Facilitating community workshops and community-based participatory research

The community workshop is a core method of my research with the Horto d’El Rey, which is part of the overall methodology of community-based participatory research. This post will cover the nature of meetings, facilitation, and various techniques to engage participants in community workshops. While not easy, facilitating community workshops can be very rewarding especially when it empowers communities to identify and act upon issues that are important. A lot of this material comes from my personal experience in facilitating meetings, including my work as a Main Street manager (a program originally created by the US-based National Trust for Historic Preservation), and my work as an historic preservation planner for the City of Denver, Colorado.

What is the difference between a facilitated and a non-facilitated meeting?

In a public meeting, power and information flows primarily in one direction.
In a public meeting, power and information flows primarily in one direction.

Lots of disciplines–especially planning–use community workshops as a way to engage communities in an open atmosphere that encourages sharing and a democratic atmosphere. In the United States, it has become fashionable to call these community workshop meetings “charrettes” (sometimes spelled “charette”), but functionally, they are essentially the same. These workshops need to be facilitated, but what exactly does “facilitation” mean in this context? The answer has a lot to do with how power is distributed among the individuals involved in the meeting.

For an example, let’s analyze the room where a typical “public meeting” takes place; public meetings are a very common communication tool that governments around the world use, especially at the local level. The chairs in these meetings are arranged much like a church, with many rows of chairs facing the front of the room. Elected officials and staff sit at the front of the room, often raised above the level of the people sitting in the rows. The physical arrangement of the room is designed to convey not only the directional flow of information, but also differentials in power. What this tells us is that the people at the front of the room have more power than those in the audience and that the expected information flow is from those in power to those with less power. And, in practice, this is usually what happens. While audience members can participate, the time and topic in which they can speak is very limited. Moreover, elected officials and government staff are not necessarily obligated to act on or even pay attention to the meanings the audience is conveying. (An important note is that elected officials ought to care about their constituency, but in practice this may vary considerably across different countries, regions, and cultures.) Clearly, a public meeting is not an example of a facilitated meeting.

In a facilitated meeting, the organization of chairs dictates a more equal sharing of power and meanings with all those who are involved.
In a facilitated meeting, the organization of chairs dictates a more equal sharing of power and meanings with all those who are involved.

In a facilitated meeting, the chairs in the room are arranged in circles where people face each other. Sometimes the chairs are arranged around circular tables. Most people, therefore, are not facing the front of the room, and as such, this part of the room does not play an important role in how the meeting is conducted. In other words, no one sits at the front of the room, facing the people sitting in circles.

The difference between a facilitated meeting and one that is not facilitated is therefore defined by the expression of power differentials between people: in a facilitated meeting, all participants (ideally) are equal in terms of their capability of contributing to the process, and as such, a facilitated meeting is innately democratic. Conversely, in non-facilitated meetings, a few people ultimately have the ability to control how others can express meanings and which ones receive attention.

The role of a facilitator

The facilitator is the person who helps organize, structure, and guide a meeting in a way that empowers the participants to identify and act on issues. The facilitator of a meeting cares about the process, but has no vested interest in the outcome. The facilitator is therefore (ideally) a neutral party to the process, doesn’t take sides, and is there to make sure that as many people contribute as possible in an open environment. Some meetings have one facilitator while others can have multiple people performing this role, depending on the workload required.

To understand this role better, let’s go back to the idea of power differentials in a room. If a facilitator directly contributed to the content of a meeting and controlled the decisions being made–in other words, assuming a partial position–then the power flow in the room is adversely affected. The “facilitator” then becomes the person in the room with the most power. In this example, the role of facilitator is replaced by the new role of a chairperson, manager, or in simple terms, the person who “runs the meeting”. Most business meetings are conducting in this manner, where one person controls the power flow and makes the final decision. Typically, this person is a manager, or a person who already is assumed to have more power than the rest of the people in the meeting. For this reason, it is important to be aware of how a community will perceive a person’s power and authority before considering using this individual as a meeting facilitator, because even if this person strives to equalize power, it is not possible to erase people’s preconceptions.

So what kind of person makes a good facilitator? Even though a facilitator focuses on process and not content, it can be very helpful if the facilitator understands the subject under discussion. There are organizations and individuals who can be hired to perform this role, but because heritage conservation is still perceived as a niche discipline, finding a professional facilitator who knows heritage conservation can be rather difficult. Urban and regional planning experts often do have a good facilitation skills along with knowledge of heritage conservation, but it is important to keep in mind the ramifications of using a planning official from a government agency as a facilitator with a community over which this individual has decision-making power. University students, with sufficient training and appropriate background, can make excellent facilitators precisely because they are non-threatening to participants.

