Dynamic Facilitation for Group Transformation

by Tree Bressen

“I don’t know about this, Tom,” i said. “I mean, it looks kind of interesting, but i’ve already had a bunch of facilitation training, and i’m really busy these days. I’m helping organize a conference for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, i have a book index due to the publisher soon, and i’m just not sure i’m ready to take a whole week away.”

I was talking with Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute, who was patiently trying to coax me into joining a bunch of Eugene activists heading up to Port Townsend, Washington for a Dynamic Facilitation training with Jim Rough.

“It’s up to you, of course, but i’d really like it if you came, Tree. I want someone who’s more experienced with consensus to check this out, tell me what you think. I’ve been going to meetings of various groups for years and this is really different from the usual process; i’m very excited about it.”

Back and forth we went, with me trying to get clear on just what it was that was so different about this process, and weighing it against my other commitments, while Tom offered gentle encouragement. With a group of us going together, the costs would be much lower than usual, plus it would be an opportunity to get to know the other people attending. Most importantly, working with groups is a primary passion in my life. So after several conversations, i finally agreed to go.


If i’d known then what i know now, i’d never have had any doubts. Jim’s approach to group facilitation is engaging, down to earth, and above all, FUN. If all meetings were as vibrant as these, you wouldn’t have any trouble getting people to come. Instead of groans when it was time for the meeting to start, participants would be excited and optimistic. By the end of the week our Eugene group was so jazzed that we started planning “problem jams,” times to get together back home and practice Dynamic Facilitation on whatever problems we were facing.

Like other effective forms of facilitation, the underlying basis of Jim’s approach is hearing people well. There is an emphasis on reflective listening that will be a familiar skill to those who have practiced Cocounseling or Compassionate Communication. As a facilitator you are creating a safe space where all points of view are welcomed. Rather than feeling threatened when a different point of view is expressed, or when conflict arises, the response to disagreement in this type of process is “Oh good!”

The basis for that response is a belief in and knowledge of the amazing creativity of humyn beings. Creativity is the other centerpiece of Jim’s approach to facilitation. Would you believe my small group of six people came up with over 150 uses for slug slime? The creativity in Dynamic Facilitation, also known as Choice-Creating, goes way beyond traditional brainstorming. This is enabled by being engaged as whole humyn beings, instead of just rational thought generators.

When a group feels stuck, emotions such as anger, fear and sadness are usually part of it. Standard business agendas rarely address these underlying emotions. Instead, everyone tiptoes around hoping they can get through the meeting without setting off the “problem person” or bringing up the old unresolved conflict between two long-time members. Dynamic Facilitation addresses this head-on, by focusing on whatever people have energy to talk about. In this process there are no pre-set agendas; rather, the facilitator follows the energy flow of the group. As one person’s expressions set off someone else, the focus soon switches to whoever is now bubbling over with energy. The pace is generally quick and upbeat, with occasional moments of slow-down to make sure someone’s heartfelt contribution is clearly heard and honored.

If someone expresses anger or fear, that’s fine, it takes real vulnerability to expose oneself to a group like that. The facilitator responds by asking follow-up questions to get to the heart of where the person is at. For example, a common question is, “If you were czar, what would you do about that?” This deals directly with the belief many of us have (but usually try to hide) that we are right and if only everyone else would do what we say they would all be better off. By inviting each person to “purge” their thoughts and feelings, a space is opened up for the natural creativity that all humyns have access to. In order to maintain safety for the rest of the participants, the facilitator directs the energy toward herself or himself, immediately stopping any interpersonal attacks practically before they start. The net effect is one of synergy instead of polarization.

In addition to vocal reflection back to the participants, Jim’s Dynamic Facilitation method makes much use of written reflections. As each person shares their ideas and feelings, the facilitator writes them on blank flip charts at the front of the room in four categories: Problems, Solutions, Data, and Concerns. All four charts are in use simultaneously, with the facilitator sorting each person’s statements onto the appropriate charts. (If the facilitator can’t write fast enough to keep up with everyone’s input, Jim says it’s okay to use an assistant to record “head-based” input, but that it’s important for the facilitator to personally record input that has an emotional component.)

Problems are typically action statements, such as: “What system can we have that will get all the necessary work done around here but that everyone will like?” “How can we accomplish world peace?” “How do we decide which summer residents can stay on this winter, when there are more applicants than rooms available?” “How can we create the most loving, supportive community possible?” Note that Problems can be as general or as specific as you like. The Problems that interest Jim most are the ones people think are impossible to solve.

