Facilitation Guide

Any questions? Additional ideas to include in this guide? Things that could be simpler? Other feedback? Please send them to guides@neighborhoodanarchists.org.

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We’ve all been in meetings where people are talking over each other, discussion jumps from topic to topic and back without resolution, everyone is confused, tensions are high, nothing is decided, you end way over time, and everyone leaves frustrated. But meetings don’t have to be this way. Effective facilitation can make meetings more pleasant, organized, clear, supportive, inclusive, and egalitarian. This guide is meant to help more people feel empowered to facilitate (both inside and outside of NAC) so that roles can be more equally distributed and meetings can run smoother in every organization. 

A facilitator’s overall role is to ensure that everyone is heard and that good process is used to reach common goals.

Table of contents:

Facilitation Principles

Here are a few core facilitation principles. Someone who mastered just these would be an excellent facilitator. The rest of this guide is just examples and specifics.

  • Clarity – Make everything as clear and as simple as possible so it’s easier for people to participate.
  • Focus on the group – Pay attention to the group. What does the group need?
  • Steward the process – You focus on the process so others can focus on the content.

Facilitation Roles

A facilitator wears many hats as a result of being a steward of the process.

  • Keep the meeting on track – Keeps discussion to one topic at a time and finish each topic before moving on to the next one.
  • Stack – Tracks who wants to talk and who’s turn it is to talk. (More below)
  • The big picture – Makes the purposes of the meeting and topics clear to all.
  • Vibeswatch – Maintains awareness of participants’ levels of emotional, mental, and physical needs throughout the meeting/conversation.
  • Timekeeper – Keeps track of time and what’s left on the agenda. Reminds people of the time so they can decide what’s important to prioritize.
  • Decisions – Checks for consensus and temperature checks for decisions as needed. Follows the decision making / consensus process the group has agreed to. (More below)
  • Conflict Resolution – Evaluates how to handle conflict if it arises. (More below)

Facilitation Tips

There are a lot of tips here, but remember the key is to just focus on the group. What does the group need? These are just some ways to respond to what the group needs.

  • Explain everything – You’re the narrator of the meeting. What can be obvious to you can be confusing to someone else so explain what’s happening in the meeting (especially if there are new people present). This includes explaining what you’re doing as a facilitator.
  • Pay attention – People are relying on you to support them (to speak, to address a problem, etc). Look for hand signals, people with confused expressions, people who clearly want to say something but aren’t, etc. If you’re distracted everyone is distracted. Listen.
  • Read the room – What are the group dynamics? What does the group need? Do they need something explained/clarified? Do they need a break? Do they need a clearer proposal or simpler question? Do they need to focus? Is there tension that needs to be addressed? Do they need to move faster/slower? Do they need to explore this fun tangent for a moment?
  • Summarize – Listen to what people are saying. When there is a lull or confusion step in to summarize what you’ve heard. This can clarify where people agree and disagree and make the rest of the discussion easier.
  • Ask permission – Everything you do is with the consent of the group. Ask permission frequently to remind everyone that they are in control. “Shall we move on to the next topic?” “How about we focus on this question first?”
  • Help each person feel heard – Use paraphrasing, scribing (writing stuff up front where everyone can see it), summarizing, and other methods to reflect back what people are saying.
  • Be impartial – Ideally a facilitator should be completely impartial and just serve to facilitate the group, though that is not always practical. If you must give content (opinions, solutions, answers to questions, how you feel about a proposal, input), label it as clearly separate from your facilitation role, verbally place yourself last on stack, and be brief. If you realize your feelings on an issue cloud your ability to continue facilitating, you may pass on the duties to someone else (let the group know that this is what you’re doing).
  • Always use an agenda – If there isn’t an agenda then make a quick one. Always have an agenda so it’s clear what you’re talking about and what’s next.
  • One discussion at a time – Keep to one topic at a time and finish it before moving on. Break up complicated discussion into multiple smaller ones if needed.
  • Frequent temperature checks – Frequent quick temperature checks for big and small decisions ensures that everyone is on the same page and welcomes even slight hesitations that can end up being valuable concerns.
  • Be open about your needs – You’re a person with needs too. Don’t hesitate to say if you need a short break or if you need someone to take over facilitating (for whatever reason).
  • Ask for feedback – We’re always learning and growing. Asking for honest feedback at the end of the meeting is the best way to improve.