Specific objectives of a facilitator during the meeting

There are some specific objectives that a facilitator uses to achieve the overall goal of helping organize, structure, and guide the process of a meeting without controlling its content:

  • Following an agenda: There should be a clear purpose for the meeting and a series of tasks that need to be accomplished. The participants should be free to change this agenda if there is a consensus.
  • Active listening: A facilitator should be a good listener and provide regular feedback to participants to make sure that he/she is understanding what is being discussed.
  • Getting people to participate: A community workshop is not useful if people don’t participate in the discussions and activities that are planned. Some people will innately want to participate while others will be much less motivated. A good facilitator will identify these less participative individuals and constructively encourage them to participate; many group activities can be planned in a way that encourages participants to engage people who are passive.
  • Making sure that some people don’t dominate: In almost every meeting, there will be one or more individuals who tend to monopolize the conversation, are overly dominant, and suppress the participation of others. This is perhaps one of the most difficult problems a facilitator will encounter; some suggestions for addressing this issue are below.
  • Summarizing information: When working with groups of people, discussions can become blurred and the focus of topics disjointed. A facilitator will see when this problem is happening and offer to summarize and center the conservation.
  • Consensus building: A consensus is the general agreement of all participants on a certain topic or subject. It is not, as is sometimes misunderstood, 100% agreement of all participants. This is the democratic principles of a community workshop in operation: the facilitator tries to see where consensus is being reached and helps clarify it for the participants, recognizing that some people will not always be in agreement.
  • Achieving meeting outcomes: At the end of the workshop meeting, the facilitator helps in creating work plans or a series of action steps that the participants have agreed to perform. The facilitator doesn’t dictate what should happen, but rather should be acutely aware of what the participants wish to do and then help them achieve it.

Techniques for engaging participants

So how does a facilitator actually engage the participants in a community workshop? While there are many techniques available, there are a few that are commonly used because of their simplicity and effectiveness:

  • Brainstorming: This is a process where the facilitator asks the participants to list ideas on a certain topic. The facilitator then writes these ideas down, typically on a flip chart or whiteboard, and attempts to organize them into common categories based on input from the participants. Other variations include having participants write their ideas on sticky notes and then bring them to the facilitator who organizes them under categories.
  • Small group discussion: The reason why many community workshops are based on small groups sitting in a circle is to help facilitate small group discussions. Upon consensus from the participants, discussions can be broken down into these small groups. Typically, one person in each group is a recorder, responsible for writing down information that the group expresses. The recorder then summarizes what was discussed and reports back to the larger group.
  • Role playing: Role playing can be particularly effective if participants are polarized on a subject. It is a way of helping participants understand other’s perspectives. Role playing can take many forms, such as a skit or play or asking the participants to pretend to be someone else and respond to questions and ideas as if they are this other person.
  • Journaling/diary: The facilitator asks participants to write down ideas/concepts/meanings as they occur. This can be in the context of a meeting or can even take place outside of the meeting. Where multiple meetings occur, the participants are asked to come back and discuss what they recorded.
  • Round robin discussion: Round robin discussions are great ways to get everyone to participate. The facilitator asks each person to respond to a particular question, one at a time.

There are also more unusual participatory techniques that are more common to participatory research strategies where creative works embody problems, questions, meanings, and concepts, such as:

  • Art, such as drawing and painting
  • Music
  • Plays in which a problem and its potential resolution are conveyed by actors in a performance
  • Poetry
  • Story telling/folklore

Participants can create these items in the workshop or create them outside of the workshop meeting and then discuss them at a later meeting. Sometimes these creative works are shared with the community at large in public performances. In addition to these possible techniques, participants are free to define any other methods in which they can share meanings and ideas. Many of these additional techniques will be highly specific to certain cultures. The important thing to remember is that the participants must be allowed to define and engage in methods in which meanings are shared that are normal for their particular culture.

Preparing for the community workshop

Location and time

One of the most important items to consider for the meeting is its location. All locations–buildings and outdoor meeting places–have specific meanings associated with them that need to be considered from the perspective of the participants. For instance, if the topic of the community meeting is to address a perceived failing on the part of a municipality, it wouldn’t make sense to hold the meeting at the municipality’s city hall. Because the city hall symbolically represents the city, participants would be less likely to attend and will be more guarded in sharing their concerns. For this reason, the most neutral location possible is desirable.

