Re: A facilitators checklist
From: Stuart Staniford-Chen (
Date: Tue, 17 Jan 95 00:31 CST
Rob asks about facilitation tips.  Since I've been thinking about 
facilitation a lot lately I'll respond.   I make no claim to be an 
authority on the subject - this is just what I find works for me.

Before the meeting:

Make sure you have input to the agenda.  This does not necessarily mean 
at the level of which issues are discussed, but rather at how much time 
an issue gets and how that time is broken down.  I am not normally part 
of our agenda committee, but I always try to be present when they meet to 
set up the agenda for a meeting I am to facilitate.  I think it's 
important that I understand how the agenda is supposed to work and that I 
find the process it outlines credible.  There's nothing worse than 
facilitating a meeting and suddenly discovering that you don't believe 
the agenda is workable at all.

The agenda needs to be broken down into sufficiently fine detail.  It 
needs not just to say what issues will be discussed, but also to outline 
by what process the decisions will be made.  Times need to be allocated 
for each item in that process.  Sometimes it takes quite a bit of thought 
to figure out the best way to do this.   An example from a recent meeting 
of ours where we were trying to agree on a design for the landscape in 
our CH backyard went something like this.

Brainstorm main functions to be supported in the back yard.
Consolidate and clarify brainstorm results.
Prioritization exercise on different functions.
For each function, taken in priority order:
        Establish approximate location of zone in yard for this function
        Establish rough design/layout within zone
        Establish materials to be used
        Establish logistics of committees and workdays
Of course, the agenda may have to be changed on the fly (agenda 
committees are not clairvoyant).  For example, we didn't nearly get 
through all this agenda in the meeting we had.  But if you start out with 
a good structure it's possible to discuss intelligently how to adapt it 
to changing circumstances.

In addition to the agenda, I think it's useful to check up on old 
decisions your group has made on this subject or related ones.  If you 
don't do this and somebody suddenly remembers in the middle of 
discussion, "didn't we already do X with this issue?" your whole agenda 
can be in deep do-do while everyone argues over whether the group decided 
X or Y and people start foraging through old minutes looking for the 
relevant discussion.  This is perhaps particularly important for older 
groups with a lot of history.

If there are relevant previous decisions, explain those to the group at 
the outset of discussion, so that everybody is clear on them.  Often it 
can shorten discussion greatly to have the issue framed in terms of 
previous decisions - it adds to the sense of going steadily forward on an 
issue rather than endlessly revisiting it without any group memory and 
hence any opportunity to learn from what went before.  If the issues are 
complex, you may need time in the agenda dedicated to this task.
Immediately before the meeting:

I believe it's important to take some time to prepare just before the 
meeting starts rather than walking in cold.  Even 15 minutes can make 
quite a difference.  Remind yourself of the agenda structure - think 
about what might be sticky points in the process and how you might handle 
them.  Make sure that any aids you need are available - paper and markers 
for brainstorming are obvious ones, but maybe you will also need plans of 
an area to be designed or similar things.  If there are to be group 
exercises or games, remind yourself of how those are supposed to work so 
you can lead them smoothly when the time comes.

Finally, I like to take a few minutes to go through a process of giving 
up my opinions on the issues to be discussed.  I try to imagine how the 
discussion could come out many different ways, and how all of those ways 
could be good for my community.  Of course, this doesn't always work 
completely :-), but I do find it helps - generally in meetings where I'm 
facilitating, I can keep from having strong opinions on content.  (I 
often do have strong opinions on process - but that's more appropriate to 
the facilitator's role).

During the meeting:

Your job is to help the group reach consensus.  The first requirement is 
to keep the discussion orderly.  In large meetings this almost certainly 
means keeping a list of who is to speak in what order, and insisting that 
people speak in turn.  In smaller meetings it may be more appropriate to 
let people speak as they like unless the discussion becomes heated.  
Handling the border-zone is tricky.

The second thing you have to do is to maintain a sense of the agenda, and 
where the current discussion fits into it.  If a discussion doesn't fit 
into the agenda at all, you need to point that out and ascertain if the 
group really wants to do this instead of the item on the agenda.  If the 
group is running out of time on an item, you need to suspend discussion 
and make the group figure out what it wants to do process-wise.  Options 
include borrowing time from some other agenda item, extending the 
meeting, shelving the discussion to a subsequent meeting, punting it to a 
committee, deciding not to make a decision at all.  Any of these may be 
the right thing to do in a given circumstance.  One of the things N St 
has taught me is that it is much better if these decisions are made 
consciously, rather than allowing the discussion to drift on endlessly 
until people get tired and frustrated.  (Which is not to say that I 
always manage this part perfectly when I'm the one facilitating).
However, if you only do these first two things, you are not fulfilling 
all of your role by any means.  Your most important task is to guide the 
group to a consensus.  This is also the hardest part, and the part that 
is most difficult to explain.  Basically, you have to listen to the 
discussion for a while, and then pull out something that you hear people 
saying that you think the whole meeting could agree to.  You then state 
carefully what you think that thing is, and then ask whether people can 
agree to what you have just stated.

