Democracy Rising 10: Facilitating Democratic Conversations, Part 2

February 14, 2022

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. This is the second of two posts on 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 2

 Learning Group Facilitation

In the previous post, I explored how and why good group facilitation is essential to most forms of deliberative democracy, as well as to effectively arriving at a rough consensus or broad agreement in a variety of practical contexts. Group facilitation can be seen as a foundational skillset that many more people need to learn; a sort of “new literacy” for the 21st century, especially if we want to create resilient communities.

I also acknowledged that there is potential for abuse in any leadership role, including that of group facilitator. Thus, it is understandable that some people have become mistrustful of facilitation, having experienced its misuse. Possibly as a reaction to that, the role of the facilitator is sometimes minimized or trivialized. However, to understand the power of good facilitation and use it for positive ends, it helps to realize that it involves much more than simply making sure each person has a chance to speak. At the same time, group facilitation entails learnable mindsets and skillsets, and we can all benefit from these becoming much more widespread.

So, how do we go about doing this? Like any practical art, group facilitation is best learned through hands-on experience; workshops that offer an opportunity for practicing the role of facilitator, and for reflecting on that practice, can be quite helpful. It can also be helpful to experience good group facilitation, even in the role of participant; this can allow us to observe other facilitators in action and give us a taste of what is possible.

These kinds of experiences can be quite powerful. At the beginning of my own learning journey, I  attended a group facilitation workshop where I witnessed how challenging social issues can be addressed by a group in powerful and creative ways, when someone in the role of “designated listener” is making sure that each participant’s contribution is welcomed and heard.[1] This inspired me to seek out further opportunities for practice and learning.

I then began to explore a variety of different approaches to group facilitation, different methods and schools which offer a variety of structures and formats. By doing so, I discovered that this diversity and richness is a wonderful thing! Different tools are useful for different contexts, which vary depending on the nature of the group as well as its purpose in meeting. At the same time, there are also underlying parallels and similarities between various approaches, especially at the level of facilitator attitude or stance; more on this in the Praxis section below. The next post in this series will give an overview of some of these tools and approaches and offer links to some related resources and organizations.

Books on Facilitation

In addition to workshops and training programs, there are many excellent books on group facilitation. One of my favorites is Martha Lasley’s profound and comprehensive Facilitating with Heart: Awakening Personal Transformation and Social Change.[2] (It’s almost an encyclopedia of facilitation, yet much more readable than most encyclopedias!) For more advanced learners, another highly informative resource is Christine Hogan’s two-volume set Understanding Facilitation: Theory and Principles and Practical Facilitation: A Toolkit of Techniques[3]. And for the truly adventurous, there is Suzanne Ghais’ Extreme Facilitation: Guiding Groups through Controversy and Complexity.[4]

Another valuable learning resource consists of powerful, detailed case studies offering real-life narratives of facilitators in action. Two exemplars in this genre are John Forester’s Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes and Planning in the Face of Conflict: The Surprising Possibilities of Facilitative Leadership,[5] both of which offer vivid tastes of what great facilitation can look like. The examples in these two books may be of particular interest, since they deal with public issues. In multi-stakeholder facilitation, people who have specific interests in the issue at hand come together around the table to arrive at a rough consensus. This is a bit different than sortition-based councils and assemblies, where people are chosen by lot to come up with a general policy recommendation from the perspective of the common good. At the same time, there is a great deal of applicable cross-over between these two contexts.

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There is also an “inner game” of group facilitation, because working with human beings is never only—or even primarily—about methods and techniques. Instead, the facilitator’s own inner state of development—his or her capacity to be authentic, to communicate with real empathy, and to treat all participants with dignity and respect, while also acknowledging the challenges and limitations they may be experiencing—plays a huge role in the ability to be effective. Professional facilitators, much like professional counselors, consultants, and therapists, tend to engage in an on-going process of personal growth and development.

While participating in one-on-one work or group work is often the best means for this, there is also value in solo activities such as self-reflective reading and journaling. One excellent book that speaks to the inner work involved in group facilitation is The 9 Disciplines of a Facilitator: Leading Groups by Transforming Yourself, by Jon C. Jenkins and Maureen R. Jenkins.[6] Another wonderful resource from the closely related field of mediation is Inside Out: How Conflict Professionals Can Use Self-Reflection to Help their Clients, by Gary J. Friedman.[7]

Praxis: Action and Reflection

However many books we may read or workshops we may attend, getting hands-on facilitation practice in real-world settings—and then reflecting afterwards on our experiences—is a key aspect of learning to facilitate groups. One very good place to start is by hosting small intentional gatherings among people you know (these can be done on Zoom as well.)  Living Room Conversations is a non-profit dedicated to helping people connect across various kinds of divides; they offer a number of resources for you to develop your skills and talents as a host in this work.

Another way to obtain valuable experience is to offer your services pro-bono as an apprentice facilitator to a local non-profit, community group, or social change group. Alternatively, you could volunteer with a consulting organization that provides facilitation services to such groups.  For learning purposes, it can be very helpful to do this with a learning buddy, someone with whom you can reflect on the experience afterward, rather than facilitating a group on your own. Alternatively, you may want to partner with someone from the group you will be facilitating, as they can bring a useful insider’s perspective to the process.

A wonderful tool that can assist learning in various ways is the Group Works card deck (you can download a DIY kit for free). These cards, created by the Group Pattern Language Project, include many different underlying patterns that are common to various facilitation approaches. The cards can be used to think about and plan for an upcoming meeting, to debrief after a recently completed one, or simply to catalyze a meaningful learning conversation with other facilitators. There is also an online learning community that has developed around sharing learning experiences with the card deck.

