Skip to content

Facilitation and Democracy – Can they inform each other?

Democracy & Facilitation

Recently with all that is going on with the pandemic, racial protests and federal presidential elections (November 3, 2020) in the US, I’ve been thinking deeply about what democracy means to me.

How is facilitation related to democracy? Is there an essence of facilitation that might give me solace when democracy seems to be seriously threatened? Does facilitation contribute to democracy? Could they inform each other in helpful ways?  If so, how? And, how can we use facilitation to uphold and move towards a reimagined better world? If you are feeling discouraged about the state of the world now, this blog may give you a little hope. Please read on.

For me this Utopia re-imagined world would be: a cohesive and harmonious society free from wars; deep knowledge sharing to find a pathway that benefits all; action that shows we consider ourselves to be globally interdependent (versus just nationally or locally); all treated well regardless of power and income; all who can be, involved in local and national decisions and policy-making in deeply meaningful ways; connected to each other as sacred human beings; and each safe from violence, debilitating fear, isolation and hunger/thirst. I don’t know that this list describes an ideal democracy. I do know it is what I’ve strived for my entire life. Instead, I see some people reacting to the pandemic globally and the elections (USA nationally) with: anger, defiance, feeling no control, disconnected, isolated, lonely, impoverished, divided, hurting and lacking many basic resources. The suffering we are experiencing is immeasurable and many of us feel its weight on our shoulders daily. And yet, many groups are persisting in their belief that people can work out their seemingly irreconcilable differences. Examples of this are in the blog below. Photo in my neighborhood of playing across generational and race differences.

Beginner’s Mind Thoughts on Democracy and Facilitation

In this blog, I share a beginner’s mind thoughts (I have only been a US citizen for 8 years) on Democracy and Facilitation. Thank you to my colleagues and family of many generations in the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Singapore for reviewing my thoughts before I published them.

Democracy is a set of principles that some countries strive towards. Few, if any, meet all of those principles. The same is true of facilitation.  But we strive toward some sort of desired ideal state and way of governing because we hope things will be better if we do. As I watch many democratic principles being stressed in the USA, I come to understand better the critical role of facilitators to create societies where public discourse is valued and all perspectives (voices) are heard and heeded. And, yes, governments need to make crucial decisions on behalf of the people. Many of these decisions can be informed with citizen involvement so more benefit and less harm is enacted.

And of course, because it is a time of Hallowe’en in North America (October 31), I share some photos from my local street walks this week to add a bit of humour and lightness. they are also providing a metaphorical way to illustrate the facilitation principles I describe that may expand our democratic ideals. The Hallowe’en yard decorating in my neighborhood has surpassed anything I’ve ever seen before. With the pandemic, my neighbors are going into full blown creative mode.  

Finally as our “treat” to you this Hallowe’en, we have created a free PDF handout of Principles of Perfected Participation Practice at the end of this blog if you wish to download it.

What others are saying about facilitation and democracy

I am obviously not the first person to think about the connection between democracy and facilitation. Several facilitation colleagues have written about it, or been sharing via other formats. The first three are white, male USA dominated and I want to be upfront about that. It is only one perspective that I happened across in my literature search. I add in others in the quotes and references towards the end of this blog

Jim Rough – USA – 2002

Jim Rough and Associates in North Western USA wrote the book many years ago (2002) called “Society’s Breakthrough – Releasing Essential Wisdom And Virtue In All The People”.  The title is very compelling to me. Very altruistic.  He speaks of forming a randomly chosen set of people living in an area or country and inviting them to participate in a Wisdom Council that would be guided by an effective, open-minded, collaborative and creative process where the facilitator does not express their views.  He says this establishment of Citizen Wisdom Councils “is about trusting ordinary people, knowing they will rise to the occasion and demonstrate they are capable of directing how this will go.” He says that is the basic idea of democracy.  I think trust is a common principle of both facilitation and democracy.

