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Dynamic Facilitation for Group Transformation


by Tree Bressen


This great article about Jim Rough's remarkable group process was written by a student of Jim's who is majorly involved with consensus process and the intentional communities movement .  It is the best material currently available in writing on the process behind the Wisdom Council that I have promoted in so many articles.  You can also read my own brief writeup on dynamic facilitation. - Tom

 Style note:  The author, Tree Bressen, uses a lower case "i" to refer to herself because, as she says in a postcript, "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.... 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."  Tree also uses a feminist version of the word human -- "humyn".  While I don't follow these practices myself, I understand and respect the consciousness from which they arose, and I invite you to do the same, so that you, too, can benefit from Tree's deep insight into the best of what we can be. 

"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

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
Co-counseling 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

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

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. 

Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is a networking organization for
people across North America interested in cooperative living.  Publisher of
the Communities Directory and Communities magazine, FIC aims to provide
skills and support for anyone seeking more community in their lives.  FIC,
RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545;  Excellent web
site resource at

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;;

Tree Bressen is a consensus facilitator and teacher (and book indexer)
living at the Du-má Community household in Eugene, Oregon.  Former outreach
manager at Acorn Community (1994-99) and delegate to the Federation of
Egalitarian Communities, she currently serves on the board of FIC.  Tree
Bressen, 2244 Alder St., Eugene, OR 97405; 541-343-5023;