The Facilitator’ A GINA feature by Carolyn Walcott
Guyana Chronicle
September 22, 2002

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In our world of conflict and strife, there is constant need for someone to mediate a dispute or an impasse, with a view to bringing an amicable resolution to the crisis in focus.

The United Nations is an international organisation which often seeks to employ mechanisms of dialogue and goodwill, to break down antagonistic barriers between or among countries, to restore a `level’ ground, since the grouping perceives `cold’ relationships as potentially threatening to the preservation of world peace.

Let’s examine the notion of facilitation, which, not so long ago, became a subject for much debate and discussion, since it centred around talks between Government and the Opposition People’s National Congress/Reform.

According to the Oxford and Random House dictionaries, a facilitator is someone who makes a conflict easier, someone who helps forward an action or process.

Recently, we solicited the views of three key persons, who shared their thoughts on who constitutes a facilitator.

Meet Mike James, who is the Vice-Chairman of the Guyana Council of Churches (GCC). As a church leader, he is called upon to counsel youths and the not so young. James cites the issue of facilitation as very topical, and one of particular importance in a society such as ours.

He conceded, “On the one hand, ours is a very small society where everybody knows each other, and on the other hand, it’s a fragmented society in which everybody has their own `baggage’. If it’s not what their position is, it’s what their family’s is, etc. Therefore, I think the issue of what constitutes a good facilitator is very topical.
In highlighting the essential qualities of a facilitator, the GCC official offered: “Obviously, it has to be somebody who is really making a conscious effort at all times to listen to both sides. It’s a truism to say you have one side, and then the other side and the truth in between,” James pointed out.

“I think we really need to cultivate people who would be able to see both sides, and who we can feel within our society are honest brokers, that is people who can really genuinely put aside their own position, hear both sides of the situation,” the church leader said.

Contrary to the hasty perception by many that conflict arises merely at the political level, the former United Nations employee affirmed this is a gross misconception.

He explained: “It’s not only at the political level, but I think even at the level of family there is often need for a facilitator. For instance, when you hear problems between a husband and a wife, you hear her story and you say, “ boy, this man must be a beast.” When you hear his (the husband’s) story you say “gosh this woman,” and you know the truth must really lie between the two.”

James said often, people desire someone who will listen to both sides, and then respond with a charge that “you two need to work together.”

He concluded, “Often that is all that needs to be settled, just to facilitate people getting together, whether it’s at the family level, community level, Government level or church level, somebody who will be a good broker, not someone who has his or her own agenda.”

Also touching on the facilitator not having “his or her own agenda,” was our second interviewee, Ms. Marlene Cox. As the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Guyana’s highest learning institution, the University of Guyana, Cox offered quite a lot to chew on in her thoughts about who constitutes a facilitator.

The academician said: “A facilitator is an independent, neutral person, who has been called in to talk with a group of individuals or parties, who have an issue which they cannot move beyond, but which they need to move beyond and get an agreement on, in order for some issue to be settled.”

“A facilitator, therefore, has a very important role to play,” the UG official affirmed, and she added that it is both an art and a skill.

To support her latter position, Cox said a facilitator therefore has to be “patient, recognising that you can’t put a deadline to the whole process.” He has to have the trust and the confidence of the parties or groups of individuals that he is dealing with,” she further stated.

Turning to a very difficult but necessary attribute of a facilitator, the soft-spoken Deputy Vice-Chancellor said that the facilitator must realise that he’s not there to “cast judgment on one group or party or another, by saying “you are wrong”, this other party was right. He is there to basically move beyond that point, to work with the groups to make them realise that there are similarities and there are differences , and to use those (similarities and differences) to get them to come to an agreement on the particular issue,” Ms. Cox said.

In terms of being a broker, the facilitator has to have “negotiating skills, communication skills. He has to be able to listen clearly and understand what the individuals are saying. He has to be able to conduct a meeting so that the parties don’t become antagonistic towards each other or towards himself. They all have to recognise that they are working towards a common goal, moving beyond this stop, in whatever issue they’re talking about,” the University scholar pointed out.

“He has to be able to handle any conflicts that may arise during the sessions. He has to provide support and encouragement and he has to be flexible. I think he has to be able to point out the strengths and emphasise the positives in both parties or groups, and use those to help the groups to come to realise that they can agree on what needs to be agreed upon and then move on to the next stage in whatever process they’re engaged in,” Ms. Cox opined.

Her contribution to the issue of facilitation is quite insightful, but meet our final contributor to this subject, Mr. Earl Brown. Brown is currently the Country Coordinator of the Peace Corps Guyana, who has been a facilitation coordinator for more than 40 years.

Brown offered, “First of all, a facilitator is a leader. He is a person who should facilitate a dialogue or a group dynamic. First of all, there are some principles. One, full participation by all participants, everyone who has a need to be a part of the dialogue needs to be at the table.

“His job is to … guide that process. He or she has to be an impartial person. In fact, we say that the facilitator has to leave his/her values at the door, because your task, or the facilitator’s task is to make sure that whatever the goal and objective of the group are achieved. Groups have different functions; groups deliver skills, groups develop goals and aspirations. But depending on what the function of the dialogue is, or what the function of the group is, will determine to some degree the kinds of questions.

“There are some values associated with facilitation. One value is something we refer to as democracy, meaning that all participants should have an opportunity to participate and be encouraged. In fact, a part of your mandate is to make sure that everyone who sits around the table, has an opportunity to talk. If somebody does not say anything, then you encourage him to come up. If somebody’s talking too much, then you encourage him to talk less, because the idea is that there should be an opportunity for everyone.

A facilitator also has to promote cooperation. He cannot allow people to engage in personal attacks based on religion, ethnic identity, or any of those. So you’ve got to keep participants from being personal and confrontational. It is a process, and when it gets to that point, then you have to step in and stop it. A facilitator also must make sure that he/she does not serve as a `gate keeper’. He must promote the flow of information, rather than to close the gate and to screen the information.

“A facilitator’s role is a leadership role, and sometimes as a leader, people, groups will see you as having powers that you really should not have. You should not be controlling; you should not have to satisfy your own personal needs for gratification. All of this is baggage you should leave behind.

“A facilitator should establish norms, to make a ground level that’s everyone’s view, no matter what your station, is important and you’re entitled to have and you should be respected,” he said.

So, do you think you fit the role of a facilitator? Be sure to examine the preceding qualities before you venture out next time.