When the Stakes Are High – Facilitating Through Important Decision Making

High Stakes Blog1rev

Today’s blog comes from a question that somebody asked us in our Gold Academy membership cohort: What are ways to facilitate groups when the stakes feel high? Let’s define what we mean by this question. When stakes are high, the group has a lot to lose if things are not resolved. Harm could occur to certain groups of people, markets, and earth’s resources if the decision is not taken with the utmost care. It could also be a conflict-laden situation. One of the best ways in my humble opinion, is to ensure that everybody is on the same page before an important decision or action is taken. To do this, you can use environmental scanning tools. We’ll talk about a few of those I’ve learned from ICA. We also start you off with a customized Non-Violent Communication (NVC) technique by Dr. Marshall Rosenburg. these questions will help a group move forward when stakes are high.

Let’s dig in for a deeper dive to high stakes dialogue and decision-making.

Conversation Techniques

Tool One: Non-Violent Communication style conversation

Use this tool as a warm up conversation with your group to assess their state of being, help them achieve more calmness about the situation, and tap into their knowledge about the situation. It will be helpful to you to choose other tools to use with this group after you have this conversation. Or, this conversation could be all you need and could take several hours. You could also shorten it and use prior to the other tools we share below.

The aims of this conversation are:

  • Help the group become realistic and present for the immensity of the task or decision they are about to take
  • Increase clarity and confidence of group around key next steps in moving towards decision or action
  • Release unhelpful frustration/anxiety/anger or other emotions that are associated with the situation

Here are a series of phrases/questions we invite you to modify or customize to your situation. It uses the sequencing of both the ToP Focused Conversation (ORID) and NVC.  It focuses more on the conflicting nature of the problem thus emphasizing elements of Dr. Rosenburg’s Non-Violent Communication framework.

  • Let’s go around the circle and state what we have heard or seen about the current challenging situation we find ourselves in. (At this point in the conversation we are not looking to vent our feelings. Rather, we are hoping to create a baseline of relatively accurate data around what we have been observing, reading, and hearing. Each take about 30 seconds to share one thing. If you have an article or reference, we’ll also include that in our group document.)
  • What else would you add now that you’ve heard a few key points from every member of the group?
  • How do you respond to this information? When you heard about the situation/dilemma, what specific feelings came up for you, e.g., embarrassment, anger, gladness, worry, etc.? We don’t have to all share but it would be good to know what the range of emotions are.
  • What might be causing this reaction for you? for others who are impacted? What needs are not being met? e.g., my/our need for safety, certainty, ability to contribute, etc.
  • What do we want to ask of each other? What’s the request we have of our group or leaders to ensure we go about this decision-making process with as much calmness and clarity as possible? After the group completes this conversation, give them a chance to socialize and feel safe with one another. Then call them back and continue with either one of the environmental scanning tools below or this second conversation tool.

Tool Two: ToP Focused Conversation Style

In this conversation, we aim to create a foundation for going deeper into the dilemma. Specifically, the aims of this conversation are:

  • Discover details that would help every group member assess various pathways to solve the dilemma
  • Identify catalytic actions to begin the momentum to resolving the difficulty
  • Give a sense of hope and excitement in moving past “stalling”, procrastinating or “stalemates”Questions you can use or modify:
  • What information is missing from our knowledge right now that would help us make a better decision? Where can we get this information in a timely manner?
  • Who might be our allies or resource people to ensure we have heard as many perspectives as possible?
  • What does this situation remind you of?
  • What have we learned with dealing with similar situations in the past?
  • Where might we take lessons from these past decisions or actions?
  • If we did nothing else in the next week or two, what must we do to begin this collaborative decision-making process?
  • When do we absolutely need now (e.g., information, guidelines, permission, etc.) to start taking action or have the decision made? Why do you say that?
  • What is our five-part action plan for the next few weeks?
  • When shall we meet again?
  • Who can take responsibility for some of the actions we’ve named here?
  • Who might help each of these people or provide support?

Environmental Scanning Techniques

Teh tools below can be used on their own or in conjunction with one or both of the conversations above.

Tool Three: The Wave

This ToP (Technology of Participation) tool is taught in a U.S.A. based course called Approaches to Environmental Scanning.   See here for online courses you can attend form anywhere. You can find in-person courses or schedule an online course at the ICA training website. The photo below shows a picture of a wave on a sticky wall or long sheet of paper. The idea is that the wave represents something that is impermanent and constantly changing. The purpose of this tool is to identify external trends that are happening around the important topic. For example, we’ve used it to talk about climate disaster, industry trends, educational and health disparity trends and more. You ensure that your overarching question/topic is clear (see example on gold paper on left of photo below) and people know what their ultimate goal is. You then divide the group into 4 sub-groups and each group brainstorms answers to the four questions below. However, each group is assigned the task to formulate more answers to one of the questions below, and just 2-3 answers to the other 3 levels.