Stack

Stack is a form of nonverbal communication that helps keep order for when people want to speak without interrupting one another, let’s people express their thoughts or feelings without having to speak, and can also help structure and focus the conversation. The facilitator often keeps track of stack (or that can be a specific role).

Progressive stacking can be used to give marginalized groups, voices that are often submerged, discounted, or excluded, and those with lived experience a greater chance to speak by placing them before those on stack without lived experience or who have already spoken.

  • To get on Stack raise one hand and look to the stacker (facilitator) to confirm your addition to stack. You will be called in the order you were added.
  • Clarifying question is a single hand formed in the shape of a C. This shows one has a question necessary to clarify what was just said. This symbol jumps stack and should not be misused.
  • Direct response is both hands moving alternately front to back. This shows you have something that must be said after the person speaking, usually for clarity’s sake.  This symbol jumps stack and should not be misused.
  • Point of process is a triangle formed by two hand. This sign shows one has an idea for how to improve meeting process. This symbol jumps stack and should not be misused.

The following can be used in response to something being said and can also to get a “temperature check” on a topic/proposal being discussed:

  • Up twinkles are both hands raised with fingers pointing up and being wiggled. Twinkles indicates agreement, with what is being said or with a consensus proposal. They are borrowed with gratitude from ASL’s word for applause, so that listeners can show enthusiasm without interrupting the speaker.
  • Flat hands means that you are unsure, not for, or not against. One may be asked to clarify one’s position.
  • Down twinkles are arms raised but with fingers pointing down and wiggling. Down twinkles indicate disagreement with what is being said. One may be asked to clarify one’s objection.
  • Hard block is holding arms up and crossed. This indicates a firm opposition to the proposal. This signifies the that the approval of the proposal goes against the interests or principles of the group.

All participants are responsible for a creative, healthy meeting environment:

  • Time is pointing to your wrist. This reminds group to be aware of the time.
  • Re-centering Llama is a hand raised with the index and pinkie fingers raised and the remaining fingers making contact in the center, like a long llama nose. This sign shows that the discussions has strayed from the original topic and gently refocuses the group.
  • Vibes Watch is two “v” hands coming together to make a “w”. Signals that things are getting tense. Suggests the group address the tension and/or take a break.

Consensus Decision Making

At its most basic, consensus is the general agreement within a group. Consensus Basics:

  • Consensus comes from the idea that the power for making a decision should be in the hands of everyone involved instead of the hands of a few.
  • All opinions, ideas, and concerns are taken into account.
  • There is no hierarchy in consensus, it aims to be egalitarian.
  • Consensus strives to come to an agreement that works for everyone and adapt to everyone’s needs and concerns. This helps create better decisions for the group.

Basic consensus process:

Click to enlarge

Consensus Flowchart Graphic by Tree Bresen

  1. Someone proposes something (sometimes people propose something without saying so formally. The facilitator can listen to what is being said and present a proposal to help move things along.)
  2. Clarifying questions on the proposal
  3. Discussion on the proposal using stack (see above)
  4. Check for consensus
    1. Agree – Thumbs up (or twinkle up) – Basic alignment with group direction and proposal.
    2. Disagree – Thumb down (or twinkle down) – Disagree with the decision but are willing to let the group proceed if that’s what the rest of the group wants to do.
    3. Hard block – Holding arms up and crossed – This indicates a firm opposition to the proposal. This signifies the that the approval of the proposal goes against the interests or principles of the group.
  5. If there are disagreements or blocks, invite people voice their concerns. This may spark more discussion and a new proposal (start over at step 1).
  6. If disagreements can’t be resolved the proposal can still proceed.
  7. If blocks can’t be resolved then the proposal does not proceed. People will need to rework the proposal (probably outside of the meeting) and come back, or drop the idea.

More details on consensus: http://www.consensuscheck.com/consensus

Handling Disagreements and Conflict

Conflict is natural in any group. A facilitator can help conflict be healthy and lead to stronger connections and decisions.

