IAF Competency D2:
Facilitate Group Self-Awareness About its Task: Making Sense of Underlying Issues

Recently, a facilitator asked me how to help a group that was stuck in trying to brainstorm actions to move their organization forward. As we talked, I realized that there were two major things that were preventing them from brainstorming actions. One was that they had no idea of what they concretely wanted to accomplish, and therefore had no direction for their actions. Beyond that, they had not seen what was preventing them from articulating what they wanted to accomplish. They had no idea of how to get unstuck.

Most groups do not understand the thinking processes that help them solve problems. Roger Schwartz, in his classic book “The Skilled Facilitator”, emphasizes that part of the role of the facilitator is to help the group understand its task and processes, so that it can gain capacity in these skills and be able to work better on its own. This may sound like we are working our way out of a job, but what it does is create trust and free us to work with more clients and more challenging (and interesting) situations.

For anyone to move forward strategically, they need to spend some time first on envisioning where they want to go, then looking at what is (and has been) preventing them from getting to that vision. It’s important that the look at what prevents them goes beyond brainstorming issues, and looks for the underlying issues that are beyond good and bad or blame, but which are sustaining those issues. Stopping with easy blame or judgement about someone else’s behaviour only intensifies helplessness and inaction.

There are great techniques that help a group do this – the Consensus Workshop Method is a great one to discern underlying contradictions – and other processes can help the group do this, too. The graphic of a dandelion where the leaves are the obvious, surface-level issues, and the deep taproot is the underlying issue that feeds and sustains them, illustrates this thinking for a group.

Sometimes just listing the surface issues as a brainstorm on a flipchart or virtual whiteboard, then intuitively naming the different underlying issues that sustain them is enough to catalyze a thinking process that digs deep. Naming the underlying issues with a format like “Block, How it blocks, What it blocks” takes the thinking deeper. For example: “Waiting for approval prevents initiating action”, or “Fear of failure stymies initiative”. Or as one activist group I worked with discovered: “Our cherished value of fighting the oppressor has been turned inward and is tearing us apart”.

A group that sees through to how it participates in sustaining the underlying issues is able to break through to real, useful, and positive strategy to move forward. It is rewarding to see the “aha!” and rise in positive energy as a group makes these changes in mindset from despair to hope.

A skilled facilitator not only uses these processes, but lets the group know what the process is, and why it works. In this way, the group has the ability use the thinking process in everyday planning processes, and trusts the facilitator to help them through more complex situations.

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