Our clients and colleagues often ask us how to develop the skills necessary to work in complex social, political, and economic systems. The idea for the “Minimum Specifications for Doing Our Work” series arose out of thinking about the “hidden” skills we use: the daily practices that are integral to our work but are often invisible. This article describes the hidden practices involved in “contracting and re-contracting” with groups before and during a facilitation process.
As people begin to lead systemic, collaborative, and experimental processes, they commonly ask, “How should I deal with ‘difficult’ participants?” One way to work with challenging participants is to avoid creating them in the first place. This practice represents a “minimum specification” for facilitation work.
In my early years of designing and facilitating programs, I thought my role included controlling meetings. I took responsibility for whether groups started at the agreed-upon time, how people behaved in meetings, and whether or not we achieved the desired outcomes. This approach automatically set me up to be in opposition with many participants. I was taking responsibility for work that was not mine to do in the first place, inadvertently creating “difficult” (that is, frustrated) participants by stepping over people’s boundaries.
Something to contribute, something to receive
People agree to participate in systemic, collaborative, and experimental work because they have something they want to contribute and something they want to receive. In this context, facilitation is different from mediation, negotiation, and management. The word “facilitation” contains the Latin root facile, meaning easily. Facilitation is thus the art of making it easy for people to do what they want to do, including being able to move forward on issues with individuals they dislike or distrust.
As I grew as a facilitator, it became clear that it was not my job to make participants like or trust one another, or to ensure they worked well together. This is the participants’ job. In my role, I contribute by creating opportunities for them to connect with each other (if they choose to), by supporting them in getting clear on their own objectives, and then by inviting them to achieve these objectives together.
Contracting and re-contracting
The work of being transparent about my role as a facilitator is called “contracting and re-contracting.” Different from a formal written agreement for delivering work, I’m talking about the process of making visible our social agreements for what we are doing and the working norms we are co-creating with participants.
Here are some examples of contracting that we use at Reos Partners as we move through planning and delivery with participants:
To start, we try to talk with participants who will be attending meetings ahead of time, even if it’s only a 15-minute phone conversation, to learn about the person and why they are interested in being involved in the initiative. After hearing from meeting participants, we work to purposely fine-tune project objectives, taking their input into account.
At the beginning of meetings, we share the objectives. If the group doesn’t want to work with these objectives, we either edit them or clarify them so participants see the connections between the project goals and what they want to contribute and to receive. My job as the facilitator is to notice if the group is moving away from their stated objectives and to check if they want this change in course, or if they prefer to return to working on the agreed-upon objectives.
The non-visible work
The non-visible work that I do while contracting and re-contracting is to pay attention to my desire to influence the objectives. It’s okay for a facilitator to have an opinion about objectives. However, if I’ve contracted with the group to be a neutral third party, I first need to ask participants’ permission to share what I think about content issues. If the group doesn’t want my opinion, I stick to my process role.
Participants get angry or frustrated when I go back and forth between running the process and influencing the content without being transparent. If I’ve taken advantage of my social power as a facilitator to direct the content outcomes without asking permission to do so, I’ve overstepped my bounds. This boundary violation on my part creates difficult participants. People dislike both the obvious misuse of power and the tone it creates for the whole group, which is usually one of “winner takes all.” “Winner takes all” environments are ripe for behaviour we label as “difficult.”
The clearer I am with the group about staying in my role and using my power to fulfill that role, the more I create space for others to do the same, and the less people use “difficult” behaviour to contribute and to receive. So, instead of holding the question, “How can I deal with difficult participants?” I focus on “What are participants trying to contribute and to receive?” and thus, “What agenda design is needed for participants to achieve their objectives?” Since I started actively sticking to my role as neutral facilitator, and allowing participants to be responsible for their own objectives and behaviours, I find the number of “difficult” participants I meet has drastically reduced.