Since Dialogue & Deliberation is, at its core, a structured conversation, one of the essential skills is facilitating that conversation. Facilitators must be able to stay impartial, prompt participants to engage, keep the discussion focused and productive, encourage deeper thinking and reflection, and mediate tension and conflict—especially between participants and subject matter experts and organizers—in order to bring participants toward collective decision-making. Successful facilitation helps conversations move toward shared goals and surface common ground.
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During the event, the facilitator’s role is to guide productive and thoughtful conversation among the participants. At the very beginning of your event, the facilitator should confirm and clarify objectives so that participants understand the reason for meeting and the boundaries of their conversation. Facilitators should also establish meeting norms, or shared agreements, in collaboration with participants to define what it means to respectfully engage in the discussion. By clearly establishing the reasons for gathering and meeting expectations at the outset, facilitators can help participants understand how they can contribute to meaningful deliberations.
Once your meeting is underway, facilitators face the challenge of helping the group stay focused on the planned agenda while also being flexible and adaptable. It might be appropriate to allow a planned session to go longer than planned in order to explore a consequential new idea or honor a vulnerable experience. Facilitators also need to pay attention to participants’ physical needs and may call for an unplanned break or extend a break, so participants can refresh themselves before re-engaging. Because the facilitation team understands the meeting’s overarching purpose, they should be able to adjust the meeting design in response to meeting dynamics or unexpected challenges. Participants may have questions or struggle to understand the purpose behind meeting design choices. Facilitators should help participants understand the agenda and engage with the process so that they leave an event feeling that it was a valuable use of their time.
A key element of facilitation is tracking and clarifying decision points during the meeting. Before a meeting concludes, a facilitator should briefly summarize any decisions made and share key next steps, providing an opportunity for participants to weigh in and clarify misunderstandings. Accurately capturing action items helps maintain momentum and demonstrates to participants how their input will have impact. Facilitators are sometimes called “shepherds of process” because of their role in attending to overarching Dialogue & Deliberation goals while also helping individuals stay engaged to elicit their perspectives and to find areas of consensus within communities.
Part of planning your Dialogue & Deliberation event will be deciding who will facilitate the conversation. Although it may seem like you and your colleagues are the obvious choice, that may not necessarily be the best option. Facilitators who have similar backgrounds to community members—in terms of gender, race, age, native language, and other aspects—can help bolster participant trust in the process. Therefore, it may be best to draw facilitators from your community partner organization, or directly recruit community members to serve as facilitators. Depending on the topic and those attending the event, you may want to use facilitators who are knowledgeable about the topic, or neutral facilitators who know little about the topic and therefore appear less biased. In many cases, it will serve you well to have a subject matter expert who is not a facilitator, and therefore is able to focus on giving a presentation and answering questions during the event. If the topic at hand is particularly contentious, using facilitators trained in conflict management is critical. In any case, it is essential to ensure facilitators are paid equitably for their time and effort, including any time spent training before the event or organizing and interpreting information after the event.
Not all Dialogue & Deliberation events require teams of designated facilitators. For example, events that have a small number of participants, have an informal or open conversational format, or involve less verbal interaction may benefit from a facilitator whose role is more like a party host they provide space for conversation and answer questions as needed. In these cases, the structure of the conversation among participants is intentionally non-facilitated but should be supported by high-quality materials prepared by meeting organizers, like detailed issue guides, clear discussion prompts, and processes for establishing ground rules.
Learn more about choosing appropriate facilitators: Effective Facilitation (University of Michigan)
Preparation is key to effective facilitation during Dialogue & Deliberation events. Once you have established who will be responsible for facilitating your meeting, it is essential to meet with your facilitation team to establish guidelines and clarify objectives. To help participants engage with your agenda and hold productive discussions, the facilitation team should understand the meeting’s goals and reason for convening. You may also need to provide background information on key subjects so that facilitators are familiar with specific language and concepts. Depending on the topic and the expertise of those involved, you may be able to train the facilitators yourself, or you may need to bring in subject matter experts, facilitation experts, or both to best prepare your facilitators.
Preparatory meetings are also a time to ensure your facilitators understand the specific roles they will be expected to play. Who will be responsible for leading particular discussions, and why? What level of detail is ideal for participants to dig into during their conversations? Are there any relational dynamics facilitators should be prepared to encounter during the meeting? How will you decide on “game-time” changes to agenda, if the need arises? You may also want to practice specific activities planned for your meeting or organize a “dress rehearsal” so the facilitation team can clarify any confusing or complex aspects of your event’s design. Training can also provide an opportunity for facilitators to practice their facilitation skills and learn from constructive feedback.
Learn more about training facilitators: A Guide for Training Public Dialogue Facilitators (Everyday Democracy)