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NCDD Commentary: Dynamic Facilitation and the Choice-Creating Process

This commentary was submitted for the NCDD website by Tom Atlee and Rosa Zubizarreta in March 2003. The piece is adapted from Tom's book “The Tao of Democracy” (2002). It begins “To 'facilitate' means to 'help make easier.' If our goal is to have meaningful and powerful dialogue, the role of a facilitator is to help make it easier for the group to do so. Dynamic Facilitation, created by consultant Jim Rough, is a leading-edge process designed to help groups have meaningful conversations, access their creativity, and discover practical breakthroughs to challenging situations, even in the midst of divergent opinions, strong emotions, and conflicting beliefs.

This style of facilitation produces a highly co-creative form of dialogue called the "Choice-Creating Process" in which people and ideas change as the conversation unfolds and new possibilities emerge that were not present before. As a result, it can serve us well in a situation where we want to increase the level of collective intelligence.

In Dynamic Facilitation, the facilitator does not try to keep the group to a pre-established agenda. The agenda consists of the thoughts and feelings of participants as they emerge in the process. Instead, the facilitator works very actively to draw out each person's perspective, including the solutions that each person imagines might be the best course of action. The facilitator actively "protects" each person's contribution by listening deeply to it, reflecting it and recording it on chart paper where the whole group can see it.

Whenever a conflict emerges, the facilitator "expands the space" to make room for the full range of divergence present in the group. Instead of trying to reconcile differences, the facilitator simply acknowledges and makes room for the various perspectives, solutions, concerns, questions, etc., that are offered by participants.

The facilitator keeps an ongoing record of the group's conversation. Ideally, he or she will add each person's contribution to one of four charts:

  • Challenges (also known as "Inquiries" or "Problem Statements"),
  • Solutions (also known as "Possibilities" or "Options")
  • Concerns, and
  • Information (also known as "Perspectives" or "Data").

If space constraints are severe, the facilitator will record all contributions on a single numbered list. In either case, chart paper filled with participants' contributions soon covers the walls, and the group begins to get a clearer picture of the challenges, solutions, concerns, and information they are bringing to the conversation. As the process unfolds, group members naturally begin moving toward greater creativity and more inclusive possibilities in response to the larger picture that is emerging.

To get the process rolling, we might begin by asking the group a simple question such as, "What would you like to work on today?" Usually someone is willing to offer an initial topic, such as "making our business more environmentally responsible." The facilitator will ask the participant to reframe the topic as a question (usually a "how" question like "How can we make a profit and still be environmentally responsible?") and will record it on the Challenges page. Next, the facilitator invites that same group member to share any "solutions" to that problem that he or she may have. Instead of treating solutions as proposals to be defended, they are simply written on the Solutions page.

Usually, those initial solutions will provoke concerns among other group members. Any person who has a pressing concern is invited to share it, and his or her thoughts are recorded on the Concerns page. The facilitator will often invite the same person to share any alternative solutions that might be underneath their concerns.

Sometimes, instead of proposing another solution, someone may say, "Wait a minute. We're barking up the wrong tree. There's actually another (or much deeper or broader) problem here…." The facilitator writes that new question or problem statement on the Challenges page, and invites the person to share any solutions to this new problem that he or she may have.

Just as when we are putting together a jigsaw puzzle, there is no need to worry about following any particular sequence. We do not need to hold the conversation to a linear train of thought. What we are doing instead is helping each piece to get "put out on the table," and spending enough time with each person so that he or she can be fully heard.

If Bill responds to a suggestion from Sarah by yelling "That's absurd! That would distract us from our basic mission here!" the facilitator's job would be to both protect Sarah as well as to create space for Bill to share his concern. The facilitator might say to Bill, "Please address your concerns to me. I want to make sure I am understanding your concern, so I can record it. But could you hold it a minute? I want to first make sure I've understood what Sarah was saying, and that I've heard her completely."

After making sure that Sarah's contribution has been accurately understood and recorded, the facilitator would turn back to Bill. "Okay, let me see if I understand. You see things very differently. You have a concern that we are deviating from the basic mission." After recording Bill's concern, the facilitator may ask some follow up questions: "What is your sense of the basic mission?" (Bill's response to this might be recorded on the Information chart.) "What question do you feel we should be addressing?" (Challenges chart) "What would be your answer to the question you just proposed?" (Solutions chart).

If, when someone's turn came to speak, that person said, "We're forgetting there are thousands of people involved here who are not part of this group," we would write that on the Information sheet. Again, we would follow-up with some open-ended questions, to elicit any problem-statements and/or solutions that person may have.

In this way, the facilitator helps the group translate its conflicts into Concerns, Information, Challenges and Solutions. By honoring and protecting each member's contribution, the door is kept open to greater creativity and collaboration. In some ways, the facilitator's job is very simple: to listen deeply to everyone, and to keep the creative momentum going by trusting in the group's own emerging process.

In addition to listening, recording, and trusting the group's emergent process, the facilitator may need to ask for the group's help in taking turns so that everyone is not speaking at once. He or she is also making sure that there is enough room for the quieter people in the group to be able to contribute.

In the early stages of dynamically facilitated meetings, people tend to share things they already knew when they walked in — their sense of the problem, their ideas about what should be done, their concerns and information. The facilitator's job is to draw out all of those pieces of the puzzle into view. As the process unfolds, people begin to engage with the evolving collective picture that is taking shape. At first, they may feel overwhelmed by the complexity. But soon, natural human ingenuity begins to emerge, and the group starts discovering new and creative ways to engage with the situation they are facing.

The purpose of Dynamic Facilitation is for these new and creative solutions, or "breathroughs," to emerge. Of course, each breakthrough brings a whole new level of challenges and questions, and participants begin to become quite energized and involved in the creative process. The process of accomplishing goals and discovering new ones is an ongoing journey. Therefore, at some point, the facilitator may need to remind the group of where they originally started, and help them take the time to acknowledge how much they have accomplished.

One of the hallmarks of Dynamic Facilitation is that participants often become so involved and engaged that the time appears to go by very quickly. When it is time to end a session, the facilitator's invites the group to create a brief summary or "bookmark" of the group's current situation, that then serves as a starting point for the next meeting.

Dynamic Facilitation initially evolved in an industrial setting, helping work teams address "impossible-to-solve" technical problems. At the same time, its ability to handle multiple perspectives and emotionally-charged situations makes it useful for addressing challenging human and social issues, in a wide variety of settings.

For additional information, consulting, and Dynamic Facilitation seminars, contact:

Jim Rough & Associates, 1040 Taylor Street, Port Townsend, WA 98368 / 360-385-7118 / fax 360-385-6216 / jim@ToBe.net / www.tobe.net

For Dynamic Facilitation in Northern California, contact:

Rosa Zubizarreta, M.A. • Facilitating Creative Collaboration: Organization Development and Human Systems Redesign • 707-824-8876 • rosalegia@igc.org

Tom Atlee and Rosa Zubizarreta

NCDD (2003)

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