This implies that you have to ask the rest of the folks who had planned 
to contribute to the discussion to hold off on their comments (at least 
for a while).  You have to more-or-less insist that people address 
themselves to your statement.  I usually say something to the effect of 
"I'll interrupt discussion here for a moment - it sounds to me as though 
the group might be able to consense to X.  Is there anyone here who feels 
that X is really not the right thing for this group to do?"

Here X is a statement of some decision about the issue at hand.

At that point, you might get someone religiously opposed to X, or you 
might get people who basically want to work with X but modify it 
slightly.  Best of all is the wonderful sound of silence - you have a 
consensus on this part of things.  Make it a long silence so that anyone 
who is in doubt can have time for their thoughts to crystallize enough to 
speak; if it's a big decision, say it again and give people a second 
chance to object.  Then say, "we have consensus on this issue" and 
restate X so that your notetaker gets it down.

Another thing that can happen is that someone who had something they were 
burning to say, but that doesn't particularly relate to X, can't resist 
the temptation to say their thing.  Let them say it, point out gently 
that it is not immediately relevant, and ask again for opinions directly 
related to X.

Of course if you don't get agreemenent, you have to re-open discussion 
and let people talk some more until you see another chance to state 
something people can agree on.

If you *do* get agreement on your statement of X (which is the part that 
makes facilitating meetings worthwhile), then try to frame the next part 
of the process.  "Now that we have agreed that our common house carpet 
should be wool, can we turn to the question of what color it should be.  
Could people please address discussion to the color issue."  Or whatever. 

Several considerations.  How long do you let discussion go before trying 
to state an emerging consensus?  I certainly don't have a formula, but 
you are trying to steer between Scylla and Charybdis.  Scylla is that you 
allow discussion to meander on for a long time.  This is dangerous 
because time will be wasted and people will get frustrated that no 
progress is being made.  To some extent other people will try and step in 
and do for you what you are not doing - this may help or it may lead to 
conflict.  Charybdis, on the other hand, is where you allow very little 
general discussion and are always trying to force people to address the 
issue in the terms that you have framed it.  This has the danger that 
people will begin to feel that they cannot make their point of view heard 
and that they are being railroaded.  This makes them mad, and some of 
them will start to block the process out of frustration and in order to 
make themselves heard.  You have to strike a balance that has most of the 
people leaving the meeting happy, not mad.

Obviously, a fair amount of creativity goes into how to formulate an 
emerging consensus - I don't have any rules for this either.  Sometimes 
it's easy - one person will say something, the next person will say "what 
he said, plus ...", and a third will say "what they said, except when 
...".  At that kind of point, you can step in, restate what has been 
said, and ask for opposition.  *Don't* let this kind of opportunity pass 
you by.  It makes me want to scream when I hear three or four people say 
similar things like this but the facilitator fails to restate it, nail it 
down, and get it into the notes.

Other times, you may need to listen to what sound like opposing views, 
and extract out of those *some* element that both sides could agree on.  
Often an issue is like a tarpaulin flapping in the wind, and you have to 
focus the discussion on one corner to get it pegged down, before going 
onto the rest of the discussion.

The hard problems come when an issue is very simple but people don't 
agree.  If some people want blue, some want green, and some red, it's 
hard to see what the common ground is.  If they all hold their opinions 
strongly, you may be in for a long and frustrating discussion...  It may 
be best to boot it to a committee of the most passionate, or shelve it 
and hope people don't care as much in a month's time.

Finally, you must be seen to be impartial in your role as facilitator.  I 
try (unsuccessfully) to express no opinions at all on content (as opposed 
to process).  If you must express opinions, let them be few and mild.  
What you absolutely must not do is use your power as facilitator to 
foster your agenda.  Examples include cutting off people who disagree 
with you, or restating "the feeling of the group" but allowing your own 
opinion to substantially color your statement.  This pisses people off 
big-time and will cause them to lose trust in your facilitation.  They 
will then block the process just because they are mad at you and you are 
running the process.

The way I see it is that when I facilitate, I give up my right to 
influence the content in exchange for getting a lot of control over the 
process.  If you really have strong opinions on content, get someone else 
to facilitate that discussion.

Enough.  This will hardly fit on the one page Rob needs, but maybe it 
will help somebody.

Stuart Staniford-Chen           |       Dept of Computer Science
stanifor [at]            |       UC Davis, Davis, CA 95616
(916) 752-2149  - work          |               and
(916) 756-8697  - home          |       N St. Cohousing Community
Home page is

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.