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Facilitator: Navigating power dynamics

Whether you are facilitating a small group discussion or a large group meeting, there are always power dynamics. Some of them are more obvious and come through titles or degrees while others are less obvious and come from personalities and past experiences.  As a facilitator, our job is to figure out a way to bring out the best in everyone and create opportunities for all participants to have an opportunity to participate. This can be particularly challenging and requires an awareness of the power dynamic as well as a willingness to boldly stand up to those who may try to exert their power over everyone else as much as possible.  Join me this week as I provide 3 recommendations on navigating power dynamics as a facilitator.

  1. Set expectations.  As a facilitator, you are probably familiar with the idea of setting “ground rules.”  I like to call them “guiding principles.” I encourage you to come up with some guidelines that help meeting participants understand boundaries and an expected culture for the meeting depending upon the purpose for the meeting. If you are conducting an all-day meeting, have new participants, or are working with a board, it is particularly helpful to give them an opportunity to create some of these in order to create buy-in and a willingness to participate. Some of my favorites include: Being a teacher of others and a learner from others; Be respectful of one another; Disagree agreeably; Everyone participates; Use first names (This can be particularly important if you have a mix of those with advanced degrees and those without and you want to generate active participation from all.)
  2. Follow-through on expectations. As the facilitator, you are responsible for helping hold participants to the guiding principles. This can be difficult especially when there is a clear power dynamic and some participants are used to being deferred to during every opportunity to provide comments, input or decisions. I vividly remember a meeting that I facilitated several years go where we decided that if someone wanted to participate, they would turn their name tent upright.  This was working well until a couple of the meeting participants really wanted to provide additional comments before others had an opportunity to provide their perspective. They had turned up their tent, put post it notes on it and one was even standing in the chair to try to get my attention. I acknowledged they wanted to speak, but I also let them know that we would give them another opportunity after others who had not yet had an opportunity to participate had a chance to provide comments. They were shocked and a little frustrated, but they conceded. They were used to being able to provide their perspective whenever they wanted to because of their “power” in the group; however, as the facilitator, I was able to guide them toward waiting so that others had an opportunity to participate. As the facilitator, you are responsible for helping all the participants follow-through with agreed upon expectations.
  3. Provide additional opportunities for participation. Depending upon the group or the situation, it can be unrealistic to address all power dynamics in one meeting. You may have groups where supervisors are in the room and subordinates will never feel completely comfortable providing their perspective or you may have teachers and students or community members and academic professionals. In these situations, it’s important to provide other opportunities for participation where the participants will truly feel comfortable. This may be through one-on-one meetings, small group discussions, through anonymous surveys or other methods that will work for your situation.  Depending upon resources, you may want to provide a combination of opportunities in order to garner diverse feedback and perspectives that can help guide decision-making and priority setting.

So what about you? How have you used one of these to navigate power dynamics during a meeting?

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