frustrating challenges that it was difficult to see their whole situation and its significance.

I was indeed surprised. The first period was titled, “Looking Down the Road to Victory.” The second was, “The Rock in the Middle of the Road.” The third period was, “Crushed but Climbing.” The final time period, the last six weeks, was titled, “Beginning to Move.” The titles reflected the events identified as well as the flow of mood and spirit in the group.

As we looked at the whole timeline, I asked the group to give the whole year a title. It was clear that the question was now looking beyond the timeline itself. They were looking at their actual lived experience of the past year.

It was not an easy conversation, but the group was able to see that they had actually made significant progress in their work with the community itself. The realization came somewhat slowly until we began to give it a name. Someone called out, “The Rock will Split”. It is a line from a D. H. Lawrence poem about moving into, through and beyond a personal, existential crisis. When the group heard those words, their whole image of the past year shifted from one of defeat to perseverance in the face of real, difficult, traumatic and challenging times. The mood in the group went through the ceiling.

The rock did indeed split. Not only did it become the title for a time period, but it became a kind of rallying cry. They knew, deep inside themselves, that they would not accept defeat, but they needed to look deeply into their situation and their attitude toward it to discover their deeper, more powerful story of what was happening. It truly transformed the whole group’s relationship to their work and their future.

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FACILITATION: A Tool for Evoking and Creating Wisdom

Strictly speaking, this is not a story like most of the other posts.  It is an article I wrote in 2003 at the request of a journal that supports inter-cultural education.  They were using the term facilitation for participatory, experiential learning experiences.  The confusion between facilitating learning and process facilitation has been around for a long time, and I wanted to both address the similarities and the differences between the two.  There are a number of stories embedded in this article. When I discovered it again, I thought it might be useful to share.  


A Tool for Evoking and Creating Wisdom

Facilitating Diversity

Several years ago, I was facilitating a workshop at a conference of multi-cultural organizations in Ontario, to demonstrate some practical tools of facilitation. I had made a point of sharing my “working assumptions” for facilitating groups, which include “Everyone has wisdom” and “We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest result”. About 20 adults, representing a good cross-section of the world, were actively participating in envisioning what they wanted our multicultural society to look like, brainstorming and sharing their ideas on cards on the wall. My youngest son, then about 7 years old, had accompanied me as it was a Saturday and I hadn’t been able to find child care. He was quietly playing with his Legos in the back corner. Suddenly, one of the participants said, pointing at my son, “What does he think? After all, it’s the next generation who will benefit and continue this!”

I called out, “Tim, what do you want our multicultural society to look like in 5 years?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Can I have three colours of markers?” I said, “Sure”and handed them to him. He took a card and drew 3 stick figures of different colours dancing together.

The card went up on the wall and clustered with all the cards that said that we would be working and playing together in our multicultural society.

We were all astounded that a child’s spontaneous non-verbal contribution could add richness to the product of the adults, although in retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised.

What is Facilitation?

The word facilitation is used to mean many different things. Its roots are in the Latin “facil”, to make easy. A shoehorn that eases a heel into a shoe “facilitates” putting on your shoe.

There are two common meanings of the term “facilitation” as a way of working with groups. On the one hand, facilitation is seen as a way of guiding group activity so that active learning takes place, based on the knowledge and understanding that individuals bring to the training. On the other hand, process facilitation draws out a group’s already existing wisdom to solve a problem or create a solution that the group needs.

Facilitating Learning

In facilitating learning, the trainer has content objectives that s/he wants the group to know by the end of the session, and/or behaviour s/he wishes the participants to change. But the trainer starts with an assumption that s/he is not the only expert in the room. Participants have ideas and knowledge that are a starting point to build on. The trainer may guide the group to reflect on past experiences and draw out insight, through the use of carefully constructed questions that are both respectful and take people beyond their previous thinking.

Occasionally a talk, a video, or even a story may be the starting point. With experiential learning, the trainer provides an experience for the group first, then guides the reflection on that experience. That experience may be an exercise or activity the group does together.

