Collaboration is difficult, especially when the people involved have different interests, perspectives, and positions. A method called transformative facilitation can make it easier.
Today’s guest post is by Adam Kahane, author of Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
The most straightforward way to get something done is just to do it, or to get other people to do it in the way you think it should be done. You can do this by forcing people gently or harshly, making use of your authority, brilliance, money, or other inducements. This way of getting things done often works, and in many contexts, it’s the default.
In many other situations, however, using force doesn’t and cannot work because getting something done requires other people to come along, and they aren’t willing to. So, an alternative approach is collaborating: a group of people getting things done by working together, with every person freely contributing what they think should be done.
The problem? Collaboration isn’t straightforward. It’s usually difficult—especially when the people involved have different interests, perspectives, and positions.
I’ve spent the past 30 years facilitating collaboration among diverse groups of people within and across organizations, including among people who don’t agree with or like or trust one another, but who nevertheless are trying to get things done by acting together because they can’t do so by acting separately.
What I’ve learned from this experience is that such collaboration is possible and can be highly creative and productive, but it requires an unconventional approach.
Start by finding a facilitator
A facilitator is someone who helps a group work together to effect change. This role can be played by a leader, executive, manager, consultant, coach, organizer, mediator, stakeholder, or friend; you can play this role, or someone else or several people can.
The word group is both a singular and plural noun, and a facilitator’s task 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.
Some facilitators deal with this tension by focusing primarily on the first part of this task: helping the group as a whole address the problematic situation that has motivated their collaboration, often using an authoritative, top-down, “vertical” approach.
Other facilitators focus primarily on the second part: helping the individual members of the group address the diverse aspects of the situation that they find problematic. Top-down, vertical messaging gives way to openly shared ideas and opinions, a more “horizontal” approach.
These two approaches, the vertical and the horizontal, are the most common and conventional approaches to facilitation. Both have their proponents and methodologies. The upsides of vertical facilitation are coordination and cohesion, but the downsides are rigidity and domination. The upsides of horizontal facilitation are autonomy and variety, yet the downsides are fragmentation and gridlock. Both approaches can help a group collaborate to create change, but both also have limits and risks.
The solution? Choose both
The approach to facilitation that I’ve found to be most effective doesn’t choose between the vertical or the horizontal; it chooses both. This method, called transformative facilitation, produces progress by employing the vertical and the horizontal alternatively, the same way breathing doesn’t choose between inhaling and exhaling but doing both in succession.
More specifically, the facilitator explains, guides, and models five pairs of alternating moves:
- Advocating and inquiring. Often, both the participants and the facilitator start off a collaboration with the confident vertical perspective: “We have the right answer. Let’s get everyone in line.” Each person thinks, “If only the others would agree with me, then the group would be able to move forward together quickly and easily.”
But when the group takes this position too far or for too long and starts to get stuck in rigid certainty, the facilitator needs to help participants move toward horizontal plurality. When participants are pounding the table, certain that they have the right answer, the facilitator can encourage them to add “In my opinion” to the beginning of each sentence, and if that’s insufficient, to try “In my humble opinion.”
These playful modifications open the door to inquiry and discussion. Then, when the participants take this horizontal “We each have our own answer” too far and for too long and start to get stuck in cacophony and indecision, the facilitator helps them move toward the clarity and decisiveness of vertical unity.
- Concluding and advancing. Typically, both participants and the facilitator start with the vertical belief, “We need to agree.” Yet when a group gets stuck in this demand for a conclusion, the facilitator needs to help them keep moving. One of my most important learnings as a facilitator has been that, to move forward together, agreement isn’t required as often or on as many matters as most people think.
Then, when participants start to get stuck in the unfocused horizontal “We each just need to keep moving,” the facilitator needs to help people pause to work out what they can agree to focus on.
- Mapping and discovering. Many participants and facilitators start off a collaboration with an assured vertical perspective: “We know the way.” But when they start to get stubbornly stuck, the facilitator needs to help participants experiment, test their understandings, and discover new options.
Later, when the participants start to get stuck in the horizontal “We’ll each just find our way as we go,” the facilitator can help them map out a common way forward.
- Directing and accompanying. When participants and the facilitator start a collaboration thinking, “Our leaders will decide,” they may get stuck in ineffective, vertical bossiness. When this happens, the facilitator needs to help all participants take responsibility for their own actions.
Then, when the participants start to get stuck in the misaligned, horizontal “We each need to decide for ourselves,” the facilitator should help them align their actions.
- Standing outside a problematic situation and standing inside it. In most cases, participants and the facilitator start a collaboration chanting the vertical mantra, “We must fix this.” But when they take this position too far or for too long and get stuck in cold remoteness, the facilitator needs to help participants consider how they are part of the problem and therefore have the leverage to be part of the solution.
Later, when the participants start to get stuck in the self-centered and myopic horizontal “We must each put our own house in order,” the facilitator can help them stand outside the situation to get a clear, nonpartisan, and neutral perspective on what’s happening.
Through this process of alternating between the plural and singular, a group can make progress. They can collaborate to get things done in spite of—and also because of—their diversity and differences. This approach isn’t straightforward, but it works.
ADAM KAHANE is director of Reos Partners, an organization that helps people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues. He has worked in more than 50 countries with teams of leaders from business, government, and civil society, and his methods have been praised by Nobel Peace Prize–winners Nelson Mandela and Juan Manuel Santos. He is the author of five books, including his newest release, Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together. Learn more at adamkahane.com.
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