The power of collective intelligence

Last week I participated in The Art of Facilitation, a training run by Zenergy Global. The course is based on an approach developed by Dr Dale Hunter, a world renowned voice in the field of facilitation and the psychology of groups. She’s written several books on the topic, including The Art of Facilitation which is used as the foundation for the course. The approach, says Zenergy, can create groups with collective intelligence. Something, I’d say, the world is in desperate need of right now.

It was a really intensive five days of experiential learning. Light on theory, we learnt through doing. I facilitated several sessions over the five days, being coached continually. And it was worth it. I learned a huge amount about myself as a facilitator and group dynamics.

On the final day we were asked to individually note our learnings. These were my six key takeaways:

1, Agreeing group purpose and culture are crucial

How many meetings have you sat in where half way through someone has said, “what is it we’re doing here?” Setting a short, succinct purpose for a group seems so flipping obvious but it often gets overlooked. Having participants agree a purpose for a meeting (or for a group if it’s ongoing) allows the facilitator to stay on topic when the group drifts. It also allows her to know when to be responsive to the group. For example, having the group purpose in mind will tell the facilitator when it’s OK to change the agenda.

Similarly, having a group agree a culture sets boundaries for participants. And provides something by which the facilitator and group members can hold themselves to account. If the group’s drawn up a culture which says no mobiles in meetings, for example,  then even the CEO can be called-up by the facilitator for checking ‘urgent’ emails during a discussion.

2, Conflict must be resolved

One of the most powerful experiences of the week was living in group dynamics. In particular, what happens when groups splinter into factions or conflict arises. How many processes have you been involved in where blame is at play, or scapegoating or participants splitting into sub-groups? The Zenergy approach insists that, if a group is to be truly co-operative, conflicts must be addressed. It suggests that a facilitator should encourage participants to voice ‘withholds’ i.e people’s niggles with each other, or frustrations with processes. Often this means naming elephants in the room – something which requires a huge amount of courage from participants and trust in the facilitator. When I think back to some bloody awful processes I’ve been involved in during my NGO career, I can identify that there was almost always a lurking elephant. The Zenergy process highlighted to me that naming them – making them present – can completely change group dynamics for the better.

3, Things change – go with it

One of my really key individual learnings was the need to be flexible. My natural inclination as a facilitator is to develop a process and want to stick with it. This was fundamentally challenged for me when a few participants decided that they didn’t want to write key words on Post-it notes but instead wanted to develop their ideas by creating an installation out of people and wool! Was I out of my comfort zone? Hell yes! But once I let go of my desire to make everyone do everything my way, the workshop curiously went to plan. The group with the wool and the group who did as they were told came back with overlapping contributions and reached their purpose for that session.IMG_2005

4, From chaos comes completion

Some processes just need leadership, right? Having six people, for example, draft a 12 word group purpose is surely a waste of time? Better to have one person write it and have the group approve it? Possibly. But my experience last week was that, even on processes that seem circular and endless and chaotic – the right facilitation can suddenly bring order and completion.  As a campaigner who is currently grappling with what it means to build movements – this is an important learning. As we break down hierarchies and work inclusively with volunteers and grassroots organisations, decision making is sometimes going to be messy. Knowing that good facilitation (along with time and patience) can bring purpose out of that messiness is really exciting to me.

5, Name the power dynamics

Like resolving conflict, addressing any power dynamics that are present can help a group meet its purpose. Obviously this requires discretion from the facilitator. Sometimes directly naming the power dynamics could really help: “Well, Kelly, you’re the boss, so have a lot to say about this. But it would be good to hear the thoughts of the rest of the group.” At other times more subtlety might be needed. I got caught out not long ago “putting a woman on the spot” because I called on her to speak after a series of contributions from men. Nonetheless, as a facilitator, I have a responsibility to address the imbalances in the room and help the group to overcome them. And again, as diverse groups – like indigenous movements, people of colour, LGBTQI groups and other marginalised folk –   build campaigns alongside big organisations, we have to be comfortable talking about the power dynamics within our movements as well as those we’re fighting against.

6, Trust the group

Our traditional hierarchies tell us that the person standing up at the front of the room needs to have all the answers. Not so according to Zenergy. A good facilitator needs to be comfortable in not always knowing the right thing to do and instead trust the group to be able to give direction and form. Too often I’ve seen my role as a facilitator as akin to a shepherd, cajoling participants into the right pen. But it needn’t be that directive. Sure, there may be times where a group needs decisiveness and a bit of a push. The Art of Facilitation is maybe knowing when that is and when to stand back.

I’m still absorbing all the great learnings from this training. And I’d welcome the chance to practice some of these new approaches. So I’m offering 50% off my usual rates for face-face meeting facilitation until the end of June. Drop me a line if you’d like to know more.


Cover photo: Published under a creative commons license.


Emily Armistead

Emily Armistead is a campaigns consultant currently based in London. She blogs about how to make our campaigns and organisations more effective.

One thought on “The power of collective intelligence

  1. Nice one Emily. Really helped bring my AOF experience back (only a year ago) – especially with some of the language used. I believe I integrated the learnings fairly well, however the terminology has been lost, so it’s refreshing to read it in the context of your article.

    Liked by 1 person

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