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The Global Flipchart is IAF's quarterly magazine about the power of facilitation – made by members, for members. Contact the editorial team by email:

Global Flipchart #12


June 2018

Democratic revitalisation through four basic facilitation skills

By Charlotte Ditløv Jensen, CPF, M.A | View the Spanish version of this article

Four years ago, the Danish political party ‘The Alternative’ was founded on the promise to develop its political programme with participatory methods.

Facilitation is an important skill set that enables us to create relationships, learn from each other, and continue the development of the party’s political programme. It is the necessary oil that lubricates our engine.

The challenge: facilitating democratic futures

The Alternative was founded with the ambition to create ‘a new political culture’ in Denmark and to develop the party’s political programme ‘bottom-up’. At the same time we experience that the ‘democratic muscles’ of many Danes aren’t strong when it comes to debating politics face-to-face with strangers. We are experiencing a regular crisis of our democracy, where only 4% of the population are members of a political party, even though 89 % of the population state in recent studies, that they are ‘very interested’ or ‘interested’ in politics. But they do not get involved. Most of the population seem to think, that participating in political debate has become much to difficult, they are afraid to say something ‘wrong’ or that other people get offended by what they say. Because most of us are not either ‘professional’ politicians or experts, but just ordinary people going to work every day, taking care of children and doing grocery shopping.

In our events, participants often come to ‘set other people straight’, ‘release steam’, or unburden frustrations that are otherwise only aired on social media in ‘bubbles’ of people that agree with each other. It is always a learning experience to debate with people that we disagree with. And the only way to strengthen our democratic muscles is to work out!

Facilitation becomes very important in situations where everybody’s democratic muscles are initially a bit weak. A skilled facilitator can ‘hold the room’, so that everybody present can stand to continue participating, even in a heated debate.

Facilitation as an approachable, inclusive practice

Right now, we are trying to involve as many members as possible in facilitating these processes. In our experience, the quickest way to learn facilitation is by doing it. We are letting newcomers grow slowly into handling the complexity of facilitated group conversations. They have to start doing it, with only a minimum of theory, and then be supported in learning from their experiences as they go. This, by the way, is also an excellent practice for experienced facilitators: How can we ‘learn by doing’ in our local communities, and spend less time learning by reading?

Four fundamental skills

From our experiences of with training facilitation to beginners, we’ve come up with four fundamental skills that represent a ‘minimum skill set’:

  1. Moderation and intervention
    This skill is about how a conversation is gently moderated with good opening questions - a talking stick if necessary, subtle interventions and a neutral summarising and closing. Any aspiring political facilitator would want concrete tools to support her, especially good opening questions that should be prepared in advance. The energy is then set free to moderate the event on the spot. She should strive to mark a clear summary and closure, when the time has run out, and to harvest feedback from the participants to further her own learning. By remaining a neutral position, the moderator will also avoid disturbing the conversation, and instead stimulate it.
  2. Be in charge of the physical frames
    This is about how our immediate physical surroundings (the room we are in, the tables and chairs and timeframe) affect the interaction between the participants. Any aspiring political facilitator would want to draw on the advantages of a well set room, since this can be prepared before the participants arrive. We all need to rebel against the ‘cinema-setting’, which may suit oldschool lecturing, but certainly doesn’t suit participatory intentions. With a well set room, the moderator is free to concentrate on moderating and intervening, and thereby stimulating the fruitful conversation between the participants.
  3. Facilitation
    This skill gives a few answers to the moderator, and begins to question her practise and her mistakes, since there is much more to the art of facilitation than moderation. But the mandate to facilitate can become seriously and rightly challenged by participants. This, though is really a gift in disguise for facilitators who acknowledge good intentions behind expressed resistance. Aspiring political facilitators often find neutrality around the content difficult. But it is essential to the building of trust with each and every participant, and it will ease the facilitator’s  important practice of ‘double consciousness’ on content and process. It takes practical training, but it is important in enabling the political facilitator to support the group’s conversations better. It gets easier to deliver this support, the more careful the event has been prepared and framed, and this is where the political facilitator contributes most importantly to the event. But no facilitator should do it by herself without a great content-savvy workgroup. The facilitator herself is and should be the least important person at the event itself.
  4. From facilitator to feedback-giver
    This skill is about the true aim of a political facilitator, which is to raise the group’s awareness of process to the degree that the group becomes self-facilitating. The reason is, facilitating political processes is a never-ending job. But done well, we’re facing a modern-day revitalisation of the ancient concept of democracy.  But nobody transforms democracy alone, and when shying away from giving qualified and respectful feedback, we let our egos stand in the way of furthering our important practise. Therefore any new political facilitator must demonstrate process awareness by example and personally aim to be dispensable. And it is doable, if we as political facilitators strive to K-I-S-S: ‘Keep It Simple & Stupid’. Doing that, we will make what we do easily copied, adapted and repeated by others.

These skills need to be explained, remembered, trained, repeated and mastered into a solid practice before any further facilitation tools and methods can be added to their toolbox. A fuller explanation can be found in this article.

‘Facilitation’ and ‘co-creation’ are not self-explanatory terms

Our motivation to formulate these skills was to break down the concept of ‘facilitation’ into hands-on, practical recommendations for the brave souls taking on the challenge of facilitating their first political session. The two criteria we chose for selecting these skills, were:

  1. What is the the smallest possible intervention that positively affects the ongoing processes the most?
  2. What can brand-new facilitators remember, understand and apply without extensive further studies?

Considerable resistance for several reasons

Political facilitation is often met with considerable resistance, which stems from either having never heard the expression ‘facilitation’ before, or prior bad experiences with facilitation.

But the atmosphere quickly changes remarkably, when people realise that the effect of facilitation is that the room is ‘held’ in the most gentle way, even when opinions are heated. Also that it stimulates ownership and enables everybody to participate.

And this is the real reason why it is extremely important to facilitate in a political community today. Facilitators are desperately needed to help rejuvenate democratic decision-making.

A learning journey to rejuvenate democracy

Our journey training volunteers in the art of facilitation has been a rollercoaster of learning.

We have let go of things we held dear in facilitation in order to make things work, only to pick them up later and assemble them in new and interesting ways.

And we will continue to practise and widen our understanding of this, because we strongly believe that it is essential to any movement, striving to grow and rejuvenate democratic processes.

Because democracy is suffering in many ways across the globe.

I hope you will enjoy the description of the four fundamental skills for a political facilitator and be inspired. Also don’t hesitate to reach out, if you want to discuss any aspects of this further:

Charlotte is a candidate for national parliament in Denmark, representing the Greater city of Copenhagen for the Danish political party ‘The Alternative’.  She also contributed to the last Global Flipchart in her article Facilitating Political Processes.