The Facilitator's Horse Trick

I was recently in a conversation with a friend who had just facilitated a difficult meeting for a neighboring community. Upon reflection, he felt fine when it came to working conflict and emotional distress, but felt sloppy and not well-focused when it came to managing problem solving and issue exploration.

While most facilitators would report the reverse (comfort in examining issues, yet unsure our their footing in the face of strong emotional currents), I believe deeply that we need facilitators who can do both. The bad news is that it ain't easy. The good news is that it's possible, and can be learned.

I've been a professional facilitator for 28 years, and have been teaching it—in the context of cooperative culture —for the last dozen years. Next year I'll be conducting three two-year facilitation training courses concurrently (one in New England starting Sept 10-13, one in Portland OR starting Dec 3-6, and one in North Carolina starting Jan 14-17).

One of the key concepts that I'll teach is that a high-end facilitator needs to be able to ride two horses: both the Content horse and the Energy horse. My friend, understandably, was witnessing how hard it is to be good at both. While acknowledging that as a widespread phenomenon—I know very few who are equally adept on both horses—I believe it's crucial that we invest in training facilitators to learn to ride like that.

The Content Horse
The skill set here includes:

o Laying out clearly how the conversation will be focused
o Coming up with and following a plan for how the conversation will flow from opening to conclusion
o Separating the signal from noise (not all contributions to the consideration are equally valuable)
o Offering concise and accurate summaries
o Weaving together the common elements of disparate statements (bridging between people who disagree)
o Making sure no one is left behind
o Tracking loose ends of the conversation
o Accurately reflecting the sense of the meeting

The Energy Horse
The skill set here includes:

o Getting people moving frequently enough (up out of their seats, to increase blood flow)
o Maintaining a positive, curious attitude
o Appreciating people's contributions without taking sides
o Attending to emotional undercurrents when they start impacting the group negatively
o Not freaking out when others freak out
o Sequencing the work such that the group is ready to do heavy lifting when the time comes
o Celebrating success
o Finishing on an up note

Unfortunately, the skills needed for doing well with one horse are largely unrelated to being good at the other. And as if that weren't enough, there is the further challenge of discerning which horse to be riding at any given moment. All of which is why facilitation is an art form and not a paint-by-numbers exercise, where all you need to do is follow a script.

The two main difficulties that facilitators face are complexity (a Content concern) and volatility (an Energy concern). What if you encounter a topic that includes both—which is a lead-pipe certainty to occur some of the time? That's when you use your most experienced people, or even bring in a hired gun. You'll need someone at the helm who can deftly handle both horses and will know when to switch rides. If facilitators get in over their heads, everyone pays (not only do you suffer through a poor meeting, but the facilitator can get traumatized into the bargain—yuck).

If you cannot develop the capacity for a single person to ride both horses (best), try to have two people work in tandem, with a horse each (next best). While two riders means you'll have to choreograph who's the lead facilitator at any given moment, it can be done, and may be more accessible than one person developing the agility needed to dance from one horse to the other, and back again.