In such an approach to education, the job of the teacher may become easier and harder at the same time. In many ways, guiding the students to build their own knowledge through reflection relieves the teacher of the burden of knowing all the answers. However, it also removes the “cookbook” approach of teaching, where there is simply data to be downloaded from the text and the teacher into the student. Instead, the teacher becomes a catalyst to a three-part dialogue (or trialogue) process between the information, the student, and the teacher. When students and the teacher reflect together, everyone learns.

Although this kind of facilitated learning is often referred to as using “adult learning principles”, my experience is that they are true for all ages, and provide for learning that translates into real-life behaviour and choices.

Wayne Nelson summarized some of these learning principles in this way:

People participate at their best when:

  • They are comfortable
  • An attractive, comfortable atmosphere invites participation.
  • Emotional and social comfort help people participate.
  • Modes of involvement that match people’s unique social style and learning styles, enable them to engage with ease.
  • When people are able to express their perceptions, feelings and thoughts freely, they are more likely to become involved.
  • Acknowledging, receiving and affirming people’s ideas allows them to share their deeper thoughts and feelings.
  • When people are emotionally, intellectually and spiritually stimulated, they participate more readily.
  • Things make sense to them.
  • When the topic under consideration and the process builds on their own knowledge and experience, people can easily join the discussion.
  • Understanding the stages of the planned group process gives people a way to see how their contributions fit in a larger picture.
  • When people understand and are aligned with the purpose of the meeting, they can see value in contributing.
  • Situations and processes that reflect people’s principles, values and ethics provide people with freedom to think widely.
  • When the connections between people’s real, personal experience and the questions being raised are clear, participation is more likely to be grounded in reality. They believe they can make a difference.
  • Topics related directly to people’s concerns, interests and hopes for the future stimulate their engagement.
  • If the results will make a positive impact on their own lives, people are likely to participate positively.
  • People who believe that their contribution to the discussions will make a positive difference in their situation and in the lives of others participate with creativity.
  • When people are able to use their knowledge and experience to create new meaning, they participate with creativity and passion.
  • When people know they will be involved in implementing the plans and decisions they make, they participate with commitment.


Guiding Reflection

In my practice, I find that the core skill that makes facilitated learning powerful is the capacity to guide the reflective thinking process that integrates people’s experience with their real lives. A very helpful process starts with questions that ask people to recall their observations of their experience, then questions that get out their immediate reactions, then questions that probe for meaning, significance, learnings and relevance, and finally questions that elicit decision and action. At each stage, the facilitator listens respectfully and actively to the responses.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs, a global NGO, has been developing and using this process, which it calls “The Focused Conversation Method”, for nearly 50 years with communities, education groups, and organizations.

One summer nearly 30 years ago, I was teaching a pre-school group at a summer camp. I had the four-year-olds recite the familiar nursery rhyme, “Little Miss Muffet”. Then we had a brief conversation on the rhyme, roughly as follows:

Objective Questions

* “What words don’t you understand?” (tuffet, curds and whey, which I explained)

* “Who were the characters?” (Little Miss Muffet, the spider)

* “What happened first? Then…Then…?”

* “What did Miss Muffet do when she was frightened?”

Reflective Questions

* “Where have you experienced something like this?”

One child said that his mother made him eat cottage cheese, and he hated it. Several children had stories of scary surprises, and their reactions.

Interpretive Questions

Then I asked,

* “What is this story all about?”

One little girl thought for a second, then her eyes lit up. “This is about … when you get scared, you can decide if you’re going to run away, or not!”

Decisional Questions

She finished up with “Next time, I will decide by myself what to do!”

I was astounded. This tiny child had seen far below the surface of this rhyme to a meaning that had relevance to her own life. Her capacity to abstract meaning, or to access a higher level of thinking, was empowered by the step-by-step thinking process of the Focused Conversation method.

This method facilitates learning, as it starts with the obvious and most easily accessed information and moves step by step through to higher levels of thinking, thus extending students’ capacity to think abstractly.


The following conversation on an experiential learning exercise is taken from “The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools”. It could be adapted to follow any group experience, such as a ropes course, or a cultural encounter.

