This is a companion piece to How to Have a Courageous Conversation in a Small Group or Sunday School Class.
Taking the time to plan for a Courageous Conversation displays intentionality and demonstrates the significance of the discussion. The use of a trained facilitator goes a long way in setting the proper atmosphere where participants are empowered and dialogue is sustained. By their presence and demeanor, skilled facilitators are able to focus and elevate conversations. The use of a group covenant and a skilled facilitator sets the stage for a rich conversation. In such a setting, participants are empowered to voice their opinions. As a result, participants in the discussion often build empathy, new conversation skills, and deeper understanding.
Facilitators know their role. Building on the Latin root of the word “facilitator,” which means to make easy, Ron Kraybill and Evelyn Wright define facilitator as one who “helps to make the group’s work easier and more effective by serving as a content-neutral guide to the process.”1
A good facilitator is like a gardener. Gardeners water carefully, but take care not to water too much. A good facilitator guides the conversation, while blending into the background to empower the participants. Gardeners strip out the weeds and allow the nutrients of the soil to feed the plants. Facilitators make sure the conversation stays on course and doesn’t get lost in the weeds. Gardeners know that for real growth to occur, they need to be aware of what happens below the surface. Good facilitators know how to ease tensions when they rise to the surface as well as push participants to dig deeper when they give only surface-level responses.
Facilitators are aware that preparation is key. They anticipate questions, areas of potential misunderstandings, and/or potential points of conflict. By anticipating questions and areas of confusion, the facilitator can prepare and provide additional resources related to the questions. By anticipating points of conflict, the facilitator will be better equipped to moderate the discussion and prevent tensions from escalating to unhealthy levels.
Depending on the setting of your group, preparing a “roadmap” or plan for the conversation may be helpful. This does NOT mean preparing a rigid script for the discussion. For example, you may wish to examine some Old Testament Scriptures related to your topic and then ensure that New Testament Scriptures also receive adequate time and consideration. You may wish to plan for large-group and small-group time as well as time for individual reflection. This might mean using conversation techniques and strategies to aid in listening and dialogue. (The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics provides a number of models.) For challenging topics, draw on such resources as the “Social Principles” in The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions. In short, have a plan for how the conversation should progress and the use of appropriate resources without pointing the group to a specific conclusion.
Having done the work of preparation, the facilitator’s main tasks within the group are to moderate dialogue, keep track of time, and ensure the covenant is being followed. The facilitator does not have to bear sole responsibility for any of these tasks. The group should take ownership as well. By delegating the timekeeper role to someone else, the facilitator can focus more on the conversation and give a participant shared ownership for the success of the group. Notably, the facilitator is not responsible for being the “expert” in the room. Sometimes a facilitator has to redirect or refocus the group on the primary issue if a participant (or group) starts pursuing a tangential line of thinking. Restating the original question or most recent relevant thought can be a useful technique for doing this.
As moderator, the facilitator might point out that someone is using “you” language, remind the group of the covenant, and ask that person to refrain from claiming someone else’s voice or generalizing the beliefs of another group. A good facilitator will also ensure that everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so, and that the group is not being dominated by a few voices. A “talking stick” is sometimes helpful to facilitate conversations. This “stick” is passed with only the person in possession being able to speak. The three-minute hourglass timer is also a handy device that identifies whose turn it is to speak and keeps the speaker mindful of the time.
Good facilitators use follow-up questions to deepen the conversation. A facilitator might ask himself or herself, “What is the question behind this question?” or “What is the assumption behind this statement?” Another tip is to listen for emotion from group members. The facilitator might say, “You seem to be getting angry. Why do you think that is?” Sometimes a facilitator might need to ask a participant to rephrase a question or statement with a different tone of voice. When an expected or superficial answer is given, the facilitator might say, “Good! What else?” or “I like that thought. Please say more about that.” Follow-up questions can challenge participants and the group as a whole to reflect deeper.
Facilitators should not be afraid of silence. Silence may mean participants are processing recent comments and formulating fresh and deeper responses. Silence might mean the introverts in the group are working up the courage to speak. Silence can sometimes be an indicator that a breakthrough moment is about to occur.
It is sometimes necessary for the facilitator to be the “contrarian” if the conversation seems to be getting one-sided. This might mean the facilitator speaks up from the “other” side or presents a different perspective that is not represented to deepen and enrich the conversation. Little learning and growth occur in one-sided conversations. If the contrarian role becomes operative, the facilitator should make this explicit to the group.
One of the most difficult functions the facilitator has to navigate is assisting the group in differentiating between opinion and fact. “Facts” can be interpreted in various and yet valid ways. Discerning facts is getting trickier in the Age of Information. Additionally, interpreting the Bible is often a more difficult endeavor than we realize. The reality of a multiplicity of denominations is testimony to this fact. Sometimes the facilitator will need to slow down the conversation, help the group locate new sources of information, or even point beyond the facts to the feelings that are below the surface.
Hopefully, this document has shown the need for good, trained facilitators to make difficult conversations run smoother. Even with the best trained facilitators, conversations can still get out of hand. Participants may even resort to name calling or storming out of a room. As James points out regarding the human condition, “Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!” (James 3:10, CEB).2 An environment that makes conversations easier is a gift, and facilitators go a long way in preparing that setting.
1 The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics: Group Tools to Facilitate Meeting When Things Are Hot Ron Kraybill & Evelyn Wright (Good Books, 2007), 7.
Rev. Chris Barbieri, Deacon in the North Georgia Conference. Currently appointed as the Interim Pastor of St. Andrews UMC in Carrollton, Ga.
Rev. M. Scott Hughes, Director of Adult Discipleship, Discipleship Ministries.