  1. On the left hand side of the horizontal part of the wave, we call this Horizon Trends. The question is: What is on the horizon that is not yet making waves? (ie., what do we barely know about that might become a trend?)
  2. On the left hand side on the upward part of the wave, we call this Emerging Trends. The question is: What is emerging that is beginning to make waves? (ie., what do we now see/hear about that is becoming a trend?)
  3. At the crest of the wave at the very middle, we call these Established Trends. The question is: What is established that is at its peak or current state of fullness? (ie., what do we all know are mainstream accepted phenomenon?)
  4. On the downward right side, we call this Disappearing Trends. The question is: What is disappearing that is reflected in the outgoing wave? (ie., what do we notice as less popular outgoing trends?)

The group posts their data for each section of the wave (as seen in photo above). You read the data out to ensure everyone knows what is meant by each trend. Then you invite a meaningful conversation about what this data tells the group. I highly recommend the ToP course because it gives you ways to do this as a five-part exercise, gives you all the questions you need to ask, and subtleties of the technique. You could complete this Wave trends exercise in about 1-2 hours, depending on the number of people you have and data points you created.

Tool Four: ToP Social Process Triangles

In the same U.S. course called Approaches to Environmental Scanning, the trainers demonstrate the social process triangles. I cannot possible do justice to the profundity of this technique. I took a full 2-day course a long time ago and it truly is beautiful. The social process triangles is a fancy name for the metaphor of the three pillars of human society. The bottom left triangle represents the economic sector, the bottom right represents the organizational or political sector of society and the top third of the triangle represents the cultural and social part of society. Each part of this triangle is further broken down into many, many component parts of these three sectors. For example, you can see in this photo in the bottom left it includes aspects of economic distribution, resources, production, etc. The bottom right includes well-being, order and justice. The top third represents style, wisdom and symbols. There are other words that can be used for each part of the larger triangle depending on the topic that you are dealing with. But bottom line is you have the group answer the what of the problem, the how of the problem, and the why of the problem. Small groups are created to brainstorm answers or brainstorm examples e.g., of what is going on in the economic sector that is affecting the problem they are dealing with. They also brainstorm trends and events that are going on politically and/or organizationally. Finally, in the top part of the triangle, i.e. the why, the group brainstorms events, trends and practices that are related to the meaning of the problem.

What typically happens is that after data is identified for each part of the triangle, the group sees an imbalance occurring. There may be more data or events related to the economic part of the triangle, and fewer events on the political and cultural aspects of the triangle. This suggests that the problem is dominated by economic considerations. It gives the group a clue about how to balance the situation so that the decision is not made based only on economic factors. The key in using this Social Process Triangles tool is to help the group balance the impact of the decision. It allows the group to ensure more equity in its impact on all the economic, political and cultural aspects of the organization or community.

You can read more about this technique in the book called “The Courage to Lead” as well as learn about it in the Environmental Scanning and other advanced ICA courses. Typically an analysis using this framework might take 1 to several hours.

Tool Five: The ToP Wall of Wonder or Journey Wall

You can see from the photo below that there’s a timeline at the top of the wall and three different colors of cards used for three different levels of reflection. The purpose of the Journey Wall tool is to map out events related to the problem or anticipated decision that have occurred over time. Eventually you have the group think about how they want to change the tone and impact of the past and present for a better future. Your question could be as simple as: What are the events of the last 10-20 years related to this problem at the organizational, community and world level? This technique typically takes about 2-3 hours. It can be profound in helping the group realize that they have a lot of experience and information, and they can begin to shape a better way of handling this current dilemma in the future.

You can see me using this technique for my own personal reflection in this blog: The Honest Truth About My Facilitation Footprint.


What are you taking away from this brief overview of tools you can use to help a group through a high stakes situation? Facilitators have many good tools to help bring the group into more confidence and calm when they have to deal with something very, very difficult. It is important to bring as many perspectives to the table as possible when the stakes are high. These tools will help you to do that.



ICA online courses related to environmental scanning (click on link)

The One Stop Shopping Tool

A very brief look at what a Historical Scan looks like and an example demonstrated on the question, “How Facilitation Has Evolved for You?”


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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.

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