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Fierce Facilitators and Why We Need Them So Badly

by Milenko Matanovic

Every time true dialogue occurs (that is, an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue), different worlds meet. This exchange is possible only because the participants jointly create a neutral field of discovery that allows for listening and learning. If this field is not honored then conversations easily digress into a series of monologues where each party only waits for their turn to speak, like two billiard balls pushing each other around.

In public meetings where multiple voices and views compete for space, this neutral field is imperative. Without this invisible domain, democratic creativity is not possible.

We tend to regard space as empty so it is tempting to think of it as nothing (and therefore it doesn’t matter). The opposite is true. I view this neutral field as pre-matter, the source out of which powerful ideas emerge, the mother of all things that shape our civilizations and societies. It is a nurturing field as long as it is truly neutral, a space anyone can visit, but none should occupy. Protecting this field from invasion or annexation by any one singular user, ideology, mindset or worldview is the primary, albeit not easy, task of facilitators.

Over the years, I’ve conducted many planning meetings for projects with common community benefit. By and large, the people who attend are thoughtful, offering their own ideas while considering the ideas of others, assuming that together we know more. They are respectful of the field of discovery, allowing many to step into the space temporarily, offer a contribution, and then step away to make it available to others. This is basic civility at work.

However, these meetings also attract individuals who will not listen. Minds already made up, mouths cocked to shout, they argue only for their idea, attempting to invade and occupy the common space for the duration, making it their own private property. These individuals have given up on the idea of collective discovery. This behavior is antithetical to participatory democracy. From Congress to our local community meetings, the meaningful work of democratic collaboration has become jeopardized by this behavior. Too many gatherings are processions of fixed ideas, marching inexorably forward, with no learning, no discovery. We leave unchanged.

The time has surely come to see such conduct as the last gasp of a dysfunctional system. It’s time to stop pretending that multidimensional problems can be solved from one-dimensional perspectives. The question is what can be done to protect the field of discovery so that democratic creativity can flourish? I would answer: fierce facilitation.

In a world of many agendas, ideologies and approaches, a facilitator’s work is to ensure that different insights contribute to, rather than extinguish, each other. Every community needs dedicated and fierce facilitators to uphold the standards of conversation that enable a collaborative culture capable of multiple victories, solutions that meet many different goals at the same time.

Facilitation is the sacred work of tending to the field of discovery where participatory democracy can breathe. And, yes, it takes courage.