Other factors for the meeting location include its size–how many people can the location hold–and comfort factors. Will it be too cold or hot? If it’s outside, what happens if it rains? It is quiet and without disruptions? Can people easily get to the location? Is there a need for disability access? Cost factors should be considered as well.

The choice of meeting days and times is also critical because these need to be chosen from the perspective of the potential participants. For this reason, evening or weekend meetings may work better than meetings in the middle of the workweek, depending on job schedules. In some communities, people may have very little free time because of the need to work multiple jobs. Be understanding and compassionate about people’s time.

It is important to have food and beverages at the meeting because it helps to make people comfortable. This need not be complicated or expensive, but is always desirable. Consider food and drink that is familiar to your invited participants. Alcohol, even if it is permitted in your meeting location, can be more trouble than it is worth because while it may relax people and increase participation, the resulting lack of social inhibition can result in behavior problems with participants that are best avoided.

Lastly, check to make sure your meeting location can accommodate chairs arranged in small circles of no more than about 10-12 people.

Meeting rules

Prepare a list of rules ahead of time for acceptable behavior in the meeting. All individuals should agree to these rules prior to being allowed to participate in the meeting. These rules should be flexible and can be changed upon consensus from the participants. The purpose of these rules is to encourage the kind of respectful discussion that is necessary for a community workshop to function well.

Some basic rules might include asking participants to agree to:

  • Respect the instructions given by the workshop facilitators.
  • Be on time for the community workshop meetings.
  • Have an open mind for new ideas and concepts.
  • Ask questions.
  • Not interrupt someone when he or she is speaking.
  • Help make sure that there is only one conversation happening at the same time.
  • Treat people with respect; it is OK to judge and critique ideas, but not people. No personal attacks are allowed.
  • Keep professional jargon to a minimum and use simple language.
  • Encourage people who are quiet to speak.
  • Encourage people who talk too much to let others speak.
  • Help keep the conversation focused on relevant topics.
  • Not use your cell phone during the meetings, unless it is an emergency.
  • Avoid arguments that rely on authority for their validity.
  • Not reveal to others outside of the community workshop meetings who is participating or what specific individuals have said or written.
  • Try to have fun and enjoy the process.

Be prepared to remind people about these rules during the meeting if they are not followed, especially if they interfere with the conduct of the meeting.

Facilitating the community workshop meeting

While the facilitator should pay close attention to the agenda of the meeting to help keep topics on track, there are a series of recommended steps that should be in all of these kinds of meetings.

Starting the meeting — making people feel comfortable and at ease with “icebreakers

In community workshops, always assume that some people will not know each other. It is therefore important to help make everyone as comfortable as possible through a process of introductions and warm-up exercises, also known as “icebreakers”. The intent of these techniques is to encourage cooperation and openness. If people are uncomfortable, they will contribute less and the meanings they share will be thinner and less useful. It is important to not underestimate the importance of the warm-up in assuring a successful meeting.

There are many ways that you can help warm-up your participants. The first technique would be to simply have people introduce themselves and explain what they would like to get out of the workshop. This can be done in round-robin fashion. Typically other people will respond with questions and interest. The other kind of technique is to have the participants engage in a collaborative activity that has no direct connection with any of the topics in the meeting–in other words, a non-threatening topic.

For example, I’ve been in a number of workshops that used the technique of “rain making”. In the technique, all the participants are asked, in sequence, to start making the sound of rain falling by rubbing their hands together, then progressing to rubbing harder to increase the sound, then moving to clapping hands, and then finishing with people clapping against their thighs. Then, the facilitator instructs the participants to reverse the process. So, in effect, the participants have created an artificial rain storm.

You might also consider having people organize into pairs and then share personal experiences with each other in a structured way. Each participant then reports back to the group what the other person told him/her.

There are also culturally-specific exercises that may work particularly well for helping people warm up.

Facilitating the main part of the meeting

Again, the facilitator should make sure that the meeting keeps on track, based on the agenda. The facilitator should be open to, and at times encourage, changes in the agenda based on a consensus of the participants. Often, meanings will be shared that necessitate a change in focus or direction; rigidly sticking to the agenda can be as unhelpful as not using an agenda at all. Remember that the beneficiaries of the meeting are the participants, so the meeting’s structure needs to always accommodate their needs.