Reflecting on a Group Experience


A group of young people has participated in an unusual kinesthetic experience called “The Dance of Peace”. Some were reluctant participants; others were deeply moved. After lunch, the trainer is leading the group in a debriefing of their experience.

Rational Aim

* To clarify what we did.

* To discover common motifs and themes.

* To identify the cultural origins of dance patterns.

Experiential Aim

* To experience the wonder of each culture’s contribution, and to feel the exhilaration of the dance.


Think back to the dancing we did this morning.

Objective Questions

* What movements do you remember?

* What did the movement look like?

* What dances did we do?

* What sounds do you recall? What instruments were used?

Reflective Questions

* How did you feel as you were dancing?

* At what point did you feel unsure, confused, or embarrassed?

* At what point did you feel excited, deeply moved, or peaceful?

* When did you really “get into it”?

* Where have you seen or experienced something similar?

* What did this remind you of?

Interpretive Questions

* What was going on in this dance?

* Why do you think the creator of these dances created them?

* What were they trying to express or communicate?

* What kind of experiences were they trying to provide for people?

What can we learn from these dances?

* How were you changed by this experience?

Decisional Questions

* To whom would you like to teach these dances?

* Where would you like to see them used again?

* Whom do you wish had been here this morning?


When we started, I felt silly. After it was over, I thought, “This was fantastic.”

When the facilitator crafts the questions carefully in advance, imagining what kind of responses the group will give to them, this reflective process will work well for any age group. Respectful questioning and listening are skills that can be nurtured and practiced by professionals and volunteers alike.


Group Process Facilitation

Facilitation at its best is the art of drawing out ordinary, everyday people’s wisdom. Then it helps a group acknowledge and understand differences and see the deeper patterns of similarity. That allows the group to create consensus and results that are wiser than any one person would have come up with alone.

This facilitation is “process” facilitation, which I believe is absolutely critical to building respectful understanding. In this kind of facilitation, the facilitator has no agenda except that which the group wants and needs. It is not training, though learning will also occur. The facilitator’s role is to guide the way the group shares ideas, listens, and processes information, so that the group comes up with the decision or result that it needs. The best facilitator is nearly invisible – the group believes it has accomplished its objectives by itself, and surely it has. But the facilitator has brought the tools, process, and presence to inspire the best from the group. A group without an assigned facilitator may well be able to manage its dialogue to come up with a well-thought-through consensus. But not every group can do that, and I know of no group who can do that well all of the time.

I believe this kind of facilitation has its roots in traditional consensus creation that emerged from small groups of people in different cultures. Many discovered that if they sat around a fire, or in a circle, and created opportunities for everyone to speak and really listen, they could make difficult decisions that everyone was committed to supporting. Some of us facilitate naturally, others of us yearn for it in difficult group sessions without knowing exactly what is missing.

In the last few hundred years, we have fallen into a pattern of seeing the world as dualistic: there is us and them, government and opposition, good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, “my way or the highway”, etc. When we see the world that way, our pattern of responding leads to argument, and to either winning or losing. Defense or attack results, and we get locked into our own pre-conceived positions. If we look at the world as a multi-faceted reality, like a diamond with many facets, we find ourselves looking to polish and illuminate many perspectives to find the wisest solution to a problem. The “what if we tried a third (or another) way of looking at this” question allows us to bypass argument about right and wrong positions. An even more radical way of processing differences looks for the synthesis of quite unique ideas to create a larger picture out of diverse pieces of the puzzle. Both of these ways of creating consensus contribute to real peace as they don’t gloss over differences, but rather build on them as creative stepping-stones to solutions and understanding.

The group process facilitator believes that the group has all the wisdom it needs to solve its own problems. It is important to have as many stakeholders represented as possible to make sure every angle of insight can contribute to the solution. Often this means examining all our categories of people who are “the enemy” or “can’t participate” for one reason or another. I recall a facilitated consultation nearly 30 years ago in an Egyptian village to plan its community development project. Men and women; non-literate village residents, highly educated urban Egyptians, and non-Arabic-speaking consultants from a range of different cultures sat down in the same room (well, tent) to pool their wisdom. Each of us had different ideas of what was possible or even necessary. Each of us had our reservations about what the others could contribute. All together we brainstormed our ideas, clustered them to see the patterns, and named what we had come up with. The villagers’ passionate visions were augmented by “expert” ideas. The abstractions and overly technical visions of the “experts” were made realistic by the villagers’ grounded ideas. The plan was “owned” by everyone present. Twenty years later, when I visited the project again, I could see how the village people and the outsiders had worked together to transform the community, and were still motivated and moving forward.

