Reflections on Helping a Group Get to the Point

By David Fairman

Sometimes the facilitator’s most important contribution is helping a group cut to the chase. Groups can stall out in confusion for different reasons. Participants may be having a hard time articulating the core issues on which they disagree; they could be having circular conversations about an issue they can’t clearly define; or they may be repeating each other’s main points without realizing that they have in fact come to a shared understanding. In these situations, a facilitator can crystalize what’s at stake and offer a perspective that may help the stakeholders move forward. 

Done well, these interventions often trigger nods and “thumbs up” from participants, release tension, and lead the group to a productive next step. Done badly or prematurely, they may undercut the group’s effort to work through the issue, add to the confusion, and raise questions about the facilitator’s ability to support the group. 

My CBI colleagues and I have talked about what it takes for a facilitator to help a group grasp the heart of the matter. There’s not one right way, but there are some important prerequisites, and some ways of intervening at those moments that work better than others. Here are three key skills that provide the basis for offering clarity: 

  • Knowing the substance very well: You can’t synthesize what you don’t understand.
  • Listening with full, open attention: You have to be empathetically attuned to the group’s voices, words, and concerns; your own views are only a distraction.
  • Maintaining acute sensitivity to the flow of the group’s conversation: Most of the time, it’s better to let the group grapple with the issues and limit your role to managing the flow of conversation, checking to make sure comments are on track, and asking occasional questions of clarification. There are only a few moments when it’s both possible and necessary to offer a synthesis or distillation that will move a group forward while still letting them keep their ownership of the conversation and the substantive issues.

All three of these can be learned and practiced. Immersion in the substance is the easiest: what’s needed are a good analytic mind, genuine curiosity, and a willingness to go deep to make sure you understand. Depth of direct experience is not necessary, although it certainly helps. 

Listening with full, open attention is a skill only learned through practice. Complementary practices like meditation, building emotional intelligence, and being aware of one’s own views and biases are very helpful. 

Most challenging, perhaps, is staying so attuned to the conversation’s flow that you know with high confidence what the issues are, when an intervention is needed, and when the stakeholders in the group will be able to hear it and use it.

I began to learn this skill set by apprenticing with a master: Larry Susskind, CBI’s founder and one of the founders of the field of public consensus building in the U.S. Larry’s ability to crystalize was and is uncanny. Some people considered it a kind of parlor trick, because it seemed so effortless. On the contrary, this core facilitation skill takes exposure, practice, and honing. For me, meditation practice and a disposition toward listening have also been helpful. 

Offering a synthesis of core issues at the right time, in the right way, has been the hardest part and has taken many years of practice to develop. Intention is at the heart of what’s needed: the facilitator’s intent is only to give the group another perspective to consider, one that they are completely free to drop by the wayside if not useful. Seeing the issues with more clarity than members of the group who are caught up in the heat of the moment can be a double-edged sword. In my early years as a facilitator, I would often get excited about “seeing the answer” and jump in to offer an insight or synthesis that the stakeholders would acknowledge as “right.” Then I would watch them go right back to the stuck place where they’d been before I offered my pearls of wisdom. 

My role, I’ve since realized, is first and foremost to support stakeholders in their struggle, to make it a safe enough space for them to be frank about their hopes and fears, connect as people, and roll up their sleeves and work on the problem in a reasonably well-structured way. Only occasionally do they need me to help bring clarity to key issues or to provide a synthesis that gets them past a roadblock. And even when they do need it, I’m less sure than I once was about the perfection of my own insight, and much more interested to see the group chew on it, take it in part or not at all, and keep going. 

In short, the facilitator’s ability to provide moments of clarity can be crucial, but it should be used strategically, and always with humility.