Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment: Effective Participatory and Interpersonal Communication Skills

This article addresses Competency C1 of the IAF Facilitator competencies.
C. Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment
1. Demonstrate effective participatory and interpersonal communication skills

  • Apply a variety of participatory processes
  • Demonstrate effective verbal communication skills
  • Develop rapport with participants
  • Practice active listening
  • Demonstrate ability to observe and provide feedback to participants

It’s one thing to know a variety of participatory processes. Here is a comprehensive list of processes for different purposes. IAF members can also access the IAF Methods Library, with more than 500 different facilitation methods and a handy meeting planner template to put them into.

But behind the choice of processes are underlying design principles for process flow for a group to move through to desired results. One simple yet elegant design principle is ORID – starting with sharing observations, then reactions and associations to those observations, then exploring meaning and options, then drawing the explorations together to decision. Another is the strategic thinking model of vision, obstacles, strategies and actions.

Adam Kahane brings a refreshing perspective for choosing participatory processes in his new book Facilitating Breakthrough, Berrett-Koehler, August 2021. Adam talks about “vertical” and “horizontal” approaches to facilitation. The core tension in the task of the facilitator is both to help the group as a whole, and all the members of the group.

As he talks about it, vertical facilitation focuses on the whole of the collaboration – one definition of the problem, and one solution. Horizontal facilitation focuses on the positions and interests of the individual members of the group, emphasizing equality and their separate decisions on what they will do. Each of these approaches has upsides and downsides, and is complementary for the best results.

Adam’s model for holding the tension and to remove obstacles from a group’s journey is to employ both approaches, swinging back and forth as the group needs to explore diverse approaches and pull them together into a solution.
“Cycling back and forth between the vertical and horizontal is like rocking back and forth a boulder that is blocking a stream, in order to dislodge it and enable the stream to run with greater coherence and flow.”

Extracts from Kahane, Adam, Facilitating Breakthrough, Berrett-Koehler, August 2021

  • A facilitator helps a group, and the tension starts right there. The word group is both a singular and plural noun, and the task of the facilitator is to help both the singular group as a whole and the plural members of the group. This is the core tension underlying all facilitation.
  • Vertical facilitation focuses on the singular whole of the collaboration: the one united team, the one definition of the problem. The one best solution, the one optimum plan, and, ultimately, the one superior leader who can decide what the group will do…
  • The strategy of vertical facilitation to help people move forward together is to push them to do so from the top down. It assumes that a situation will change only if the leaders make it change…
  • The upsides of vertical facilitation are coordination and cohesion. Vertical facilitation hammers out the agreements that the group needs so as to move forward together with unity. These are enormously valuable upsides. But overemphasizing vertical facilitation also produces downsides: rigidity and domination…
  • Horizontal facilitation focuses on the multiple parts of the collaboration: the positions and interests of the individual members of the group (who often don’t see themselves as a team), their different understandings of the problematic situation, multiple possible solutions and ways forward, and, ultimately, their separate decisions about what they will do. It assumes that in order to make progress on problematic situations, each participant needs to choose for themself what they will do—that no one can or must exercise superior expertise or authority. It is horizontal in that it rejects hierarchy as illegitimate and ineffective. It emphasizes equality.
  • The strategy of horizontal facilitation is to help people move forward together by encouraging them to push from the bottom up…
  • The positive contribution of horizontal facilitation is the encouragement of plural self-motivated actions to achieve a shared purpose. This approach encourages autonomy and variety: every participant being themselves fully and expressing themself freely. These are enormously valuable upsides. But overemphasizing horizontal facilitation also produces downsides: fragmentation and gridlock. Pushing autonomy and variety without leaving room for coordination and cohesion results in everyone doing their own thing and going their own way, feeling unable to work closely with others. These downsides diffuse and therefore constrain contribution, connection, and equity…
  • Most facilitators choose to employ either vertical facilitation or its polar opposite, horizontal facilitation. They argue that the approach they have chosen is more suitable and better than the other one. But when they make this choice, they inadvertently and inevitably constrain the potential of the collaborations they are facilitating, because neither of these conventional choices can create transformative change.
  • The vertical and horizontal approaches are, however, more than just opposite poles: they are complementary. This means that each of these approaches is incomplete without the other approach and that the downsides of each can be mitigated only through including the other.1 Facilitation can therefore only be transformative—can only break through the constraints of the vertical and horizontal— if the facilitator chooses to employ both approaches. This is the more powerful, unconventional choice.
  • Cycling back and forth between the vertical and horizontal is like rocking back and forth a boulder that is blocking a stream, in order to dislodge it and enable the stream to run with greater coherence and flow.

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