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The Assessment Phase: Contract with Group

The first step in Figure 1 (below) is to approach a group with definition of your role as their facilitator—as a consultant to the team leader and the team, there to provide information to the team to enable people to make choices. This is sometimes referred to as “Entry.” Schwarz’s (1994) distinction between BASIC facilitation (short-term, to help members solve a substantive problem) and DEVELOPMENTAL facilitation (over a period of time, to help members solve a problem while learning to improve their group process) is useful here. Education is another entry task, often about team roles, meeting process, tools, and some introductory work on group process/relationships, e.g., warm-ups, openers, ground rules.

The Assessment Phase: Observation

Observation and attentive listening are the prime activities of the facilitator. Assessment has already begun, at the moment when the facilitator was enlisted. They should ask questions about the purpose of the group, for information on members, their history together, their roles and experience, and administrative details. Once in the meeting, sitting at the table, the first order of activity is looking, listening and sensing. Interpreting nonverbal behavior, and drawing on intuition are additional ways of acquiring data. The new facilitator can usually be helpful here by asking open questions (what and how), for more information or to clarify the process. They may also provide their own feedback (mirror, reflect, paraphrase) to the group about what they observe—at the very least, at meeting’s end. They may also be successful at taking notes (with the knowledge and permission of the group); part of this note-taking might include drawing a sociogram of interpersonal interaction (ELI, 2002, p. 64).

Further elicitation of information can occur through structured questionnaires. Or the facilitator may conduct a Process Check—a “time out” to ask the group how they feel about the team’s dynamics.

The Assessment Phase: Formulate a Working Hypothesis

Observation of group process is not the only area of assessment. The Structural aspects of the Meeting (Aim, Agenda, Membership, Roles, Time Management, Contract, Group Norms, Tools, and Evaluation process), the Task itself, and the Organizational Context (Effective Culture, Support from External Sources, General Climate, Information, and Training) are other areas requiring attention.

Facilitator observation feeds theories about whether the group process under study is within healthy limits—i.e., does it contribute to productivity and to good working relationships? Their interpretation of what they observe becomes a Working Hypothesis about behavior. Everyone carries around ideas about what constitutes healthy levels of a group behavior—simply ask them about their best and worst team experiences, and the attributes of each will surface.

The Assessment Phase: Test Hypothesis

The facilitator needs sufficient data over time to spot a pattern, and need not react to single events unless they meet “damage control” criteria (*see below). They may get more data by sharing their theory and observations, and then asking for feedback from the group. Or they may intervene based on a hunch, and get more data based on the reaction of the group. This is where Assessment and Intervention begin to overlap.

The Intervention Phase: Decide Whether and When to Intervene

The facilitator has choice about (a) whether to intervene, (b) when, (c) where, and (d) how. Some of the triggers for intervention are threats to safety and self-esteem (*damage control criteria), violation of an agreement, significant loss of productivity, need for information, and actual calls for help. Also bearing on the decision are: whether the facilitator has the skills, whether the team is ready for it, and whether the team is becoming overly dependent on the facilitator. Generally, a good practice for facilitators is to hold back until a trend is observed, and give the team an opportunity to self-correct.

The Intervention Phase: Choose Context for Intervention

The facilitator may intervene in-group or off-line; with individuals, a sub-group, or the entire group. A good practice here is to intervene with the whole group, describing observations in process language and not framed as bad people. This way the group learns and takes responsibility for it own decisions. The off-line or out-of-group intervention should be reserved for issues holding potential for embarrassment or issues that are not the concern of the group.

The Intervention Phase: Decide How to Intervene

The facilitator has choices about the type of intervention. A good rule of thumb is to intervene at the lowest level possible, to still be effective and yet be minimally intrusive. The early facilitator can be coached to frame interventions as questions, always putting it back on the group to decide whether to use the suggestions.

Structural Problems?

The types of intervention are further subdivided into Group Structure and Group Process interventions—both can vary along the Spectrum. “Structural” refers to the mechanical aspects of the meeting, such as task, agenda, tools, ground rules, and training. The cleanest intervention here is to ask: 1) What is the team trying to accomplish? and 2) What method or tool would be best used to accomplish (1)? The facilitator will find themselves mainly training and making procedural suggestions in this area. After making an intervention, comes the testing of its effectiveness—termed a PDSA or the Plan-Do-Study-Act or Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), called the Deming Cycle. The facilitator then returns to observation, to work down the flowchart again.

Failure of Communication?

Here the facilitator is urged to help the group complete its communication. To ensure listening, a helpful technique is to ask listeners to play back what the last speaker said, before making their own point. This is a format for feedback that can be cycled until all agree they have been heard.

Positional Differences?

Here the facilitator has already assured that complete communication has taken place, and still people disagree. These differences constitute a type of conflict that requires a more advanced form of intervention—Mediation. Mediation incorporates the completion of communication with Structured Discussion, where all parties go around and say What they believe and Why. The facilitator listens to the interests, rationale, data behind positions, and helps the group formulate an objective to optimize all parties’ interests. The group then brainstorms ways to meet that objective, selects a path of action, and forms an agreement. This Mediation process is described in more detail in Key (1996). Again the work is examined by PDSA thinking.

Interpersonal Differences?

These are the toughest problems for the early facilitator. Every tool of good communication comes into play, where the aim will be to end up with a Contract—an agreement about how people treat each other (ground rules), definition of what is off-limits, maybe a behavior change request—guided by the facilitator in form, but the content coming from the group.

Bringing the Work to Closure

After numerous loops through the flowchart in Figure 1, the new facilitator should gain confidence in their ability to be helpful. The best measure of this is to ask the group, “In what ways have I been helpful and how can I improve in my work with you?” This should occur at the end of a meeting and at the end of the group’s tenure.


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From Key, M. K. The systemization of facilitation. In Elaine Beich (Ed.) The 2005 Annual: Training, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005, 235-243.Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Figure 1.