James Surowiecki, USA – 2005

Another book that’s been on my bookshelf for a long time is by James Surowiecki called “The Wisdom of Crowds”. He says large groups of people are smarter than the elite few, no matter how brilliant. He asserts that large groups of people are better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, and even predicting the future.  Facilitators are needed to guide the thinking of large groups of people. I have experienced this “wisdom of crowds” many times with hundreds of people thinking on a specialized topic such as early childhood education, reducing diabetes in the indigenous populations of Canada, saving the beluga whale, or developing legislative policy for public health. I think coming to wise decisions is a common principle of both facilitation and democracy.

Trammell and Crow – USA 2020

Trammell and Crow, write about solving COVID-19 and the climate change crisis by invoking radical collaboration in their new book called “In This Together – How Republicans, Democrats, Capitalists And Activists Are United To Tackle Climate Change And More.” They emphasize the need for us to unite under our common recognition of interdependence. In their declaration of interdependence, they use these four principles:

  • no enemies – we work through our conflicts to find solutions
  • no denial – we face facts, discuss our differences and resolve them
  • no excuses – we each do our part – every citizen, leader and business
  • no delay – we each take action together, now.

I think discussing our differences is a common principle of both facilitation and democracy.

IAF Global – 2020

Another example of facilitation contributing to democracy is the IAF Facilitation Impact Award Ceremony that I witnessed just yesterday. Here we saw that Russia, Mexico, Canada, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, USA, France, Finland, India, Italy and others won awards for using the practices and principles of facilitation in transforming health, transportation, education, city government, corporations, and the NGO sectors. They used one of the ideals of democracy, i.e., to bring ordinary people together to co-create powerful decisions about change.  Two of these projects in particular captured my imagination of how facilitation contributed to clear and crisp democratic principles. One was in Turkey. It involved the formation of 500 stakeholder groups – e.g., universities, NGO’s, public institutions in a politically-divided city of 6 million persons.  One of the goals was to strengthen community awareness and create concrete solidarity examples among citizens, especially in emergencies. The other started in the UK. It was to facilitate global consensus around best practices for managing chronic wounds in out-patients. The latter project just happened to be facilitated by two of my co-authors, Kimberly and Mark Bain in our new book forthcoming soon, called The Power of Facilitation. I think strengthening awareness and solidarity and building consensus around best practices are common principles of both facilitation and democracy.

What others are saying are principles of democracy and which apply to facilitation?

First, here is one description of democracy.

“The basic premise of democracy is the idea of consent, i.e. the desire, approval, and participation of the people of the country in the formation of the government and its functioning. The individual or the citizen is the most important person and all government institutions need to have the trust of the citizens.” (Source I think is Wikapedia)

I have been wondering what are the actual written or agreed upon principles of democracy so I could compare them to facilitation. (I told you I was naïve). I came from Canada where we cannot quite agree what we are, a “so-called” social democracy, a welfare state, or some variation on socialized capitalism. People rarely spoke of democracy in the 4+ decades I lived there. So I googled “principles of democracy”!  No agreement.  I found a myriad of lists – – some spoke of 3, 5, 7 , 8, 9 or 10 principles.  Four stood out to me as being especially important to facilitation. The others are listed below this list of four for your curiosity.

  1. Political equality – can we make every “party” or constituency group in the room equal by virtue of how each is heard?
  2. Respect of human rights – are we practicing human rights for all our participants – the right to speak, be silent, ask questions, take time to think, have good space to foster good thinking and calmness, etc.?
  3. Checks and Balances – are there ways to ensure some groups do not get to dominate other groups in the processes we use?
  4. Enlightened citizens – are we ensuring that every person has access to all the relevant information and perspectives available – i.e., no one is “operating in the dark”?

Other democratic principles included: Popular Sovereignty; Republicanism (ideology of governing a nation as a republic with emphasis on liberty and the civic virtue practiced by citizens); Federalism; Separation of Powers; Judicial Review; Limited Government (the government should only do what it has to do and nothing more); Individual Rights; Upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority); Social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable, acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality; Rule of law (that cannot be arbitrarily ignored by government); Freedom of press; and, active political processes.  I need to look some of these up!