While common problem-solving strategies avoid jumping into solutions until everyone agrees that the problem is clearly defined, the Dynamic Facilitation approach says to go where the energy is. “Usually as soon as a problem statement is out there, people’s minds naturally jump to solutions,” says Jim. “Instead of trying to shut that down, go ahead and get those solutions out there. There won’t be space for creativity until people express what they’re already holding onto.”

So the Solutions chart typically lists dozens of potential solutions, and the Problems they are answering keep shifting. This process is anything but orderly and systematic. Instead, it’s a lively mix of different kinds of expressions, reflecting the abundant diversity present in groups.

The Data chart is for a wide range of information, anything from personal knowledge to statistical expertise. There’s no expectation of verifying most of the data, unless the accuracy of a particular piece turns out to be important later.

The Concerns chart will be familiar to users of C.T. Butler’s “Formal Consensus” system. However, in Dynamic Facilitation there is no distinction between general or philosophical concerns versus specific or implementation concerns. Nor is each potential Solution compared against the Concerns. In fact, most of the items on the four flip charts don’t even get looked at later!

Instead of layering an agreement piece by piece, what this method targets is the “Aha!” experience of sudden insight, the collective sigh of excitement that runs through the room when someone says something that strikes a chord. It’s this breakthrough experience that is the ultimate goal of Dynamic Facilitation, and it’s as likely to come from a new Problem statement which re-frames the issue in a whole different way as it is from a suggested Solution. These breakthrough moments are noted by the facilitator, who collects them for summary at the end of the session, reflecting the new common ground back to the group.

There’s a rhythm to be discovered between the divergence of a long list of flip chart items and the convergence of a moment of agreement; a facilitator who is skilled in the Choice-Creating method will be able to help a group find a balance that yields transformation. The method is best applied to big problems requiring major breakthroughs, problems that call for the intense creativity it generates. A skilled facilitator will also pay attention to ensuring that the quieter, less assertive members of a group aren’t left behind in the noisy chaos. I think it will take some experimentation to find out how Dynamic Facilitation meshes with traditional consensus and other decision-making approaches, but it’s clear to me that there’s an important piece here, something that really gets the energy of a group un-stuck and moving again. The training was not only instructive but also wonderfully liberating, and i laughed more in that one week than in the whole month before.

In closing, here’s an analogy. While the popular conception of scientific progress is one of steady, measured research, the reality of science history is “a story of chance, creative misunderstanding, wrong turnings, sudden opportunities taken, succumbing to sponsorship and the inspired ingenuity of individual men and women” (Lisa Jardine). Yet no one would deny the importance of also systematically testing hypotheses. It seems to me that the key is in learning which situations are appropriate for which approaches, and that communities are strongest when they have a bevy of possible methods available. Dynamic Facilitation is one such method, and as such it is a solid contribution to group process.


SCRIBING: large public writing that everyone can see, usually on flip charts or a blackboard/whiteboard.
RECORDING (also known as MINUTE-TAKING or NOTE-TAKING): writing for the record.

The method as outlined here uses a lot of paper on flip charts! One way to save paper would be to scribe the 4 charts on a blackboard or white dry erase board instead, with someone nearby copying them down using a notebook or computer. By the time the facilitator reaches the bottom of a column, the recorder will have copied down the items at the top, so the facilitator can erase the top half of the column and start over again for that category. This preserves the advantage of people seeing their words reflected back to them and captures the scribings for possible later use, while saving bunches of paper.

The English language is one of the few (maybe the only?) in the world that uses a capital letter to refer to oneself but not to others in pronoun form. Not coincidentally, many people worldwide believe that the United States is home to the most individualistic, egocentric and destructive culture on the planet, out of thousands. As someone who is passionate about communication and the connection between language and culture, i choose to treat myself as a part of the sentence, no greater or lesser than any other part, to be capitalized at the beginning and not in the middle.

The Dynamic Facilitation/Choice-Creating method, due to its intuitive and energetic nature, is not easily learned from a written description. For more information on the training, contact: Jim Rough, 1040 Taylor St., Port Townsend, WA 98368; 360-385-7118; jim@ToBe.net.; www.ToBe.net.

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