End of meeting summaries and next steps

Sometimes, there is only one community workshop meeting, which at the end, only requires that the facilitator attain a consensus from the participants on a summary of what was shared. Often times, however, there will be multiple meetings, especially when the participants wish to identify a problem and create potential solutions as is found in participatory research methodologies. In this latter case, the facilitator needs to work with the participants to summarize what the next steps are that should be taken, including helping the participants create a work plan and task assignments which are expected to be completed by the time of the next meeting.

Addressing problems in facilitating community workshops

Sometimes things won’t go so well in a meeting, so a good facilitator should be prepared to deal with some common problems, which include:

  • Dominators: These are people who won’t let other people talk, they talk over other people, and generally monopolize conversations.
  • People who are quiet: Some people find it difficult to talk in large groups; the facilitator should help in making sure that the meeting environment is safe and comfortable, which will help to encourage participation. There are also some useful participatory techniques (see below) that can be helpful.
  • Disinterested people: Sometimes topics in the workshop may not be particularly interested in a topic and will not contribute to the discussion.
  • Goofing off and not being serious: While the goal of the workshop should be to have fun, some people fail to take enough of the workshop seriously so that the topics and discussion are constantly off track. Keep in mind that there are some cultural differences in terms of what is, and is not acceptable, so be careful of imposing your cultural expectations on others. The key indicator if there is a problem is if the participants are clearly annoyed by the behavior of a specific individual.
  • People who obsess: Similar to a dominator, some people won’t let a topic drop and continually bring up the same thing over and over again. As with people who goof off, pay attention to the other participants. If they are clearly annoyed, the facilitator should help address the situation.

Some potential solutions

While there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all, tool to address some of the problems with facilitating a community workshop, here are some techniques that may help:

Third party mediator to summarize

When there are two people who disagree strongly with each other, it may be useful to have another participant function as a kind of mediator to help with clarity in communication. This technique works best in groups as singling out two individuals from all participants can be embarrassing and threatening to these individuals. The way this works is as follows:

  1. Find a participant who is willing to serve as a mediator.
  2. Have the mediator listen to the first person and repeat, word for word, exactly what this person said. During this process, the person whose words are being repeated cannot speak until the process is done.
  3. The mediator then summarizes what the first person said, confirming that the important meanings were all conveyed and were accurate and correct.
  4. The mediator then listens to the second person and repeats, word for word, exactly what this person said using the same process.
  5. The mediator then summarizes what the second person said, again confirming that the important meanings were all conveyed and were accurate and correct.
Sharing feelings and concerns openly

The facilitator arranges people in small groups and ask that they share things that are really bothering them about the meeting itself or the way that people are behaving. In these small groups, each person, in round robin fashion, starts with the statement, “One thing that really bothers me about this meeting is …”, and then completes the sentence with the one thing that is really bothering him or her. When this person is speaking, no one else can speak. After the person is done speaking, then others can respond. When the process is done with all the groups, the facilitator should help clarify if there are specific, common problems that have emerged and ask the participants how they would like to address them.

Reverse role playing

Similar to the role playing technique described earlier, this is a specific application meant to address a particular problem in the meeting. To use this technique, the facilitator helps to define two sides to an issue or problem. Half of the participants assume the perspective of one side of the issue and the other participants assume the perspective of the other side. The participants are then arranged in pairs of opposing sides. At certain points in the role playing process, the facilitator asks people to freeze and then immediately take the opposite side. This process can be particularly useful in helping people understand perspectives contrary to their own.

In conclusion

Not everyone will be comfortable serving as a community workshop meeting facilitator, but for those who really like working with people, it can be a highly rewarding experience. In the realm of built heritage conservation, these kinds of community workshops have been used by urban planners to inform comprehensive and small area plans. What makes the community workshop meeting different in the context of participatory research is that there is a further emphasis on the equalization of power between the participants and community empowerment. Unlike community workshops held by urban planners, there is an expectation with community-based participatory research that the participants will actually engage in some of the action items that have been identified. While there is no promise that community-based participatory research will always work in all situations, where a community is actively engaged in a problem, this methodology can be particularly useful.

Additional resources

Seeds for Change resources on consensus and facilitation

United Diversity, “Creative Facilitation Techniques” (PDF)

Dialog Handbook: The Art of Conducting a Dialog and Facilitating Dialog Workshops by Mette Lindgren Helde (Copenhagen: Danish Youth Council) (PDF)

Facilitating Meetings” by Melody Kellogg and Stephanie Redman (MainStreet News, June 2000)

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