Preventing conflict:

Prevention is the best prescription for conflict resolution. Many conflicts can be avoided by proper facilitation of tough discussions.

  • Encouraging a healthy culture which includes participants that are actively listening in an attempt to understand each other before jumping to conclusions or judgment.
  • Clarifying or summarizing people’s positions so that it is not misinterpreted by another member can be helpful (especially in tense or tough discussions).

Once disagreement has arisen:

  • A facilitator should use their judgment to determine the level of intervention (if any). This intervention should vary depending on the severity and atmosphere of the conflict as well as the overall group norms for conflict resolution.
  • Remind the group that disagreement is natural and that this is all part of the process. Everyone present wants the group to be successful and you will eventually reach a decision that everyone is happy with.
  • Mention areas of common ground and clearly state where the areas of disagreement are so participants are clear about what is being discussed.
  • If disagreement seems to be based on personal preferences, try inviting people to look to the group mission or principles to see what to align to.
  • Try to find the fear(s) or worry underneath the disagreement and address that.
  • If things continue to escalate, simply naming that conflict or tension has arisen can do a lot to de-escalate things. It allows a space for participants to step back and observe. Offer to take a short break.
  • If it gets personal insist on at least a short break.
  • Time is the facilitators ally. If you feel that a conversation or decision is not going to be resolved you can suggest to defer the conversation or decision to a later time. This will give the team members a chance to cool off and think about the topic in more depth. You can also use the break time to communicate with the people in conflict individually in order to better understand their position and make the individuals feel heard and considered.
  • Finally you can suggest participants utilize the group’s conflict resolution process to resolve the issue. (NAC’s conflict resolution process: https://neighborhoodanarchists.org/structure/#conflict)

This is a lot of stuff but it all comes easier with practice. Remember that the group wants you to succeed. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try facilitating!

NAC Specific

Here’s suggested language for how to facilitate a NAC Gathering:

  • Explain purpose and format of the Gathering – “The [general/project] gathering is a space for the collective to get together to share updates and discuss what we’re working on.”
  • Stolen land, stolen lives – “At each gathering we acknowledge that we live in a society that is founded on stolen land and stolen lives. Someone does some presents something on a topic and we reflect.”
  • Introduce norms – “We have these norms to help us be conscious of our oppressive conditioning and collectively prevent each other from accidentally oppressing each other.”
  • External Announcements – “We’ll share any announcements or events happening in the larger community. They will be sent out with the notes in our weekly email update tomorrow and posted to the events channel in Slack to be shared with everyone in the collective.”
  • Team Updates – “The teams that work to support the collective will update us as to what has been happening with them.”
  • Advice Time – “Time for people to ask for advice about ideas or decisions they’re working on. We rely heavily on the advice of others who are either affected by the decision directly or who have feedback or knowledge to contribute.”
  • Project Breakouts – “We’ll get updates and discuss things that NAC folks are working on.”
  • Caucus Time – “The purpose of the caucus time is to intentionally create space for people who have been traditionally marginalized and underrepresented to talk openly with one another and share experiences while simultaneously creating conversation on how to support these groups. The gathering will break into caucuses, with the identity caucus being the intentional space for the traditionally marginalized group and the support caucus serving as time for the traditionally centered group to discuss ways to better support their comrades. Folks from the caucuses can then share any thoughts or ideas they had from their conversation in the caucus with the rest of the gathering.
    Before we break out into caucuses we need to decide what those caucuses are going to be. We’ll do that as a full group. Given who is here and what you’re interested in discussing, what identity do we want to break out around?”
    After breakouts: “This is a time for us to share any thoughts or ideas from what we discussed and to get advice or feedback. We’ll hear from both the identity caucus and the support caucus. Let’s hear from people in the identity caucus first. “
  • Process Review – “We come to a close with an opportunity to share feedback on the overall process of the gathering” ** Ask for feedback on your facilitation **

 

This guide is part of a community organizing resource series:

Any questions? Additional ideas to include in this guide? Things that could be simpler? Other feedback? Please send them to guides@neighborhoodanarchists.org.