Preventing Conflict

Often I talk about facilitation as a relationship: “facilitation is to conflict resolution as health promotion is to medical healing”. Facilitation often prevents conflict, as it can be an intervention before a conflict exists or becomes entrenched. It honours all the perspectives and all the people to come up with a satisfactory solution. In the same way, facilitation can be a tool for healing conflict that has already begun. The culture of participation which facilitation supports has the capacity to transform how we treat each other, the feeling of having been heard and respected. One of the most often-repeated comments I hear after a facilitated event is, “I thought I was the only one who had those ideas! I know now I’m not alone!” Facilitating group participation also increases shared ownership and responsibility for decisions. If I participate in contributing to the naming of a problem and also to creating the solution to it, then I am already a part of the solution.


So whether you are building on the wisdom and experience of a group to extend their learning, or to create a product that they need, try spending most of the time asking the participants what they think. I have discovered a paradoxical truth recently: if you ask people for their wisdom and really listen, they think you are wise. And there’s even an extension of that: if you ask people for their wisdom and really listen, you all get more wise.


Brief Bibliography

Nelson, Jo, The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools: Over 100 Ways to Guide Clear Thinking and Promote Learning, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs and New Society Publishers, 2001.

Nelson, Wayne, “Meetings that Work” Training Manual, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, 2000.

Stanfield, Brian, “The Magic of the Facilitator”,

Edges Magazine, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, 1996.

Stanfield, Brian, The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs and New Society Publishers, 1999.


This article was first written for Interspectives, A Journal on Transcultural Education, Volume 19 – 2002-2003, published by CISV, Children’s International Summer Villages. Their website is http://cisv.org



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Organizational Transformation through Facilitation

Organizational Transformation through Facilitation

Once I had a client whose understanding of their mandate and mission was to fight the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed in the inner city. This was a foundational understanding for the group, based on their understanding of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

The staff of this organization was in chaos. They had had 5 executive directors in 4 years. Several had left out of frustration, and their work was diminished because of all the infighting within the organization.

So the acting executive director asked if I would come in and facilitate a ToP Strategic Planning process to try to create some consensus on the directions they needed to move.

The Vision workshop was pretty easy – they had a common vision of where they wanted to go. Some of the rifts became smaller.

Then came the Obstacles workshop. Having a solitary brainstorm and time in pairs to write obstacles on cards allowed them to be pretty honest about what was going on. The cards clustered intuitively relatively easily. Then it was time to name the Underlying Contradictions. As I read the cards in the first column out loud, I could see a pattern, but left it to the group to struggle with the insight. It took a very long time. Suddenly, one person in the group said, “It’s, it’s that ‘us and them’ mentality that comes from the oppressor/oppressed thinking! We’ve turned it inward and it’s destroying us!” There was a gasp of recognition from the group, and then they quickly tried to escape the power of the insight. Eventually they named it and went on to create strategies.

A year later they asked a colleague of mine to come in to facilitate a review and re-planning session – they told her that that insight had been a turning point for the organization. They didn’t like the messenger, but the message had gotten through. After that they had the same director for a number of years – the organization stabilized and was able again to serve the community.

My learning from this experience was that a group can, with appropriate process, face and name its own underlying contradictions, which then open the door to transformation. Very often the basic values a group holds dear can be the contradiction that holds them back when they need to change.

This kind of facilitation is not just about getting a rational result or a product, although that is part of it. It is about providing the opportunity for a group to become conscious of its own behaviours and beliefs, and make the profound change it needs. It is about caring for the whole person, and the whole group – its experience and growth as well as its rational products. It requires integrity on the part of the facilitator to honour the group’s unspoken needs without imposing the facilitator’s own values and perspectives.

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