4 people meeting informallyTackling difficult and contentious issues in a group is tough, even with a trained mediator or facilitator. However, when neutral assistance is not possible, members of a group can use three basic facilitation techniques to greatly improve the chances of a productive discussion. And you don’t have to be in charge to use them. Here are the keys: 1) clarify with curiosity, 2) separate people from the problem, and 3) assess the process together.

  • Clarify with curiosity. Our brains are wired to identify and address perceived threats quickly. To help people move past our natural defensive reactions, think of other people’s difficult statements (or their non-participation in some cases) as invitations to unwrap valuable ideas from thick packaging. Seeking clarification with curiosity will give members of the group a chance to pause from fighting for their entrenched positions, perhaps creating room for new options. Sometimes, careful de-escalation (link to a guide) is necessary as well.
  • Useful phrases:
    • “I heard you say ‘X.’ Am I capturing your thoughts accurately?
      • Avoid: “Did you really say ‘X’?”
    • “Can you tell us more about your thinking on ‘X’?”
      • Avoid: “What were you thinking?”
    • “This is what I’ve learned so far…. Are there perspectives we may not have considered yet?”
      • Avoid: “Does anyone else want to add anything?”
    • “We’ve heard from A, B and C. Could we hear from [specific person] if they are comfortable sharing?”
      • Avoid: “We need your input, [non-participant].”

Note: Be sensitive to possible safety and power dynamics. An offline discussion or suggestion to a senior person to seek the non-participating person’s input later may be best in these situations.

  • Separate people from the problem. Even in groups where members don’t have long-standing connections, difficult issues get wrapped up in perceptions about the participants. Disentangling the people (personalities, emotions, relationships) from the issues and addressing both explicitly helps mentally align parties on the same side of the table facing common issues.
  • Useful phrases:
    • “Some themes I’ve heard so far are…. What have others heard?”
      • Avoid: “Here are the issues…”
    • “I have felt [emotion] as we discussed this issue. I sense others have felt [emotion]. Are there other emotions at play here that we might want to address in addition to ‘X’ issue(s)?”
      • Avoid: “Can we stick with the facts?”
    • “Can I take notes on this whiteboard to help us capture all the different perspectives?”
      • Avoid: “The issues and priorities are pretty clear, I think.”
  • Discuss the process together. When facing difficult decisions, groups often dive in to discuss the issues without discussing what success will look like, how they want to move forward or how they’ll know they’ve arrived at an action point. Treating the process itself as part of the discussion frees participants from having to worry about how and when they’ll be expected to participate so they can focus on the issues.
  • Useful phrases:
    • “Regardless of the ultimate outcome, what are some things that might help the process feel fair you and others?”
      • Avoid: “Somebody’s going to be unhappy with the result, so let’s just make a decision and live with it.”
    • “Do we have all the right people we need to address this issue?”
      • Avoid: “Why is/isn’t [X person] involved?”
    • “How will we know when we’ve reached a decision point?”
      • Avoid: “When do we vote on this?” (unless participants previously decided voting as the method for reaching a decision).

Click here (link) for a half-page guide.

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