By Isobel Lingenfelter
The situation assessment is often promoted in the facilitation and conflict resolution world, and yet it can be tempting to skip this process altogether and jump straight into collaborative work. Whether because of perceived urgency surrounding an issue, or the workload involved in conducting a situation assessment, this step can feel cumbersome. Funders and stakeholders may also not see the value in taking time in the early stages for a situation assessment, making it important for facilitators to be able to articulate the benefits of undertaking one. Here’s what I’ve discovered in my work when I take the time to conduct a situation assessment.
Each conversation I have with a stakeholder informs me of the readiness of a collaborative effort and checks the temperature so to speak before convening all parties involved into a meeting. These conversations establish a baseline of what the group is ready for and where they would like to go. One can also find out if a group of stakeholders is not in a good place for collaboration. Thrusting such a group into a collaboration head-on could lead to unproductive conflict, which can jeopardize the possibility for future coordination for years to come. After speaking to stakeholders when I take on a project, I’m able to determine if there is a lot of energy and readiness for convening a group around wildlife connectivity. In addition, I become aware of points of hesitancy and where past relationships between different stakeholder groups need extra attention and time for building trust.
It’s surprising how far a twenty to sixty-minute conversation can take you in understanding someone, especially when meeting him or her for the first time. Conducting a situation assessment has given me a foundation of understanding for group dynamics that I’m able to build on and that informs my facilitation as time goes on. When I come prepared with questions and the readiness to listen intently, I get a brief but deep snapshot of a stakeholder’s interests, concerns, and personality. I’ve found that the magic of these early conversations really starts to shine through months down the road in the midst of meetings where the collaboration work takes place.
As I listen to each stakeholder speak in a meeting, I’m able to pick up on the “music,” or underlying concerns and interests, behind their words readily. For example, I heard one stakeholder make a short, passing comment that spoke to a concern they had mentioned in our interview. If I hadn’t had that earlier conversation, I would have totally missed the comment and its implications. I knew the comment spoke to a more serious concern for the stakeholder who was now worried of the unfolding in the group dynamics. Because of this, I gave them a call and arranged for them to speak at our next meeting, addressing their concern effectively. When a stakeholder feels heard, they’re much more likely to stay at the table over the long term. The baseline information gained from the situation assessment is imperative for knowing when a facilitator’s relationship with a stakeholder needs individual attention and what kind of attention—warranting a phone call over an email, for example.
A situation assessment can also make you aware of the scope of stakeholders and interested parties that could (or should) be at the table. Getting every group with an interest in an issue to the table can grow the list of participants from a manageable, productive size to an unwieldy size quickly. Also, some stakeholder groups will be less eager to come to the table. As a facilitator, you become aware of the landscape of interested parties, who is showing up, which individual or organization has representation in conversations, and who does not. This allows the facilitator to ask a group to take a pause before a big decision and consider the perspectives of those who aren’t in the room. The group can then reach out to stakeholders who aren’t at the table but will be critical to the success of an action the group considers undertaking. This helps ease my mind as a facilitator, knowing that it is not my job to make everyone show up, but it is my job to help the group remember those parties that aren’t represented and consult with them on critical decisions. I know I’m better able to fulfill that function because I conducted a situation assessment.
As I’ve facilitated meetings via Zoom this last year, I get a better feel for the room each time, but my sensitivity to the group dynamics and individual personalities was already honed in from the start because I didn’t skip out on the situation assessment in the beginning. If you’re considering facilitating a collaborative process, take the time upfront to talk one on one with representatives from the stakeholder groups. It will save everyone time down the road, help you facilitate more effectively, and thus enable the group to work together more effectively. As the saying goes, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
Isobel works as the Utah Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Connectivity Coordinator. In this role, Isobel convenes and facilitates a wildlife connectivity working group comprised of representatives from organizations and state agencies, and partners with the Board to help build a foundation for the Utah Wildlife Federation to achieve long-term organizational success.
Isobel graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelor’s in Urban Ecology in 2016 while working for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native American land conservation group. She graduated with her Masters in City & Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and has continued to work for wild and cultural landscapes. Isobel focuses on how to promote the economic, social, and ecological health of places held dear; believing one cannot thrive without the other.