Facilitating change-making conversations

Facilitation is about making sure everyone gets a fair opportunity to speak, so that different ideas and perspectives get heard and included in decision-making and change-making.

Informal facilitation

In times of rapid social change, facilitation has a much wider relevance. It isn't necessarily a nominated role, a person standing at the front of the room -- it's something we can all do.

I'm writing this a few days after International Women's Day 2018, at a time when we're having a society-wide conversation about #MeToo and #TimesUp.

One of the main forms of male privilege involves men being given more opportunities and more time to speak than women -- and men being taken more seriously when they do.

An example of informal facilitation includes men declining to take part in all-male panels ('manels') and recommending a female colleague to talk instead.

Men, it's best if you don't then go on twitter and humblebrag about it.

Informal facilitation is a ground-up thing that happens moment-to-moment in everyday life, and often it goes unnoticed. There's gender inequity here too: the work of informal facilitation often falls to women. Men need to step up our facilitation game.

However, these are skills acquired through social learning -- by seeing them done. Methods of formal facilitation can be used to model these skills and create opportunities for learning.

Formal facilitation

People have quite fixed ideas about what facilitation means. It's a person up the front of the room who makes us all do icebreakers, breaks us up into small groups with butchers' paper and textas, conducts a report-back and writes ideas on sticky-notes, and so forth.

I see facilitation as a flexible set of skills for making hard conversations safe and effective. I will take a different approach to facilitation depending on the subject matter and the participants.

Before an engagement I often talk with stakeholders to get a sense of what they are up against and what they are hoping to achieve. 

I will also use alternative methods to reach people who don't feel comfortable speaking up, or to enable participation by people who have historically been excluded.

For example, I might conduct interviews 'offline' and include a narrative in my report, or build the findings into my analysis. I'll invite people to caucus ahead of an event and make time in the agenda for a representative to present on what was discussed. 

Often, the most important act of formal facilitation is to deliberately slow down or interrupt the routine flow of the conversation, so that an unfamiliar voice or idea can be heard. 

Conversational formats

So facilitation is not just about butchers' paper and group agreements; it's also about crafting a format for a conversation or forum that makes space for different voices and ideas.

Let me give you an example. This morning a colleague posted a talk by Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute, given at an event organised by the Victorian Women's Trust. His topic? 'Three big lies that are used to silence our public debate when it comes to issues of gender inequality in Australia.'

I've got nothing against Richard Denniss, and I'm not here to second-guess the VWT's decision to invite him. But it unquestionably re-presents a cisgender, heterosexual, white, middle-class man in the role of 'the expert' even on the topic of gender inequity.

The White Ribbon initiative, which recruits and celebrates male 'change ambassadors', is premised on the idea that men learn best from other men. To put this another way, its approach strengthens the cultural norm of men not listening to women.

Along similar lines I was recently asked if I knew any young male experts on sexual health to talk to senior students at an all-male boys' school about sex and consent.

I was able to make a referral, but I noted it was a missed opportunity to model the most important skill for negotiating ongoing consent: actually listening to a woman.

A structured conversational format can help an all-male audience hear a woman as expert.

In this case, I'd brief two presenters -- a woman expert and a male 'assistant'. The choice of assistant is crucial: I'd be looking for someone with good informal facilitation skills, who doesn't need to 'know it all'. 

The assistant's role is to assist the audience by asking for clarification when tough or unfamiliar concepts come up. In the process, they model listening with curiosity and respect.

Importantly, for sensitive or controversial topics, they can act as a filter or buffer between the audience and the presenter. For example, they might hand around a bucket for questions and then ask the constructive questions and re-phrase or ignore inappropriate ones. 

This only works if the expert presenter is comfortable with a more conversational format -- welcoming an opportunity to clarify or expand on their remarks. Otherwise, the questions will seem like interruptions, and a man interrupting a woman is not something we want to model.

The facilitator's expert repertoire

The expert/assistant approach is a format I've adapted from the 3C model (Beard, 2008). The 3C model was originally developed to improve the orientation experience for international students. During orientation, students hear from a whole bunch of different speakers, who are experts in different aspects of university life.

In the 3C model, the 'assistant' role is played by an experienced teacher of English to speakers of other languages. The assistant asks presenters to pause and clarify words that students might not have encountered before. It doesn't require students, who may feel shy or overwhelmed, to enact 'informal facilitation' by interrupting the expert to ask for clarification.

Every good facilitator has a mental library or 'repertoire' of models, tactics, strategies and approaches like this one. We will use and adapt them as needed to help you make change in your organisation or the world.

About me

Daniel Reeders is DNM's principal consultant. He has fifteen years' experience as a writer, facilitator, and project worker in public health and health promotion. (Learn more)

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