Facilitation… or Something More?


Jul 06, 2015 | EDR Blog

By Patrick Field

So what is different about facilitation by seasoned environmental conflict resolution (ECR) practitioners? After all, there are countless individuals, small organizations, and staff within large environmental, architecture, and engineering firms who claim they can run meetings. Isn’t facilitation just managing time, summarizing on flip charts, and tracking action items?

Clearly, most facilitators or meeting managers provide a basic set of useful functions in large groups (roughly greater than 10). Facilitators of all backgrounds and training help organize agendas, open meetings, suggest and enforce ground rules, call on participants, summarize statements of participants from time to time, keep track of time, and prepare meeting summaries. At most meetings, workshops, or events, these actions are quite useful. Facilitators often serve as both “chairs” of meetings, effectively running them, and as staff, doing the work needed on behalf of the group.

But we ECR practitioners do much more than this. We are not solely meeting managers. ECR professional facilitators offer four additional benefits to stakeholders that stand out and make our work much more than “just facilitation.” ECR facilitators:

  • Actively manage the process;
  • Engage deeply in the substance;
  • Conduct policy research, analysis, and synthesis; and
  • Strengthen facilitative leadership and organizational capacity.

First, ECR practitioners actively manage the process. Most ECR cases involve numerous stakeholders, complex issues, public involvement, and tight deadlines and budgets. We are not successful if we just run a series of “good” meetings. We are only successful if we help organize and manage an overall process that leads to the intended and expected outcomes desired by stakeholders. We engage participants in extensive pre-planning to develop not only meeting agendas, but also complex work plans and schedules. We use web-based polling to advance issues and ideas between meetings. We chart milestones and work with the parties to keep the process and parties on track and on schedule. We strategize frequently with convenors and stakeholders to adjust the process as needed, and to efficiently allocate scarce resources to complete the job.

Second, ECR practitioners are knowledgeable about and interested in the substantive issues before our clients. We seek to understand the technical, legal, and policy context of our cases. We are as enthusiastic about the substance of our work as we are about the process expertise we bring to bear. We see it as our job to be fluent in the substantive discussions at hand, and not merely to “tag” along for a “good process.” We seek to engage in and understand the substantive issues at stake while maintaining neutrality towards particular outcomes. Our stakeholders expect we can aid actively in discourse around a wide range of issues: water quality and quantity, air quality, climate change, endangered species, federal land management, and other issues. Our value comes not only from our process expertise, but also from our substantive knowledge in the areas where we typically work.

Third, ECR practitioners conduct policy research, analysis, and synthesis. In many of the cases we assist, the parties have reached an impasse, not only in terms of conflicting interests, but also in terms of ideas and options to move the conversation forward. We listen carefully to participants in individual conversations and joint dialogue, thinking about how issues are framed, how approaches or ideas might fit within a policy framework or structure, and how interests might be met by substantive alternatives. We help parties generate, hone, and consider substantive options for resolution. We may conduct policy research for stakeholders. We may gather and synthesize technical materials. We may organize and manage peer reviews of complex scientific or technical studies through joint fact finding. We may help find and integrate technical advisors and analysis into the process. In short, we see it as our job not only to manage an effective meeting, but also to help stakeholders organize and advance their thinking with viable, supportable technical information and policy approaches.

Finally, where appropriate, ECR practitioners can coach groups to strengthen their capacities of facilitative leadership. We ECR practitioners are not just committed to sustaining their own work, but in helping businesses, agencies, and organizations grow their own capacity for collaboration. We provide coaching to participants during the process to help them become more effective joint problem solvers. We also often help organizations, not just individuals, build capacity for collaboration and mutual gains negotiation. Through training, assessment, and coaching, we seek to help organizations embed collaboration in their structures and culture.

In short, we are skilled meeting managers, substantively knowledgeable, conduct policy analysis and synthesis, coach leaders and building more collaborative organizations, while managing multi-stakeholder, complex processes.

That’s a mouthful, and it’s often easier to say we “facilitate” or “mediate” than to spell out the larger value that we bring. But in fact, we ECR practitioners pride ourselves on doing much more.

staff_pfieldPatrick Field is Managing Director of the Consensus Building Institute, a non-for-profit collaborative services organization with practitioners in Cambridge, MA, New York, NY, Washington D.C., San Francisco, CA, and Santiago, Chile. Mr. Field is also Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He has been practicing for 20 years in numerous cases, large and small, and is author of Dealing with an Angry Public, Land in Conflict, and numerous articles and reports.