My first draft of 8 facilitation principles which can inform democratic process

Finally based on all of this, like this lovely Hallowe’en spider with eight legs, here is my first draft list of 8 facilitation principles. I think they could help us attain some version of an ideal democratic organization or country. By this I mean an ideal state of being for people around the world. When we facilitate, we should strive to practice these 8 principles with great diligence.

We encourage and appreciate Truthfulness, Honesty and Authenticity. We need to encourage each participant to speak from their own authentic experience of what is true for them. It may not be true for others but it allows everyone to hear every perspective. Along with this truthfulness, come the words honesty and authenticity. If we can each express our own honest, authentic experiences with each other, it will lead us to a solution that honors each of these diverse perspectives. This dragon is speaking their fiery truth.

We invite Experience, Diversity and Differences. Along with what I noted above, the facilitator must do their utmost to ensure that all of the diverse and different perspectives are actually in the room. It means inviting those who have a variety of life and work experiences pertaining to the issue at hand. It means ensuring that every voice in the room, virtual or F2F, is heard. Especially it means ensuring that the less-often heard, marginalized voices are given the upmost care and spaciousness to ensure their perspective finally gets to the table. This lovely creative panel of diverse bodies was gathered together by a neighbour.

We believe there is Wisdom in the room to make Wise Decisions that serve the common good. The facilitator must absolutely believe there is wisdom in the group. Trusting the group, and trusting the process that we have created with others, is essential to good democratic process. We can trust that this ordinary group of extraordinary thinkers can come up with the best possible solution that meets everyone’s needs. It is, in part, this trusting of the wisdom of the group, that enables the group to be wise. This skeleton shows they can sit back and trust the group.

We ensure Transparency to build Awareness. Transparency is about sharing what information is available at the given moment. It doesn’t mean holding back things in case people might be frightened by it or anxious about it. It means ensuring that the information is shared in the way that people can digest thoroughly, emotionally process what might be shocking or disturbing, and then reach new conclusions. This will build trust. That leads to the next quality of facilitation that I think is about democracy. This ghost is meant to symbolize transparency and being shocked. 

We create the conditions for Trust, Safety and Solidarity. The facilitator also needs to monitor the way that they hold their body, facial gestures and posture to indicate an openness to everything that is shared. Facilitators need to not look shocked or have a judgment about anything. The facilitator doesn’t offer his or her perspectives. No opinions or subject matter expertise are offered and no influencing is done. This is often called the neutrality of the facilitator. A key reason we emphasize neutrality in facilitator competencies is to build trust and safety for all people in the room.  Everything the facilitator does models to the group what they could be together– cohesive, kind, open to feedback and honest reactions.  This done well, creates the conditions for safety and solidarity. This ghost is not a good example of creating safety with your facial expression and bodily stance!!

We foster Creativity and Consensus. New solutions cannot be found from old ideas. But the combining of old ideas within the current context is essential and with that comes prototyping of new ideas. An excellent facilitator will ensure there are practices and opportunities to think beyond the normal boundaries to create these new normals, to dare to think about the bigger picture so that no unintended negative impact is created. This means again that you have to ensure that there’s a lot of wisdom in the room. The wisdom is likely there if you’ve done the above two things of ensuring trust, safety, solidarity and transparency. It also means as you design new solutions, you gradually build consensus about what is this new practice or new normal for which to strive.

My neighbor co-designed this creative solution with his grandchildren to solve the need for Hallowe’en social distancing, with twinkling orange lights that come on after dark. The tube is the vehicle to dispense candy from the doorway to the distant driveway!

We honour the need for Reflection. People need to be given enough time to think about an important issue. After they have listened to a variety of perspectives or talked about it in the group, they need processing time, asynchronously (come back later with deeper thoughts) or in the room together. You won’t come out with the best decisions unless you give people time to really process the implications of a solution to them as individuals and their communities. Gut responses are useful initially to test if one should go down a path, but not necessarily the greatest way to make informed decisions. Reflection ideally is done both at the individual, small and large group levels.

What is missing from this list? Please write below. Watch for a future blog on how we might close the gap between seemingly antagonistic points of view on pressing subjects on local, national and international influence. Share your experiences of doing this too please.

