Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Following the previous three posts on inclusion, deliberation, and power, the next two posts discuss the critical role of facilitation in ensuring successful deliberative processes and events. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
Facilitating Democratic Conversations, Part 1
What forms of self-governance will enhance our efforts to create resilient local communities? Underlying this Democracy Rising series of posts is the useful distinction between the “thin” democracy of simply voting for people who will represent us, and a more robust form of democracy that involves more widespread, active participation in arriving at shared agreements on issues that affect us all.
It may be easier to imagine more active forms of participation at smaller and more local levels. I feel strongly that learning how to “do democracy” at a micro level is an essential foundation for developing strong and effective democratic systems more broadly. At the same time, experience has shown that, not only do strong participatory forms of democracy work locally, they can also be deployed to inform and shape policy at larger scales. Deliberative democracy is one way in which small groups of people, selected to be microcosms of the larger whole, can have profound effects on the larger system. (Future posts will explore some case studies.)
Numerous examples have shown that in a well-facilitated context—a key caveat—a diverse cross-slice of the public can arrive at intelligent proposals. Sometimes this has included significant changes that politicians and public administrators would be hesitant to come up with on their own, fearing that they would not have the support of the larger public. In this situation, the role of government officials can become one of implementing policies that have been developed through considered public input, rather than solely determining those policies.
In witnessing these forums in action, local officials have been impressed by the capacity of ordinary people to explore complex issues in great depth. This is very different from their previous experience of “the public,” which has too often been limited to angry (albeit well-meaning) advocates. For their part, community members who participate in these experiences begin to appreciate the complexity of the issues that government representatives are dealing with. They also develop a greater sense of their own capacities for understanding and addressing these challenges in a meaningful way.
Participatory Policy-making: Pipe Dream or Practical Possibility?
Despite the many successful instances of democratic innovation, the possibilities inherent in participatory policy-making may be hard to imagine, especially given the limited experiences that most of us have had with well-functioning groups. School board meetings, local committees, workplaces, neighborhood organizations, activist groups—too often, these have been places where we experience the more defensive/aggressive side of human nature, which understandably creates cynicism and burn-out. While they all have the potential to be contexts where we can be learning and practicing the skills of strong democracy, too often they fall far short of this.
The existence of dysfunctional meeting patterns is not surprising, especially given the competitive nature of our present economic and cultural systems, but neither is it inevitable. Maybe you too have occasionally experienced a human gathering, whether small or large, where people leave feeling well-heard, satisfied with having been able to make meaningful contributions, and more energized and alive with the sense of possibility that comes from thinking together about shared challenges and coming up with new and creative ways forward.
What makes this possible? In my experience, it’s usually a combination of facilitative leadership and good process design. These two elements are not just key to successful experiments with democratic innovations, they are also highly relevant to the broader work of building resilient communities. As Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute writes,
“What a community of people collectively values is open to interpretation and subject to disagreement. This suggests that people—and the ways they come to rough consensus—are necessarily at the center of community resilience building.”
The hard work of arriving at that “rough consensus” can be made much easier with good process design and skillful facilitation.
In addition to being essential for deliberative democracy experiments, facilitation skills and mindsets are also involved in mediation, conflict de-escalation, and effective organizing work, including organizing non-violent direct action. Thus, wide-spread literacy in group facilitation skills and mindsets can help us create strong and effective democracies at micro levels: homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and community organizations.
The Shadow Side of Group Facilitation
I learned right at the start of my journey as a facilitator that there are good reasons why facilitation is sometimes viewed with suspicion. In 2000 I reluctantly attended my first workshop in group facilitation, invited by a persuasive friend. All I knew about group facilitation at that point were the jokes people made about “herding cats” or getting people to “color inside the lines,” and I was then (and remain to this day) completely disinterested in both.
Two things stood out from that first eye-opening workshop. The first was that my friend was right: good facilitation can help people unleash their individual creativity in ways that allow them to work effectively together. The second was what we learned about facilitation ethics. We were cautioned about the harm done by hungry consultants with families to feed who accept corporate gigs where the outcome has already been decided ahead of time. In addition to destroying morale in the workplace (people are smart, and this kind of deceptive façade has a very short half-life), it also harms the profession by giving rise to the cynical term “fascipulation.”
Especially in the realm of public engagement and democratic innovations, this kind of harm can be created not just by pressure toward a single predetermined outcome, but more commonly by the constraints of a predetermined set of outcomes that limit participants’ conversation and thus pre-emptively narrow the possible choices to be considered. Benjamin Barber, eloquent proponent of “strong democracy,” wrote about the need for agenda setting as a key democratic conversation, as those who control the agenda control the outcomes. Another way of controlling the conversation is to control the “framing” of the issue at hand; that is, the perspective from which the issue is being presented and “framed” for exploration. Thus, welcoming multiple perspectives begins before participants even arrive, in the design of the process itself.
