Facilitating Complex Issues

Jim Rough developed a transformational approach to wrestle with complex issues which he calls Dynamic Facilitation. A major advantage of this approach is working with participants “as they are.” They don’t have to learn a special language or abide by elaborate ground rules. As facilitators, we create the container for transformation, by taking an active role without being directive. We do this by encouraging people to speak their truth openly while still providing safety for everyone.

By ensuring that participants feel completely understood, they can focus their attention on listening to others. Unlike many styles of facilitation, in this approach we start by asking for solutions. People come into the meeting with solutions in response to the challenges and pain. So we help participants purge what they already know and listen deeply to their solutions, which creates space for fresh ideas. If people complain or have a problem with other’s solutions, we encourage them to offer their own solutions.

As we record what each person says, without pointing out the shortcomings of the ideas, each person becomes a valued contributor. When we listen deeply to people, their posture and body language changes as soon as they feel fully understood. They visibly relax and their voices soften. If we are aware of the signals, we can sense when to stop drawing someone out because they’ve searched in their heart, have found what they want to say, and feel satisfied that others understand because they can see it up on the chart.

If we allow conversations to emerge, groups naturally move through three stages on their own, without the facilitator cajoling or pushing them through steps of a process. The three stages of Dynamic Facilitation are:

1. Purge: sharing what we already know

2. Transition: feeling discomfort at not knowing what to do with all that’s been said

3. Excitement: sensing creative possibilities emerging

In the first stage of purging what participants already know, we draw them out, help them feel heard, and record their contributions. We create a mind map, capturing the essence of what everyone says, using their language on one of four flip charts:

  1. problem statements or inquiries
  2. solutions or ideas
  3. concerns or difficulties
  4. data or perspectives

Charting each person’s contribution helps people feel understood. By purging preconceived solutions we give people a chance to let go. We welcome complaints because every concern has a potential solution behind it.

In the second stage the group faces the challenge of how to make sense of the walls full of chart paper. The discomfort of this stage is palpable but doesn’t last long. A few minutes can feel like hours. Instead of rescuing them from the discomfort, we hold the creative tension. Silence can be our most empowering option. Simply waiting, and trusting the not knowing, inevitably leads to creative inspiration. People start to pop with new ideas, saying things like, “Whoa! I just had a crazy idea… We could…” Even if the idea isn’t the perfect solution, the shift in energy sparks additional solutions.

In the third stage, we keep recording individual contributions, but new creative ideas are flowing, and the group senses that something new is emerging. We welcome every idea, recognizing that they could be part of the puzzle or gifts in disguise.

Dynamic facilitation assures choice creating because we

  • help participants address an issue they care about
  • invite people to speak authentically from the heart
  • value and include whatever comes up
  • protect creativity by turning judgment into concerns or solutions
  • follow the energy of caring, curiosity, and creativity
  • celebrate self-organizing shifts and breakthroughs
  • capture new insights and solutions

We welcome everything that’s said, recognizing how much people care and that their distress could be a gift in disguise. Yet we actively intervene at the micro level to support each participant’s contribution. In their Dynamic Facilitation Manual and Reader, Rosa Zubizaretta and Jim Rough give an example, “If someone interrupts during a sensitive moment, the facilitator might say, ‘Excuse me, I really want to listen to what you are saying, but first I want to make sure that I have really heard what this other person has to say.’ As soon as the facilitator has finished with the first person, he or she will turn back to the person who was interrupting, to listen and draw out that person’s contributions in full. Or, depending on the circumstances, the facilitator might redirect their attention to someone who is in obvious distress, and then come back to the person who was originally speaking. Regardless of who goes first, the larger point is that each person will be heard, and it is the facilitator’s job to hear each person fully.” 1

We also protect people from judgment by asking them to state the problem or concern. Sometimes we place ourselves physically between two participants in order to interrupt a volley, debate or judgment. We might say, “I really want to hear what each of you is saying so I can record your ideas, but I can only listen to one person at a time.” Instead of judging people as “interrupters” or “overly emotional” we simply notice that they are overflowing and they too want to be heard. When we see the genius behind the whine or complaint, we shift to new ground. We advocate for each voice to be heard and actively protect participants from anger by inviting them to direct intense emotions toward us and welcoming their contributions with unconditional receptivity. As a result people feel safe. Jim Rough values authentic dialogue and describes a time when he worked with a group that was concerned about terrorism:

As the conversation began, one woman criticized every idea offered. Seeking her solution, I asked, “What would you do?” She started to give me an answer that sounded a lot like what others are saying – bolster security, strengthen the borders. Talking from her head, these were logical answers. When I said, “your answers sound similar to the others,” she sighed and settled into herself saying, “I’m just afraid… I don’t know what to do.” There was a period of silence. Everybody was there with her. No one was jumping in to speak. The tone of back and forth was gone. Finally somebody said, “When I feel like a terrorist, I just want to be listened to.” Then the group found a whole new energy of possible solutions. Questions flew. How could we create a listener for the terrorists? How could We the People become the listener? Now we were accepting the transformational possibilities in the situation, in the terrorist and in ourselves.

Following the thread of her frustration opened everyone to realize the genuine fear. In the new spirit of openness, she recognized her own terrorist tendencies when she undermined the ideas of others. My job is to help the group go to this place of new openings. It’s not brainstorming. It’s more heart-stirring. We call this process “choice-creating.”

Most people think of creativity in a cognitive way. “Choice-creating” is creativity in a heart-felt way. It is transformational. From the experience of choice-creating each of us changes. If I’m in my head, I keep my distance from the problem. But the heartfelt creativity of choice-creating changes me, so that I leave different than when I came.

Our culture is fundamentally structured to facilitate a level of conversation that involves discussion, debate, judgment, and battling for supremacy. I’m interested in shifting our quality of conversation and our thinking to “choice-creating,” where everyone seeks what’s best for all. To facilitate this high quality of thinking, I have to do my inner work. I need to know about this transformational potential in myself and others. I need to trust that from this high-quality of thinking doors will open. “Impossible” problems can be solved. 2

The beauty of facilitating dynamic meetings is that when participants are fully heard, a collective “aha” or sigh of relief comes when the group resonates with an insight that strikes a chord. This collective breakthrough experience leads to actions that the group is excited about implementing. When decisions emerge in this way, high energy and commitment come from the group’s shared discoveries.

The Dynamic Facilitator’s invitation is simple: “Trust me. Trust yourselves. Trust the process.”3 Just creating the conditions for reflection leads to self-organization. By trusting the process, we allow breakthroughs to happen. Simply by staying present to what is emerging, and simultaneously letting go of any attachment we have to breakthroughs, transformation happens, in its on way in its own time.

1. Rosa Zubizaretta and Jim Rough. 2002. Dynamic Facilitation Manual and Reader. http://www.diapraxis.com/dfmanual.html

2. Jim Rough personal conversation 3/18/08

3. Jim Rough – adapted from the Dynamic Facilitation Workshop with Jim and Jean Rough 2/5/08 and the Dynamic Facilitation Manual by Rosa Zubizarreta and Jim Rough 2002. http://DynamicFacilitation.com

Written by Martha Lasley, Originally published in Facilitating with Heart

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