Facilitation: Inquiry as Your Most Powerful Tool

What is the role of Inquiry in facilitation?

Facilitation happens in many places, not just when you stand in front of a room full of people to help them have a useful and productive conversation. You also facilitate when you find yourself:

  • Supporting others’ conversations
  • Helping a group formulate a shared decision
  • Developing an agenda to run a meeting
  • Bringing people together in ad hoc conversation
  • Helping others to negotiate conflict

In your work, in your home, in your community, you might often find yourself engaging others in conversations that matter to them. That’s what it is to be a facilitator.

There are whole books written about how to be a good facilitator. They offer techniques, approaches, and tools to help you prepare, engage, and document sessions. HSD offers an additional consideration that prepares you to use those tools even more effectively. In HSD, we believe Inquiry is your most powerful facilitation tool. When you stand in Inquiry, you step beyond your own judgments and assumptions to focus deeply on the task at hand. You become aware of and responsive to the needs, changes, and energy in the room. You set conditions for those who engage with you to do the same. You can use the four Rules of Inquiry that we use in HSD.

So what does it mean to use Inquiry in your facilitation?

Turn judgment into curiosity
Judgment can include both negative and positive patterns. People may “judge” harshly, creating stories of limitations and negativity. On the other hand, positive judgments may generate unrealistic expectations.

It takes discipline to be aware of your own judgments. For instance, when you realize you are thinking in black-and-white or in clearly defined terms, that’s when you will want to check your judgments. Judgment creates bias in your interactions, and can:

  • Prevent you from hearing or considering anything that differs from your initial perceptions
  • Cause you to prejudge participants’ questions
  • Frame your responses according to your impressions

Questions are the most effective way to shift toward curiosity. When you become aware that your opinions or responses are not supported by data, you recognize that you are operating on judgment. Your best choice is to ask what others see as true. You can be transparent as you ask others to confirm or correct your perceptions. At the same time, you can hold yourself accountable by looking for data that better informs your actions.

Turn disagreement into shared exploration
As a facilitator, you can run into difficulty if the you are not prepared to deal with ideas and insights that are different from your own that come up in the session. You also need to be able to facilitate disagreements when passion and opinions both run high and the participants clash in disagreement.

When differences come up, you may have difficulty holding your focus and supporting the group. Differences in the group can disrupt the flow of the session. It’s your job to see and understand the patterns of disagreement that draw attention from the focus of the session.

Standing in inquiry, you, as the facilitator, can shift the dynamics of difference in the session by inviting the participants (literally and metaphorically, perhaps) to stand side-by-side, looking together at their shared concerns. Consider how you might build on the differences you see to create a more holistic approach to the challenge. Call on available assets of the whole group to explore possible solutions and options for action.

Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
Standing as a facilitator you may feel vulnerable. You are responsible for the group. Your design creates the shared experience of the participants. When things don’t go according to plan, or when someone in the group challenges you, it’s easy to feel defensive.

Defensiveness emerges because something has hit a nerve. Maybe it’s a fear that you don’t know enough, that you cannot make yourself heard, or that someone just doesn’t like your idea. When you recognize the tension that signals feelings of threat or rejection, take a deep breath and find a way to step away from that tension.

Remind yourself that the threat is not real, that you have the skills you need to complete the task, and that you can get back in balance to do the work before you. Find a way to put those feelings into perspective, relative to the overall goal, and step back into the more rational and productive discourse.

Turn assumptions into questions
Assumptions can get you into trouble. They are the unquestioned, often unconscious, lenses you use to make sense of the world. You build assumptions from your biases, early experiences, day-to-day conversations, and observations. They are opinion, rather than fact, and they are, generally, uniquely yours. Your assumptions may be similar to others’ but, in general, yours include your own added twist created by your fate, your memories, or your imagination.

Humans are rarely fully informed about or aware of their assumptions. This rule of Inquiry helps you remember to recognize your assumptions and turn them into questions about the impact or meaning of such a belief.

When you suspect that you are acting on your assumptions, ask yourself if what you are saying is grounded in truth. Try to identify the reality in your discourse. Name your beliefs about a situation, and then explore the data that informs your understanding. When you find that your perspectives are not based in objective data, you begin to formulate questions that enable you to test your assumptions.

Now what will you do to facilitate from a stance of Inquiry?

When you use these definitions as your own personal guides, you are better able to function in a more open and transparent way. You create a more open and risk-free environment for others. These rules of Inquiry can become your most powerful tool to set the conditions for simple, clear, and forthright discourse about even the most difficult topics.

Try these rules and let us know how it goes.


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