By Tiffany Greco
“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice.”
Sam Kaner (Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making)
Creating community spaces for respectful dialogue is an essential part of making our democracy work. While almost anyone can schedule a meeting, secure a location, and set up tables and chairs, it takes particular skills to promote shared learning and foster civil discourse. Trained facilitators can really help to bring out the group’s best thinking, learning, and behavior. And while there are week-long courses on the art of facilitation, almost anyone can get started by learning a few key steps.
First, it is important to understand the role of the facilitator. In the most literal sense, a facilitator is someone who makes a process easier—a process such as civil discourse. Within the context of a community conversation, where the purpose is to hear ideas of all group members and have a respectful give-and-take of various views, the facilitator is most effective serving as a neutral third party.
Though neutral facilitators may have an opinion about the topics being discussed, these opinions take a backseat. Assuming a position of neutrality allows the group to view the facilitator as their trusted servant. With this type of facilitative leadership, participants are most likely to feel safe enough to engage honestly in dialogue, navigate conflict when it arises, and learn together.
Second, a facilitator can develop a few key communication skills to generate more successful group interactions. Facilitators should think about the words they use, their tone of voice, and their body language. Sixty percent of communication, for example, is nonverbal. A facilitator who makes frequent eye contact, orients her body toward the speaker, and nods her head will help participants feel they have been heard.
Other key skills to employ include:
- Asking open-ended questions (who, what, where, when, and how?)
- Acknowledging speakers’ statements
- Gathering feedback to clarify or find out more
- Restating what the speaker said
- Summarizing key points
- Using “I” statements
Third, facilitators can view conflict as a natural and healthy component of group dynamics. Rather than stifle disagreements, good facilitators channel them productively. The facilitator is responsible for navigating conflict in a way that manages any potential negative impact and moves the group constructively forward together. Arriving prepared to pilot the dynamics of conflict goes a long way in helping facilitators feel comfortable and confident.
Tips for handling conflict include:
- Sensitively disagreeing with ideas rather than criticizing individuals
- Separating personalities from ideas
- Responding with a spirit of inquiry rather than judgment
- Using humor to reduce tension
- Focusing on commonalities
- Referring back to group agreements as needed
Communities need individuals who can facilitate citizens through the process of civil discourse. Though the role may feel intimidating at first, it is one that gets easier and more comfortable with time and practice. The first steps for a new facilitator are to understand the role, develop practical communication skills, learn strategies to handle conflict, and most importantly, be themselves!