The Citizens Handbook

The facilitator's role is to help a group to its best thinking. A good facilitator is helpful when a group is trying to deal with new or difficult issues. In the main, a facilitator helps people persevere as they confront the inevitable confusion and frustration associated with trying to integrate different views and approaches with their own. The more people who learn to facilitate, the better. If you accept the role of facilitator you must be neutral. You should also use the following techniques.

Watch group vibes
If people seem bored or inattentive, you may have to speed up the pace of the meeting. If people seem tense because of unvoiced disagreements, you may have to bring concerns out into the open.

Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak
Invite quiet people to speak. If necessary, use the clock: "We have fifteen minutes left. I think we should hear from people who haven't spoken for a while." Another way to get quiet people to speak is to initiate a round, in which you move around the table, with everyone getting a few minutes to present their views.

Encourage open discussion
Try to encourage people to speak up if they seem reluctant to disagree with a speaker: "On difficult issues, people disagree. Does anyone have a different point of view?" Another way to encourage open discussion is to ask participants to avoid using critical language for a period of time.

Draw people out with open-ended questions
Open-ended questions require more than a yes / no answer. Some examples:
"We seem to be having trouble here. What do you think we should do?"
"Could you say more about that?"
"What do you mean when you say . . . ?"

Inject humor
Humor is one of the best ways of improving the tone of meetings. It makes meetings seem like friendly get-togethers.

When you paraphrase, you try to restate briefly the point that someone has just made: "Let me see if I'm understanding you . . ." If paraphrasing doesn't convince a person that he or she has been heard, you may have to repeat what was said verbatim.

Learn to deal with difficult behavior:
> Flare-ups – When two members get into a heated discussion, summarize the points made by each and then turn the discussion back to the group.
> Grandstanding – Interrupt the one-person show with a statement that gives credit for his or her contribution, but ask the person to reserve other points for later.
> Broken recording – Paraphrase the contribution of someone who repeats the same point over and over. This lets the person know they have been heard.
> Interrupting – Step in immediately. "Hold on, let Margaret finish what she has to say."
> Continual criticizing – Legitimize negative feelings on difficult issues. You might say, "Yes, it will be tough to reduce traffic congestion on Main Street, but there are successful models we can look at."

Identify areas of common ground.
Summarize differences in points of view, then note where there is common ground. For instance, you might begin, "It seems we agree that . . . "

Follow a procedure to reach closure.
One procedure for large groups is to ask the group to vote. A better procedure for small groups is for the person in charge to,
1. close the discussion,
2. clarify the proposal,
3. poll the group, then
4. decide to a) make the decision or b) continue the discussion.

Suggest options when time runs out.
Identify areas of partial consensus, suggest tabling the question, or create a small subcommittee to deal with the matter at its convenience.

Consider a round at the end of the meeting.
Going quickly around the whole group at the end of the meeting gives people a chance to bring up matters not on the agenda. You can also use a round to evaluate the meeting. With more than ten people, though, a round can become tedious.

Learn more about facilitating.
Good facilitating is something to behold, but it is not magic. Learn more about facilitating by getting a good how-to book on the subject, such as Sam Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.