One major reason for employing a facilitator is when an organisation is experiencing disagreement.
The nature of the disagreement may be simple, such as failure to agree action needed to solve a problem: which is the best way forward? what do we do first?
Or, the situation may be deeper, such as animosity between teams over issues like responsibilities, quality of deliverables or poor communication (it’s always “communication”). Individuals may discuss these matters amongst themselves but would never raise them with the other team for fear of reprisals and worsening the situation.
A question I have often been asked is “How do you successfully resolve disagreement?”
I find this question difficult to answer because I am not sure that I, personally, resolve disagreement. I feel that the resolution of disagreement is the responsibility of the participants working within the structure of the event.
Let me explain. A significant amount of the effectiveness of a facilitated intervention rests with the design, in the planning beforehand.
The participants may be strongly entrenched in their own ideas and opposed to the ideas of others, but it is the design of the event that enables them to reach an agreed and successful conclusion.
This article explores how a carefully designed event manages disagreement to achieve this agreed and successful conclusion.
Overall aim and output
The first stage in planning is to agree an overall aim with the client. If we take the example of a project review, this might be:
Explore lessons learned, for both individuals and the organisation, to make future projects more effective
The enhanced effectiveness of future projects will be through an action plan – hard output agreed and generated by the participants.
Overall aim and output are vital to a collaborative process. If these two elements are clearly defined, they focus the participants on what they have in common, rather than differences of status, experience, qualifications or gender.
The second stage in planning is to take the end result and work backwards. If this is what the event aims to achieve, the client and the facilitator explore what steps have to be taken to get there. In other words, the agenda items.
Each agenda item has a specific objective and is based on a question. For example, if we take the earlier example of the project review, you might start with:
What went well
You can think of agenda items as being like control gates – you may not approach and open the next gate until you have completed the current task.
One immediate benefit of having a disciplined approach to each agenda item, is that you eliminate topic leakage. Topic leakage is a common meeting problem in which uncontrolled discussion jumps to parallel or unrelated issues, causing frustration and acrimony.
For example, if someone says that inter-team communication was good, another person may say that it wasn’t. An argument ensues: Oh yes it was, oh no it wasn’t; was, wasn’t.
I remind people that, currently, we are looking at what went well. If you feel communication was not good in the project, remember this point and raise it in the next session when we will looking at the things that did not go so well.
One of the strengths of the project has been agreed, everyone is satisfied and we remain focused. The participants are reassured that the process works.
The process itself
The third stage in planning is to agree how the event itself will be run and how contributions will be made.
One thing I say at the start of an event is “Disagreement is normal. Here we have a number of people, each one of you has your own ideas. This is an opportunity to share these ideas so please allow others to do the same. If disagreement becomes obstructive, we will not achieve our aims. When disagreement is healthy, we will.”
Participants realise that it is OK to mention matters that, hitherto, everyone has avoided. They will be prepared to open up and raise potentially controversial issues, knowing they have permission to do so. Others may disagree with what is said, but the contribution will be dealt with constructively.
Discussion is driven by cards and large pinboards. Participants work initially in small groups, generating ideas. They share and discuss these ideas, and each person writes each one on a card. The purpose of this phase is for everyone to generate as many ideas as possible, but not to evaluate them – this comes later.
The only guidelines I suggest are one idea per card, seven words maximum and please write clearly.
I collect the cards, read out each one and put them on the boards where the participants tell me to. I do not carry a pen and do no writing myself – the content is owned totally by the participants. This is another reminder for them of their responsibility.
The final element I would like to mention with regard to the process, is prioritising – this is probably a method most of you already use. The participants have sticky dots and put their dots on the issues that they feel are the most important for them.
One rule I suggest is a maximum of two dots on any one issue to avoid a small number of people skewing the results. The prioritised list may be flatter but the result reflects accurately the wishes of the whole group.
Further consequences and benefits
This careful planning provides participants with reassuring certainty. They can concentrate on contributing because they know exactly where they are, why they are there and where they are going – can you say that about the usual meetings you attend?
Clear guidelines and a facilitator who provides direction, gives the participants confidence and a recognition of mutual dependence – if we are going to achieve the overall aim, we are going to have to cooperate.
This encourages listening. If you want your viewpoint acknowledged, you have to allow airtime to others. Differences are recognised and accepted, rather than becoming divisive.
Participants also realise that it is up to them, here and now. The facilitator is not an expert in the content but in the process. So the participants have responsibility for the output, the action agreed and, at the same time, the handling of disagreement.
As the result of an open approach by the facilitator and a solid design, the participants achieve what we originally agreed – to make both the organisation and the individuals more effective.