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The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.

 

 

 

 


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We Can Do Better: Community Plan to End Youth Violence

Public hearings are great but they’re just the beginning of solving a problem.  Last week’s ‘speak out’ on youth violence (2/28/12 at MPS Central Office) gave people voice.  That’s terrific but the benefit of that exercise lasts about 30 seconds.  In contrast, a professionally facilitated discussion would have led to a community plan.

Let’s look at this in plainer terms.  School administrators and board members left last week’s meeting with a massive list of complaints and ideas, all of which combined to land them squarely in hedgerow country.  This means that they’re going to be wandering around in the maze while the violence continues and more people get hurt.  They’re going to be in hedgerow country because a list doesn’t lead to a plan.

Discussion leads to a plan. A group that large convened to talk about an issue that important could have generated the foundation of a communitywide plan if the discussion had been professionally facilitated.  A facilitated discussion would welcome and honor everyone’s point of view and then help the group organize their ideas into a plan of action.

A key element of a facilitated discussion is that people talk to each other.  They don’t just testify, they discuss, connect, find common ground, build common cause, and become empowered.  After a facilitated discussion, participants leave feeling connected to a solution that they helped craft.  This is a lot different than spending 2 minutes speaking truth to power as we like to say and then going home to watch SVU reruns. 

This community is ready to be genuinely engaged in a citywide discussion about youth violence.  Think Frontier Airlines Center — that’s how big the discussion should be.  Think a dozen trained faciliators supporting discussions on key elements of youth violence.  Think multiple big screens with PowerPoints created by the discussion groups on the spot.  Think about critiqueing and debating and revising and producing. 

This community — this strange, diverse, struggling, wonderful community – doesn’t need another damn list about youth violence.  WE NEED A COMMUNITY PLAN.

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The International Association for Public Participation has members who facilitate broad community discussions all over the world.  Read more here.  http://www.iap2.org/

See the JSOnline article “Community brainstorms helping at-risk youth” at http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/community-brainstorms-on-helping-atrisk-youths-6o4c8ue-140819333.html


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