The Talking Cure, Part V (effective facilitation)

In my observation, the best audience-centered interpretive experiences are rooted in effective facilitation. But here’s the key—the facilitator is an instrument dedicated to creating a hospitable learning environment, not an ego looking to be fulfilled. The facilitator does not make the meaning and give it to an audience . The facilitator establishes the environment and the tools for artists and the audience to make the meaning together, and then gets out of the way. To paraphrase physicist and communication theorist David Bohm, the function of a good facilitator is to work herself out of a job.

In this post, the fifth and final installment of a steam I’ve been calling The Talking Cure, I want to focus on both the form and function of effective facilitation. As with the other posts in the stream, the material comes from my book, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era.



Related to facile (easily achieved) and facility (the quality of being easy to do), the word facilitation connotes the act of making easy or easier. A facilitator enables another (usually a group of others) to function more effectively by supporting all participants in their individual and collective quest to move forward on a particular task or topic. Importantly, however, the reference to ease should not be confused with a shallow process or subject matter. In effective facilitation protocols and practices, depth and difficulty are addressed and worked through; indeed, facilitation is often called for because of the particular difficulty of a given task or process.

And though the term facilitator is usually used to refer to a person, in fact, facilitation can be enabled by structures as well as by individual people. Quaker sharing worship sessions, for example, can be conducted without a designated leader because the traditional protocol (entering the room quietly, speaking only out of the silence, listening deeply, using questions as a means of exploration, speaking only once during any given session) is its own facilitation. Similarly, sports talk is conducted through a variety of social structures that automatically facilitate dialogue, such as water cooler exchanges in which each participant offers his observations of the previous day’s game and then listens to the other participants before heading back to work. Like Quakers, sports fans know the rules of sports discourse and tend to follow them as a function of class habitus—Pierre Bourdieu’s term for those aspects of culture that are anchored in the body or daily practices of individuals, groups, societies, and nations and that produce and reproduce the practices of an economic or social class. And, of course, much of our online dialogue is celebrated for its conspicuous lack of an official facilitator—the flow of the talk is often in fact predicated on a refusal to be mediated in a hierarchal manner but is nevertheless facilitated by the norms (habitus) of the participating social group.

Whatever form it takes, good facilitation is the lynchpin of productive talk. And whoever or whatever is responsible, good facilitation is grounded in framing and asking powerful questions that stimulate response but don’t tell people what they are supposed to be thinking and feeling. In any productive talk environment, the most important outcome is a collective appreciation of the meanings generated by the participants—the sense that the “truth” is located not in this opinion or that data point but rather in the quality of listening and observing.

Easier said than done.

Here are three key values and strategies for facilitating productive talk. They come from a larger set of ten values (and a much longer discussion) in Chapter 5 of my book. They are not offered as a to-do list, but rather as a way to begin thinking about the quality and ethos of a healthy arts talk environment.

Create a hospitable talk environment where everyone, including the facilitator, is interested in what other people have to say.

The facilitator establishes hospitality by beginning with an invitation to contribute and then following through with behaviors that reinforce that invitation. These include taking the time to conduct introductory gestures such as asking people their names, what brought them to the event, etc. Hospitality is more than a welcoming introduction, however. Being hospitable is an iteration of being kind; as such it involves establishing a culture of respect for all participants and for the potentially different styles of talk they bring to the session.

Listen authentically.

This is by far the most difficult aspect of good facilitation. It is demanding to be in the position of needing to think one step ahead of the room (in order to run the meeting) while still being focused enough to stop and listen, authentically and attentively, to what is being said. Good facilitators err on the side of listening, trusting that they can rely on the structure of the talk session as a means of maintaining forward momentum. It is important to note here that authentic, active listening does not mean agreeing with the speaker. What it means is that the facilitator is willing to suspend her internal dialogue (what I’m going to say next) in order to take in what the speaker is saying. When the facilitator models authentic listening, other participants follow suit. When the facilitator is not listening, the inverse is usually the outcome.

Welcome and celebrate indecision, struggle, and contradiction into the dialogue.

Effective facilitation is dependent on the ability to acknowledge that struggling with meaning is a central goal of the talk session. The facilitator’s job is to open up the space for participants to struggle out loud with their experience, including their basic understanding. Attendant to that goal is to open up the space for those ideas to be challenged by other participants. This is not always a comfortable position to be in, and the impulse for many novice facilitators is to provide answers for participants who are struggling to articulate (“I think what you mean to say is”) and to smooth over disagreements between participants. A useful approach to solving this dilemma comes from conflict resolution practices and the idea of “relational empathy,” which emphasizes a productive rather than a reproductive approach to understanding another’s point of view. In this modality, all participants learn to acknowledge the validity of individual positions (productive) without having to agree to take them on personally (reproductive).

This approach makes sense in the Arts Talk milieu, since it acknowledges that understanding is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon and since it accommodates the inherent multivalence that is the very definition of good art. In a productive talk environment, audience members are able to elaborate and build on each others’ contributions in ways that can be deeply gratifying. The facilitator guides this building process, keeping the focus on the art work under discussion while allowing related topics to be introduced.

What if our facilitation practices empowered each individual audience member to decide for her or himself what a given work of art means? Or if audience members themselves took over the facilitation of the meaning-making process inside our walls (or websites)? Would that change the definition of what makes our art valuable? And if it did, what would come of that?


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