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Facilitation: art or science?

Posted by on September 22, 2014

Dorothy Nesbit  is the founder of Learning for Life Consulting Ltd. and will be running a one-day introduction to facilitation for the Society of Biology on Friday 26th September. BLOG

Working in the field of science policy, you may know how hard it is to help scientists agree policy. Sometimes, for example, you’re not an expert on the topic being discussed or even an expert facilitator. You may not be in the chair. How do you bring discussions to a successful conclusion?

This week I’m running a one-day introduction to facilitation for the Society of Biology. Facilitating a day on facilitation can evoke anxiety – are my own skills up to par? Participants, too, have shared some of the challenges they face. How do you keep discussions on track, especially when you’re dealing with people more senior or learned than you? How do you make sure everyone has a say? How do you navigate differences of opinion to reach a sound policy decision – on time?

Scientists are often interested in… well, science. What can I say about the science that underpins the approach I’m going to be teaching? In fact, I shall be drawing on the work of Roger Schwarz who, in turn, has drawn on the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, two eminent American academics who worked together over several decades at the end of the twentieth century.

Argyris and Schön made a number of discoveries which have implications for the way we approach facilitating discussions. Their theory of action highlights disparities between the way we say we’ll act and the way we act in practice. Their single-loop and double-loop learning theory highlighted differences in the way we respond to and correct errors, particularly in the context of organisations. They went on to describe two models which enable or inhibit double-loop learning.

These theories are described in more detail in Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning.  Argyris has claimed that just about all the participants in his studies operated from theories-in-use or values consistent with Model I (Argyris et al. 1985: 89). It involves ‘making inferences about another person’s behaviour without checking whether they are valid and advocating one’s own views abstractly without explaining or illustrating one’s reasoning’ (Edmondson and Moingeon 1999:161).

Roger Schwarz built on this, describing core values, assumptions and ground rules for effective communication in his article Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams.

Easy to understand in theory, these behaviours are more difficult to use consistently in practice. That’s why I view facilitation as both art and science.

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