Quotes I came across that resonated and provide hopeful perspectives:

From Democracy R & D – USA, 2020

Does the public trust recommendations from random people?

Yes. Time and again our processes are well received by the public for two reasons:

  1. The process has been shown to be impartial
  2. Members of the public can see that those making the recommendation are everyday citizens just like them and have dedicated considerable time deliberating together to reach agreement.

Kansas State University – Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy

Because public deliberations involve groups grappling with tradeoffs and possible consequences of policy choices, facilitation involves far more than a passive, neutral moderator. It is up to facilitators to utilize strategies that can propel citizen deliberation to meet first order goals of issue learning and improved democratic attitudes and skills. And yet, largely absent from deliberative democracy is an in-depth discussion of the role facilitators play in guiding a group to gain knowledge, reach conclusions, or to take action. Professional facilitators and deliberative practitioners also find themselves in a similar situation.

of by for, USA, 2020

Instead of watching politicians play politics, picture us calling upon everyday Americans from all walks of life to represent our communities, our country, and our values – free from political debts and partisan pressures.

Sound impossible? It’s not…

The original vision of democracy in ancient Athens used lotteries to select representatives, in order to prevent corruption and division. Now lotteries are again on the rise to form Citizens’ Panels and Citizens’ Assemblies around the world. These groups of everyday people investigate and shape public policy—without the campaigns, parties, and so much of what we hate about politics. And the lotteries are conducted in a way that ensures that those selected truly reflect the population.

From IBRAvn – blog 2006

In writing about Facilitative democracy, IBravn says: Facilitation is a way of helping a group of people make decisions. But isn’t this what government is all about: Making decisions that apply to a group of people? In particular, isn’t this what we understand by democratic government: The people makes its own decisions? Let’s elevate facilitation to a form of government, just as democracy and autocracy are. So, facilitation is not just one of many management techniques, it actually represents a major way of governing people.

When facilitation works, everyone is happy and feels they share in the decisions made. Is this not democracy? Even if there hasn’t been a single vote taken, no debate, no factions or party lines. Many democratic or quasi-democratic bodies—such as a general assembly, the board of a local government agency, an administrative committee, the governing council of a professional association, the council of a federation of sports clubs, a housing collective—probably wish to see themselves as somewhat democratic, rather than being run by an autocrat. They could all benefit from facilitation. Facilitation would help overcome one of the most unattractive aspects of modern democracy: the all-too-easy polarization of opinions that occurs during political debates, the tendency for one party to hold views opposite to those of the other party. The essence of facilitation is to make communication more subtle than that. Of course, facilitation is used in consensus building, principled negotiation, conflict management, mediation and reconciliation.

From Reverend Parisa Parsa, Executive Director of the Public Conversations Project

The democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience—a belief that such development is possible for each of us, as well as a commitment to cultivate our own conscience. We could call it a commitment to the value of each person. In the words of Theodore Parker, ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but “You are as good as I am.”’ My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.”

References I’ve quoted or of Possible Interest:

https://joinofbyfor.us/

https://democracyrd.org/work/

Written post Brexit – showing how Brexit was not a good use of democratic procedure…https://www.cgdev.org/blog/8-principles-direct-democracy

https://www.everyday-democracy.org/about

https://democracyinpractice.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/Guide-Student-Facilitation.pdf

https://www.iaf-world.org/site/global-flipchart/12/democracy

http://aorta.coop/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/AO-Facilitation-Resource-Sheet.pdf

https://www.k-state.edu/icdd/roleoffacilitators.html

https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles/5th

http://ibravn.blogspot.com/2006/08/facilitative-democracy.html

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

2 Comments

  1. Sharon Almerigi on October 28, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Well done Barbara! Loved the photos and the various persectives on this important topic.

    • Barbara MacKay on October 29, 2020 at 6:19 pm

      Thank you so much, Sharon! Your opinion matters to me. I felt like I was treading on thin ice writing this article. And I did definitely lose some sleep over it. I’ll probably keep going back and editing it. It was probably more important for me to go through this process of writing it, than the actual product.

Leave a Comment