Intergroup bridge building is a delicate task that calls for high quality facilitation. A skilled facilitator is vital to these efforts and key to shaping participants’ overall experience. One of the most common challenges for groups attempting intergroup dialogue or political education is the quest for finding (or training) qualified, experienced facilitators to successfully carry out this programming.

Among their duties, facilitators must create a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere that is conducive for participant sharing. They foster trust among participants and maintain an open and nonjudgmental atmosphere in which all participants’ experiences are valued and validated throughout the session, using inclusive and thoughtful language. Facilitators work to make sure that all voices are heard, drawing out those who are quiet and containing those who are more verbose. Should emotionally charged moments occur during a session, facilitators carefully navigate these challenging moments, keeping the group on task and responding to remarks in a constructive, neutral manner.

The most effective facilitators tend to be well-versed in the topic at hand and familiar with the dynamics of the groups that are engaging in the dialogue or program. When appropriate, facilitators’ knowledge can also be an additional resource for supplementing materials, handouts, or activities. That said, there is a distinct difference between knowing the material and being able to teach the material. Just because someone is well-versed in a subject does not mean that he or she is necessarily prepared to meaningfully facilitate it.

As a whole, though, facilitators should refrain from interjecting their own views into the conversation and instead focus on remaining fully present with the conversation that they are nurturing. Recognizing that facilitators may be fighting the urge to share their own experiences, one of the models we studied structured their program with this in mind:

Annie Tobias and Arianna Robinson of Be Present, Inc. described how their organization makes a distinction between facilitators and trainers. Facilitators practice the model regularly and utilize those skills and their understanding of the model within the dialogue circle. Facilitators are in a position to recognize when the discussion has struck a personal chord with them, and to know that, at that moment, this personal connection is making it difficult to hear and be fully present with the others in the circle. They are encouraged to stop, slow down, and have their own moment. In contrast, trainers are engaged in facilitating the circle but at no time do past personal experiences inhibit their ability to be present in the room. Even if they’re still working through their own experience, they are able to hear the other person and maintain focus.

Facilitators need to be self-aware of their own “blind spots” and “hang-ups” and not let those interfere with the task at hand. This often involves extensive self-examination and personal reflection prior to commencing facilitation.

Cricket White, National Director of Training and Program Development for Initiatives of Change, reflected on the importance of facilitators “doing their own work,” meaning that they are aware of their own beliefs and biases and cognizant of how those can color perceptions.  She stated that facilitators who are aware of their own blind spots can turn this into an advantage when facilitating because open recognition of these hang-ups can bring a great sense of authenticity to the conversation.

Facilitators with the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan receive guidance before beginning their facilitation tenure that helps to surface and confront their own prejudices and blind spots.  The program supports facilitators extensively before, during, and after their facilitation experience, including weekly meetings that provide them an opportunity to work own their own internal conflicts or concerns outside of the dialogue sessions.

Many groups recommend a dual-facilitator arrangement in which each member of the pair represents a different identity group. With this structure, the facilitators can support one another, intervene on behalf of the other as necessary, and better reflect the diversity that is present in the room.

Several participants stressed the importance of leadership development that primes new facilitators and helps to build the organization’s facilitation capacity. For example, the Los Angeles Black Worker Center’s leadership development process, participants are exposed to what it means to facilitate a meeting and what it is like to walk through that experience. This activity is part of their core curriculum.

Finally, participants were split on the challenges and benefits associated with bringing in pre-trained facilitators as opposed to training people already connected with one’s organization or institution. Professional/pre-trained facilitators can be advantageous because they are comfortable, experienced, and adept at handling a wide-range of needs and scenarios. Conversely, others assert that pre-trained facilitators can be a disadvantage because they are likely to be unfamiliar with the local context and not in-tune with the needs of the local community. In extreme cases, this disconnect can compromise the success of the program or initiative. Moreover, for groups whose missions include the building of local capacities for leadership, strengthening staff and members’ facilitation skills are a vital piece of their work.

Materials to assist with facilitation

Fostering Dialogue Across Divides (.pdf), a publication of Public Conversations Project, provides extensive guidance on dialogue preparation and facilitation.  This document is also available in Spanish.

Produced by Everyday Democracy, A Guide for Training Public Dialogue Facilitators is a thorough publication that delves deeply into all aspects of dialogue facilitation.

Facilitating Conversations on Race: The Fundamentals (.pdf) contains workshop materials from the Interaction Institute for Social Change.  This document teaches skills and techniques that are important for racial justice facilitators to master.

Community Dialogue Guide: Conducting a Discussion on Race (.pdf) is a 2003 publication from the U.S. Department of Justice/Community Relations Commission.  It covers the organization of community dialogues and contains advice for good facilitation practices.

The Art of Facilitating (.doc) is a brief document from the New Organizing Institute that addresses the attributes of an effective facilitator.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University offers tipsheets related to handling moments that are challenging to facilitate.  These include Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Examples of Hot Moments, and Tips for Dealing with Hot Moments.

Organizations that provide facilitation training and support

Interaction Institute for Social Change offers several facilitation workshops, including one devoted specifically to teaching facilitation for social justice work.

Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations offers several programs and trainings, as well as technical assistance to organizations and communities.

Public Conversations Project offers facilitation workshops such as Facilitating with Purpose and Poise – Even When Things Get Hot and The Power of Dialogue: Constructive Conversations on Divisive Issues, among others.

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