GROUP FACILITATION – Reality Checking and “Tough Love” to Help Participants Find Their Way

Several years ago I assisted a fellow conflict resolution professional in facilitating a two-day retreat of federal government safety officers and their mid-level and upper-level managers.  They had come to Denver from all around the western United States.  Their goal was to exchange ideas among the entire group (management and field staff) about resolving:

  1.  historical communication issues (mistrust and animosity between field staff and management, too much paperwork – not enough resources, ignoring field input, etc.)
  2. structural issues (empowerment of field staff, clarification of roles/responsibilities)
  3. decision-making (bottom up or top down, collaboration) and
  4. other long-standing issues resulting in ill will among everyone present.

A two-day, timed agenda was created (including brainstorming, small group dialogue, making consensual decisions and then developing an implementation plan).  There seemed to be plenty of time on this well-planned agenda to accomplish the goals of the group.  This turned out not to be the case.

During the first day, the attendees spent their time airing old grievances and venting long stifled hostilities.  This tension between the safety officers and their managers was evidenced by either tepid participation in the scheduled teambuilding and communication activities, or active sabotage of them.  The parties continually brought up old grievances or slights (perceived or real) and made it clear that they thought that certain segments of management were incompetent or ineffectual.  No real progress happened that day – in fact, the relationship between staff and management seemed to be regressing.

My co-facilitator was an employee of the same federal agency as the participants and was somewhat reluctant to intervene in any overt way.  During our debrief of the first day’s events, I suggested that, as a true outside party, I be allowed to begin the second day with a reality checking session.  He agreed.

I started the second day by asking the managers to retire to another room while I caucused with the staff.  I explained that, although this was not standard procedure in such a group facilitation, I had good reasons for my request.  They complied.  When I was alone with the staff (and my co-facilitator), I asked them if they felt much progress had been made the preceding day.  They mostly stated that they did not.  We agreed that there had been much hostility on display that day.  I then stated the following: “Today, you are being given the opportunity by your agency to shape your own future.  Your ideas about how the agency will change for the better and proceed productively into the future can be heard and implemented.  You had that same opportunity yesterday, and did little to take advantage of it.  You will not have that opportunity tomorrow, and there is no certainty that you will ever have it again during your time with this agency.  So, it is now your choice: Will you continue to pass up this opportunity to have a better workplace, or will you seize it and take your future into your own hands?  As your facilitators, we can’t do this for you – we can only help.”

There was a brief discussion, and everyone agreed that my comments were correct.  The managers were called back to the room, and the work of the second day proceeded.  The tension in the room was still there, but the staff and management were able to work together to devise a plan for the future on which they could all agree.  As a facilitator, I can’t judge the quality of the decisions made, but I can (and, in this case, did) try to shape the quality of the process.  Sometimes a bit of “tough love” is the only way to help folks find their way in the world of Group Facilitation.

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GROUP FACILITATION – A Neighborhood Discussion on a Proposed Medical Marijuana Dispensary

In 2010, I was hired to facilitate a required neighborhood meeting about a proposed medical marijuana dispensary in a Colorado county.  The proposed business was to be located in a mixed-use residential and business area.  At that time, proprietors of such dispensaries were referred to as “caregivers”, and those purchasing marijuana were “patients”.  Marijuana was to be sold only with a doctor’s prescription.

After I opened the meeting by describing the procedure for it as mandated by the county, the applicant for the rezoning for the marijuana dispensary gave a proposal overview, including a handout giving the highlights of it.  This initial presentation took about 15 minutes.  A question and answer period of about 90 minutes followed.  I moderated this discussion and took notes (recording the neighbors’ questions and the applicant’s answers on a flip chart).  One or two supporters of the proposal had come at the behest of the applicant.  The others present were neighbors who were opposed to (or very concerned about) the operation of a medical marijuana dispensary in their neighborhood.

The whole concept of “caregivers” and “patients” was questioned extensively.  The owner of a nearby recreational facility patronized by children and young adults was very concerned that the proposed facility, if approved, could put him out of business.  Even though the stated intent was to sell only to “patients”, and the marijuana sold was to be grown on-site, there was still a general concern that product might be sold to others, including youngsters.  A typical concern relating to controversial land use proposals was raised by many in attendance – a decrease in property values.  Another strong concern among the attendees was the perceived potential for an increased crime rate.  It was also noted that, although medical marijuana had been legalized in Colorado, the sale and use of marijuana was still illegal under federal law.  In general, those in attendance were not convinced that a facility like the one proposed was adequately regulated under state law or local ordinances.  All of these concerns were more intense because, within the preceding year, a hotly-opposed strip club had been approved by the County.  It was within a block of the proposed dispensary and was already open and doing business.

In this environment, a public meeting can get out of hand, and the purpose (information exchange) can be lost.  It was my job, as facilitator, to make sure that this didn’t happen.  I was the guardian of the “safe space” for rational discussion.  This discussion, while heated at times, never got out of control.
I preserved the “safe space” by

  • Setting up clear expectations for the purpose and conduct of the meeting
  • Giving each attendee a copy of a timed agenda (and sticking to it)
  • Treating each person (including the applicant and the neighbors) with respect
  • Making sure everyone who had a question got his/her turn
  • Using the flip chart to clearly capture everyone’s questions and concerns (everyone knew that my record was to be transcribed by me and submitted to the county by the applicant)
  • Reminding everyone, by my continuing speech and actions, that the process of the meeting was in my control

I don’t know if the applicant’s proposal was approved by the county.  That was irrelevant to what I had been hired to do.   I do know that I ensured that the applicant and the neighbors had every opportunity to discuss all of the ramifications of a medical marijuana dispensary in the neighborhood.

By |9:13 pm|Group Facilitation Denver|Comments Off on GROUP FACILITATION – A Neighborhood Discussion on a Proposed Medical Marijuana Dispensary