The only thing I do with a pen is, when asked to do so by the participants, to put a flash mark on a card on which they want clarification or over which they disagree. The event is their event, so all contributions are written by the participants and I would never change that.
The criteria of a facilitated event
Let’s have a look at five criteria of a facilitated event and the impact of the facilitator using a pen.
The first criterion is that the focus is live issues. Now, those who know most about the issues faced by the unit or company are those who are actually engaged in the work. I do not have their knowledge of the company, nor do I have their experience of the culture. This means the participants must take ownership of the process.
Second, all contributions are accepted. Our job, as facilitators, is to demonstrate that every single contribution matters, regardless of apparent superficiality or humour or spelling or grammar – let the group sort that out. Let the participants assume responsibility for the success of the activity.
Third, not only are all contributions accepted but all contributions are equal. Regardless of seniority, ability to shout, velocity of your vehicle – your contribution will be considered. Standing at the front, holding a pen, is about power and inequality and that is contrary to the philosophy of facilitation.
Fourth, ownership of contributions and discussion is with the participants. Ownership is firmly given to the group from the start – it’s their event, their issues. Every person has a pen and access to cards. Individuals will see their contributions, in their own handwriting, visible to all, posted on the boards. They will see how each of their cards, and those of their colleagues, contribute to the progress of the group.
Fifth, a well facilitated event is phased, participants see progress from the start to the final agenda item: action. The output is action to which all have contributed and to which all are committed – they have created their own future.
The impact of the interfering facilitator
If you hold a pen and write contributions from the group, there is a temptation to edit or paraphrase. You may feel that they have used too many words, it’s unclear to you, it sounds like jargon, you can’t see the relevance. This is not our responsibility. It is arrogant to think that we know better. If there is any editing or paraphrasing, it should be done by the participants because they own the contributions.
Altering in any way, for whatever reason, something a participant wishes to contribute is contrary to the principles of facilitation. It disempowers the individuals and it elevates the facilitator beyond their authority. Remember: there is no higher authority than the group.
If an individual has strong feelings about something, writing it themselves, in their own words, is very satisfying. If you then suggest editing that contribution, they will not be happy. Also, you risk losing the vivid, powerful and colloquial nature of their idea.
A final point on the facilitator damaging the process by interfering. If you alter an individual’s contribution in any way, for any reason, then everyone will follow your example – you will have lost the commitment of the group.
That’s why I don’t carry a pen. And don’t you be tempted either.