Are there enough “beds” (meaning spaces for prisoners) in Adams County, Colorado?  The tough economic climate and resulting budget cutbacks have lead the Sheriff in Adams County to tell the nine cities and towns within the County’s borders that there is now a cap on the number of prisoners each of them will be able to house in the County jail at any one time.  Since the cap numbers are based on the populations of each city, some cities are facing the potential of releasing lawbreakers they would otherwise incarcerate.  One city, Federal Heights, only gets one bed (and its Police Chief says they need at least two).  This is distressing to all of the nine Police Chiefs in the County.

County officials say it is a matter of money and safety for them.  By law, the County is not required to house municipal prisoners, and it simply can no longer afford to safely house so many prisoners from the cities.  Besides, they have their own group of dangerous prisoners who require incarceration.  At first, it was only the Sheriff and the Police Chiefs facing off.  As the Sheriff has been turning away potential inmates, the County Commissioners have been drawn into the fray.  They express frustration with the situation, but what can they do?  My answer: They can at least suggest that the two sides stop pressuring each other in the press and sit down to try to collectively solve the problem.  To do that, they need a Group Facilitator.

As a Group Facilitator, I suggest the following to build a structure for resolution of this dispute:

  1. Call for the convening of a group of representatives of the affected local law enforcement entities and, where appropriate, local government administrators and municipal judges.
  2. The group to be convened should allow all of the affected entities to be fairly represented.  Since the disagreement has basically two sides, the table should be as balanced as possible.  Bringing all nine Police Chiefs to a table to pressure the Sheriff is not a recipe for productive negotiation.  I suggest a representative group from the cities should meet with a similarly-sized group from the Sheriff’s Office and the County Administrator’s office.  This would result in a group of perhaps a dozen.  A group this size can be managed by a Group Facilitator.
  3. Hire a Group Facilitator acceptable to all sides.  The cost of the Group Facilitator should be shared between the two sides.  Rather than trying to allocate fair shares among at least ten affected parties (the County and the ten cities), I would simply make it an even split between the County and the cities as a group.
  4. As the Group Facilitator, I would do a confidential interview with each participant (or at least the group representing each side) to allow me to develop understand the issues involved and then develop an agenda for the first meeting.
  5. Convene the first meeting, based on the agenda developed from the interviews.  The agenda could be modified by the parties at that first meeting.  As with all such facilitations, ground rules would be agreed to by the parties at the table.  Those ground rules would guide the deliberations of the group as it moved forward.
  6. The group should agree to meet for a maximum number of times to either resolve the dispute or decide they cannot resolve it, and other means must be used (probably back to the press, again or, even a less attractive option, the courts).
  7. If an agreement is reached, document it in the form of an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA).  The IGA should be publically endorsed by all parties to the dispute.  This acknowledges the work of the group, lets the public know that the problem has been resolved and takes pressure off of the various elected officials presently being impacted.

As a Group Facilitator, I think that this is a formula for success.  Continued charges and counter-charges in the press is a formula for failure.


How does GROUP FACILITATION let every voice be heard?

Within any group, whether a non-profit board, a management group in a business or a government task force, there are a range of personalities and communication styles.  If a group of people meeting to make a decision or discuss a problem are left to their own devices, a few of the strongest personalities will dominate the conversation and roll over most of the others en route to a decision.  With only a small minority of the voices heard (and often the same old ideas and ways of thinking), bad decisions or decisions lacking in innovation can be made.  Even with a Group Facilitator present, these same folks will try to run the show.  However, there are techniques I have learned doing Group Facilitation for more than 25 years to let the strong personalities still have their say, while making sure that everyone else can participate, too.

As the neutral in charge of the group process, it is important not to directly shut down the dominant personalities.  This typically results in a direct confrontation between those people and the Group Facilitator (something to be studiously avoided).  I always acknowledge them and their ideas, but make sure, from the beginning, that they know that others will also speak.  At the first group meeting, the group approves ground rules that mention equal air time for all, respect for others and avoiding interruptions.  The ground rules are then posted so that I can later remind the group of them when they are later ignored (and they always will be).  I always use a flip chart to publically record everyone’s contributions/ideas/issues.  Then, when a dominant personality tries to repeat the idea at the expense of others or tries to simply say it in another way, I can point to the flip chart and say: “I’ve got that, and we need to move on to someone else.”

In anticipation of the determination of dominant personalities, I tell the group at the very beginning that I will be doing my best to draw everyone out, even giving examples of what I will do.  Then, during later meetings I do things like the following:

  1. Tell someone who tries to hog the limelight that I appreciate his/her desire to contribute, but that we also need to hear from someone else.
  2. Continually scan the room, looking for someone who looks anxious to speak.  If I see that person, I will look directly at him/her and say:”Bob, you look like you are waiting to give us a contribution” and show him I am ready to record it.  (Even if Bob shows no signs of being ready to say something, I will often do this anyway, just to get him involved.)
  3. Do a brainstorming exercise in which I start at one side of the room (I like to use an open “U” arrangement of chairs and tables with the Group Facilitator at the open end) and ask each person in succession to give the group one idea, issue, solution, question, concern or whatever the discussion involves that day.  Each of their contributions is recorded on the flip chart, usually without a name associated with it, making sure that all ideas are seen as equally being generated by the group.  In this exercise, group members do not criticize each other’s inputs.  Not only is that typically reserved for a later time, but allowing such criticism usually results in the stronger personalities once again trying to dominate the less forceful members of the group (especially if the two parties disagree).
  4. Making sure that everyone knows that it is his/her choice to contribute or not – it is not my choice or the choice of the dominant personalities on the group.  I am not in charge of the outcome, but the group must look to me for the process.


These are just a few ideas of how for use Group Facilitation to help each person not only feel involved in the discussion, but be involved in it.  I know that many of you out there have more such tried and true techniques.  These usually work well for me.  However, we should always remember that individuals and groups are unpredictable, and something that works once may not work the next time.  That is part of the fun of this Group Facilitation business and one of the reasons it has stayed new and exciting for me over all these years.

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