Some online communities of practice, where facilitators can share their experiences and learn from others, are organized around particular methodologies. For example, there is an online email list for practitioners who use Open Space Technology with groups and another email list for practitioners of Art of Hosting. Other communities in practice are broader in scope, such as the email lists of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation or the discussion forums maintained by the International Association of Facilitators. The latter also offers a rigorous program for those who wish to pursue professional accreditation.

The Limits of Group Facilitation

As wonderful as good facilitation can be, I would be remiss if I were to end without mentioning its limitations. If a working group has reached a decision together after much effort, and afterward one of its high-ranking members chooses to go in a completely different direction without even informing the group, participants will feel seriously betrayed. Similarly, if a participatory process has been initiated, and afterward participants end up feeling that all of their joint recommendations have been ignored or dismissed and all of their good work has been for naught, it is understandable that this will create a strong sense of disillusionment and even bitterness.

In both cases, the outcomes of what happened “in the room” can be nullified or even turned into a negative by what happens afterward. From these kinds of painful experiences, facilitators often learn that their responsibility is not just what happens in the room, but also assessing the initial context as well as possible. Facilitators also need to be coaches and educators, investing time beforehand to help the sponsors and convenors understand the negative long-term consequences of focusing only on short-term gains. The significant question is not just whether a group will be able to reach an authentic agreement but also what will happen afterward with the results of that agreement.

When people begin developing their skills as a facilitator in a professional context, their interest usually grows to encompass process design as well as facilitation. After all, what happens in the room is not just dependent on the skill of the facilitators, but also on the design of the meeting itself. This is not limited to “what’s on the menu” with regard to the proposed agenda, but involves much bigger questions:  What is the larger context? Why is this meeting being called, and by whom? What do they hope to accomplish? How realistic are the goals, in relationship to the time being invested? Who has been invited to the table, and why? Only when we take the time to think about those bigger questions, can we have an informed sense of what process might be most helpful to use.

Sometimes facilitators are asked to facilitate a meeting as a “pair of hands” called in to simply “make the group happy,” but this is a very risky proposition. In the previous post, I wrote about the ethical dangers of “fascipulation”—if an agreement has already been made and the real purpose of the gathering is to look good by having participants feel as if they have participated in reaching a decision.  This is clearly not an ethical use of facilitation skills. Instead, facilitators and process designers can play a much more useful role if they can also help project sponsors to be clear about the larger purpose of a project, as well as about their own commitment to following through on the outcomes of the group process. Especially when it comes to participatory democracy, meeting sponsors need to understand that their own future response to those outcomes will have a strong impact on whether the work of a facilitated process turns out to be a net gain or a net loss, destroying community trust and morale rather than rebuilding it. This, too, needs to be part of our general cultural literacy with regard to group facilitation, if we want to succeed at creating resilient communities.

In Closing

Groups have the potential of being psychologically safe spaces, where each participant feels welcome, heard, respected, and honored. This kind of environment makes it much easier for people to access the higher-order thinking skills that are needed for good thinking and learning to happen—for participants to deal with complex issues, hear contrasting perspectives, learn and grow in the process of doing so, and arrive together at shared outcomes.[8]

The role of skilled facilitators is to help create a conducive climate for productive group work. Thus, those of us who want to ensure resilient communities, need to spread awareness of the value of this essential work. Whether we ourselves want to develop these skills, or support others to do so, to ensure a resilient future we need to grow more community members with effective group facilitation skills and mindsets.


[1] For more on this particular approach to working with groups and its underlying assumptions, see my article, “On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives.”

[2] Martha Lasley, Facilitating with Heart: Awakening Personal Transformation and Social Change (Discover Press, 2010).

[3] Christine Hogan, Understanding Facilitation: Theory and Principles (London: Kogan Page, 2002);

Christine Hogan, Practical Facilitation: A Toolkit of Techniques (London: Kogan Page, 2003)

[4] Suzanne Ghais, Extreme Facilitation: Guiding Groups through Controversy and Complexity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

[5] John Forester, Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); John Forester, Planning in the Face of Conflict: The Surprising Possibilities of Facilitative Leadership (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2013).

[6] Jon C. Jenkins and Maureen R. Jenkins, The 9 Disciplines of a Facilitator: Leading Groups by Transforming Yourself (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2006).

[7] Gary J. Friedman, Inside Out: How Conflict Professionals Can Use Self-Reflection to Help their Clients (American  Bar Association, 2014).

[8] There has been a tremendous growth in the neuroscience  research on the conditions that support human beings in accessing what Stephen Porges terms our “social engagement system”;  conversely, there is also much research that sheds light on how low-level social anxiety can drive us into internal fight, flight, or freeze states.  One good place to start is with the chapter by Dr. David Rock’s “SCARF: A brain -based model for collaborating with and influencing others,” in Rock and Ringlebs’ Handbook of NeuroLeadership (Neuroleadership Institute, 2013).

Much more could be written about this, but here is one Linked-in article on applying neuroscience models to the design of group learning: Leanne Hughes, “Creating rewarding workshop experiences: How to apply the SCARF model into your facilitation work” (Linked-in, December 2018).


Teaser photo credit: ESEAP_Conference_meeting. Source Own work. Author JarrahTree.  Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

Rosa Zubizarreta

Rosa Zubizarreta is a consultant, author, and Ph.D. candidate at Fielding Graduate University. She is the author of From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A Manual for Dynamic Facilitation, and leads workshops internationally on helping groups work on complex issues. Rosa collaborated with Tom Atlee on The Tao of Democracy, which fueled her interest in democratic innovations. In addition to academic and professional work in organization development, her background includes a Master’s degree in multicultural education, work with constructivist approaches to social-emotional learning, and a Master of Social Work and clinical experience in community mental health. As an activist, she has worked on indigenous rights and environmental issues.

Tags: building resilient commuities, deliberative democracy, facilitation