Role of the Facilitator

Laura Chasin

Director of the Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: The actual facilitating the dialogue was less, I won't say it was, it was less demanding than I think many people might imagine. And that gets into how our dialogues go.

The beginnings are very formal, very structured. We have learned that the more anxiety people have about the first encounter, the more structured they are. You may have heard from one of my colleagues that one of our assumptions is that learning occurs, and learning can be prevented from either too much anxiety or too little and that there's sort of a middle ground. But in these issues, structure lowers anxiety for most people who come to the dialogues that we've facilitated. So the beginnings are quite ritualized really, very structured, very specific questions. Each question everyone responds to in turn, there are very clear instructions about when cross talk can happen. There are many reasons for this, one of which has to do with modulating anxiety, so that people feel safe to drop all the communication and linguistic habits that they bring, as well as safe to entertain and take in the reality of this other person. The other reason for it is for it's building capacity for listening and in speaking to the participants. A whole part of our dialogues, how they go, is they start out very, very structured, and then as the participants pick up the skill set and the attitudes and internalize the ground rules, we as facilitators back way off. So we're very central in the beginning in terms of implementing these structures, it's usually a little more to do frankly, other than remind people about them.

Q: As a facilitator you don't do much more than

A: No, there's this ingenuity that goes in to the design. First there's this preparation and then those first four, well the first session is tightly designed from beginning to end, starting with easy. You know, it's like stepping toward the more difficult, stepping in incremental steps towards what we've learned with conversations with them. We've interviewed them about their concerns and what they are hoping won't happen and what are the signs that it's going off track and that sort of thing. So over time, you've got to be prepared to back off. Every time as a facilitator, that's why we like structure so much is because no matter how brilliant your move as a facilitator in a dialogue, the action is between the participants, not between the participants and you. Every time you interrupt with what's going on in the room, you're interfering. It is far better to drop a ball rolling, like a question in a structured sequence of speaking and let them give their responses to each other, rather than to be interacting through you.

Q: They're talking to you versus talking to each other.

A: No.

I think it was in the fourth meeting, I had some brilliant idea about what they could do. One of them turned to me and said, "You know, we get it. We get it who they are. Would you just get out of the way and let us talk to each other?" That had a big impact on me, so I think part of our...

Q: Were you thrilled, or were you insulted?

A: At that moment, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't insulted. I was sort of like taken aback. And this was like the fourth dialogue we ever did. I think that was one of the things that inclined us toward looking for structure versus looking for facilitation to carry most of the ball, also because it takes less skill.

Q: That sounds like an invisible facilitation.

A: That's our goal. That's my goal as a facilitator is to become invisible.


And then being, because you're not trying and have a lot of pre-conceived ideas, you're able to access your spontaneity and creativity to build off their cues.

This mostly comes later when the structure lessens.

Q: So over time it does lessen?

A: Over time, oh yes, it is the same principle. It was like running a meeting. They would forget about the ground rules. The role of a facilitator in our work, it's very bounded really because of the reliance on structure, and we always forget, you know, this is not the normal way people talk to each other in this culture anymore and you'll probably all forget, and will you authorize us to remind you when you forget?

Q: As there's less structure, what becomes the role of the facilitator?

A: Well, because we continued the practice of phone calls, we would come in with a draft agenda. We would take notes. We would do stuff on news trends. We'd keep them on task. You know, you wanted to have a conversation about 'A', but it looks like you're moving in the direction of "B". What do you want to do? Do you want to change, be explicit about making a change, or go back? We sort of take the observer role. We would sometimes even write reflections to them, which we would read at the beginning. There was actually one moment where we recommended discontinuing the dialogue because it seemed to us that it had loss focus. I remember after the first meeting, which was quite astonishing, we wrote our reflection based on our knowledge about what can happen in these things, anticipating that it might be more difficult. I'd say that we become like observers and we give feedback like, "Four of you feel this way and two of you feel this way, is that right?" Or saying, "I'm not sure where you're going here, where are you going?"

Q: So it becomes more of a traditional facilitation role?

A: Yeah, because the relationships changed, it becomes very traditional.

Q: Because you can have that level of discussion at that point because the relationship is

A: Because they've got the skills to engage around their differences in ways that promote where there's some momentum, and it's not arguing. One of our ground rules that's really hard is, no persuasion. You can want to persuade, but persuasive rhetoric and attack of the rhetoric of the others is not allowed. We are very tight about what kind of speech is used. Now with them, as it went along, they agreed to loosen some of the original ground rules.