In facilitation, as in any skilled practice, one way to prevent abuse is to create strong codes of professional ethics. Another way to prevent the abuse of expertise can be to share information more widely in order to equalize knowledge. Given how important group facilitation and process design can be for increasing the collaborative capacity in our communities, it makes sense to engage in widespread education and skill development about both process design and group facilitation. .
What Facilitators Do
The deliberative democracy movement generally acknowledges the need for facilitation. Yet frequently very little is said about it beyond the recommendation to hire professional facilitators to support effective deliberation in a group. In some books written by deliberation theorists, group facilitation is described in an extremely minimalistic manner that suggests that all that a facilitator does is ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak and follows the ground rules. In contrast, materials written by professional facilitators tend to offer a more in-depth perspective. For example, in The Handbook for Public Participation, the facilitator’s role is defined as creating “a climate of mutual respect and psychological safety that makes it possible for people to consider creative new solutions and move from preconceived positions”.
For a more detailed example of what is involved in achieving this, consider the following description from the foreword to Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making:
I see group facilitation as a whole constellation of ingredients: a deep belief in the wisdom and creativity of people; a search for synergy and overlapping goals; the ability to listen openly and actively; a working knowledge of group dynamics; a deep belief in the inherent power of groups and teams; a respect for individuals and their points of view; patience and a high tolerance for ambiguity to let a decision evolve and gel; strong interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills; an understanding of thinking processes; and a flexible versus a lock-step approach to resolving issues and making decisions.
It’s this more expansive understanding of the role of facilitation that we will be exploring in the next post. While the work of “creating a climate of mutual respect and psychological safety” is important for any kind of meeting, it is especially important for deliberative events where people from very different backgrounds and with very different perspectives are working together, usually for the first time—and often on very contentious issues. With a combination of skilled facilitation and good process design, it’s much more likely that a group of people will be able to “consider creative new solutions and move from preconceived positions.” When facilitative leadership is not in place, people can fall into competing for attention, power, and control, often acting in subtly aggressive and defensive ways. Instead, when there is a clear process in place that ensures that each person is heard, and the meeting is hosted in such a manner that communicates and engenders a climate of respect for the human dignity of each person, a different kind of shared experience becomes possible.
 Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 117-138.
 Rosa Zubizarreta, “Participatory Policy Microcosms: Diversity and Empathy as Generators of Creative Wholeness,” The Spanda Journal, 2015, I:2, pp. 9-17.
 One powerful example of this was the Irish Convention on the Constitution, initially formed in 2012. Its nine recommendations included one on marriage equality that was later put to a public referendum in 2015, and passed. (From https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/previous-assemblies/convention-on-the-constitution/). Since then, Ireland has continued its deliberative experiments with ongoing Citizens’ Assemblies, its most recent one on gender equality (https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/).
 See, for example, pp. 84 – 87 in Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman’s chapter, “Thirty-five years of Working on Public Judgment at Public Agenda,” in Toward Wiser Public Judgment (2010) , edited by Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman. See also pp. 45 – 51 in Keith Melville, Taylor L. Willingham, and John R. Dedrick’s chapter, “National Issues Forums: A Network of Communities Promoting Public Deliberation,” in The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century (2002), edited by John Gastil and Peter Levine.
 A caveat: while group facilitation may be “essential and necessary” for democratic innovations, that does not imply that it is “sufficient” for real systems change. For change to happen, organized civil disobedience can often play a crucial and synergistic role. For a small-scale example in the U.S., see https://thelisteningarts.org/2011/10/29/the-listening-arts-and-social-change/. For a much larger-scale example from Taiwan, see Liz Barry’s article “vTaiwan: Public Participation Methods on the Cyberpunk Frontier of Democracy.”
 Barber, pp. 180-182.
 Gwendolyn Blue and Jacquie Dale, “Framing and power in public deliberation with climate change: Critical reflections on the role of deliberative practitioners,” Journal of Public Deliberation, 12(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.242
 J. L. Creighton, The Public Participation Handbook: Making better decisions through citizen involvement (Jossey-Bass, 2004) p. 169.
 Michael Doyle, in the foreword to Sam Kaner et al.’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Gabriola Island, New Society Publishers, 1996), p. vii.
 Donna Hicks, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 81-15; also by the same author, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. 163-174.
Teaser photo credit: By Shimer College – https://www.flickr.com/photos/shimercollege/5226768187/in/set-72157625515664048, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37797924