When facilitation is insulting

Posted by  GeoffBrown —September 22, 2011
Filed in Facilitation

Last night I was a participant at a workshop. I turned up with 50+ members of our local community after a month of issues, poor leadership, lack of communication, rumor and misunderstanding – I’ll give no more away, but you get the picture.

A meeting was called by the institution concerned and the relevant state government department took the facilitation role. At the moment I entered the room, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck … this was to be facilitation at it’s very worst.

Being a participant, with a passion for the content, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling a sense of anger at what was about to unfold. “How could they get this so wrong?” I asked myself. Their process was familiar to most facilitators. 50 is a big group and the temptation is to split people up so everyone has their say. But the small group processes were not to blame, it was their complete disregard to the needs of the community. Their blind spots to these needs were clearly on show.

Process design is an art and their are some basic questions that must be answered, well before group facilitation processes are even considered. Questions of ‘Need’ and ‘Purpose’ are at the top of my list when designing an approach to a job. My mate, Chris Corrigan, introduced me to the Chaordic Stepping Stones a couple of years ago – the Chaordic Path is a set of questions nested one within the other. I wish the hosts of last nights’s gathering had considered questions like these during the design phase!

Questions of NEED – the last 2 questions on this list were critical for last night’s gathering

The need is the compelling reason for doing anything. Sensing the need is the first step to designing a meeting, organizational structure or change initiative that is relevant. The need is outside of our work: it is the thing that is served by the work you are doing.

 What time is it in the world now?
 What time is it for our initiative now?
 What are the challenges and opportunities we are facing?
 What do I really need to be able to understand and work on in the world?
 What is the need that this project/workshop can uniquely meet?
 What does the world (eg. Community) need this conference/gathering to be?

Source: Art of Hosting – Chaordic Stepping Stones

Had the hosts considered the last 2 questions on this list, they might have arrived at insights like:
– our community needs to hear directly from the leader, ask her questions and understand why decision were made
– we need to gain a shared understanding of the issues and differing perspectives that lead us to this point
– the key Need that needed to be met was to take the first small steps to regaining confidence in the leadership of [insert name of institution]

Had they arrived at (and understood) these insights, they would have chosen a different approach and asked different questions.

Instead we were subjected to ambiguous questions they did not relate to the needs or the intended purpose of the gathering. We were subjected to insulting statements and requests about the expected behavior of participants. The leader was banished to sidelines as an observer of the process for much of the night. The hosts and leader were very defensive all night – in both what they said and how they said it. The leader’s staff members were invited to attend and instructed not to participate in any way (this could be rumor … but I doubt it). They were unable to say clearly how the outputs from small group discussion would be used to address the issues and questions.

The memory of how this workshop felt is now seared into my body and brain. I am sure that participants have felt the same way during some of my facilitation efforts over the years – I reckon I could name each workshop. In each case, it was because the design process failed to ask (or fully understand) the questions of need – the needs served by the work being done.



  1. facipulation to give the APPEARANCE of openness and transparency. In two months time, when it all blows sky high, the institution in question can point to last night’s meeting and say “that would have been the appropriate time to raise concerns.” And call me a conspiracy freak, but I don’t think the absence of an open Q and A with the boss was a mistake or an oversight…

    Good luck!!

    1. GeoffBrown says:

      Thanks Mark! Good advice … from what I can see, everything has returned to BaU (Business as Usual) in the said institution. Geoff

  2. Viv McWaters says:

    Well said Geoff

    I suspect facilitators (and facilitation processes) are hijacked (either deliberately or unintentionally) when there’s an intersection between engagement and PR. When spin becomes the prime objective, the needs of the participants are lost in the process (literally). When facilitators are the hand puppets of PR, it’s classic facipulation, and everyone knows what that smells like.

    Cheers, Viv

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