Enhancing Facilitation Skills: Dancing with Dynamic Tensions


For evaluators there is a high price for bad facilitation: Without our knowing, we may favor our own priorities, forget participants’ needs, submerge stake- holder voices, hide underlying causes, and undermine the impact of our work. The author shows how to improve one’s facilitation skills by leveraging seven dynamic tensions: Hosting self and others, hosting present and absent stake- holders, observing group and individual dynamics, simplifying and unveiling complexity, listening and sensing emergence, using intuition and rational prob- lem solving, and facing chaos and control. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., and the American Evaluation Association.

Facilitation can be a tricky topic. Is it a discipline? A practice? Is it as natural a function to human beings as walking or talking? Or is it an acquired skill? An art? Facilitation is all of the above: both a natu- ral and an acquired skill, art, and discipline. One can facilitate an informal lively discussion at a dinner table without formal training with common sense, tact, and listening skills. But the more diverse participants are, the higher the expectations and the stakes; and the wider the gap between peo- ple’s perspectives, the more complex facilitating can be.

The conversations we find ourselves facilitating as evaluators are of- ten of this complex nature. Funding, salaries, and professional reputations are at stake. Tensions are heightened. Communities struggle for power and control. Politicians are up for reelection. We are often pressed to “prove” positive impact before results are certain.

In high-pressure contexts, evaluators often think forward to the next activity. Where are the Post-its? Is the board ready? Do I have enough time for this activity? In our evaluation training programs in the United States, we most often stress linear logic models (inputs to long-term outcomes) and linear evaluation designs (planning to dissemination). Linear thinking encourages us to look ahead. We have an idea of the ideal process, outcomes to reporting, and even when we do things collaboratively, our focus is on pushing the process forward.

Pushing ahead makes us feel accomplished at the end of the meeting, but we can gain a false sense of security and lose touch with what is actually happening in the group. When as evaluators we disconnect from the partic- ipants’ needs to favor our own priorities, stakeholder voices get submerged, underlying factors stay hidden, and systemic challenges to the achievement of our objectives continue to undermine the impact of the work without us knowing it. Some stakeholders who don’t value our evaluation framework can sabotage the evaluation at a later date. Tensions among stakeholders can surface and, if inappropriately addressed, can bring forth retaliation from people with more formal power.

In this chapter, I identify ways evaluators who facilitate can improve their facilitation skills by accepting and leveraging opposite priorities that may occur in a group setting. Becoming more aware of group dynamics can help evaluators be present to what is happening in the moment and bring added benefits to the group and the evaluation. Practicing these skills can help evaluators allow groups more discretion over where they want to go to- gether and how to get there. These skills are especially useful to evaluators who use collaborative, participatory, and capacity-building methodologies, because when the number of stakeholders involved in evaluation increases, so does the complexity. These skills can also benefit evaluators who use other approaches, since facilitation can take place in meeting with only one stakeholder such as a client or program manager. First, I will review defini- tions of the terms creative tension, polarity, and dynamic tension, then define how “facilitation” is being used in this chapter.

The Facilitation Challenge: Creative Tension and Emotional Tension

Peter Senge coined the term creative tension (1990) to indicate how a group feels when it experiences the gap between where it is and where it wants to go. Creative tension underpins all change work. Without the gap “there would be no need for any action to move toward a vision. Indeed, the gap is the source of creative energy” (Senge, 1990, p. 150). In a group process, creative tension is what the group experiences when it becomes aware of the gap between where it is and where it wants to go. The tension can be a result of a shared opinion, feeling, or perception (if the group has a shared vision), or a composite of individual opinions, feelings, or perceptions. It is easy to understand the creative tensions present in the evaluation process. Even when stakeholders have a shared mission on paper (although often they don’t), they may have different visions for themselves, their community, or their project.
Emotional tension is the mixture of anxiety, worry, and concern that accumulates for those who recognize creative tension (Senge, 1990). Being a skilled and effective facilitator entails being aware of the creative tension without becoming overwhelmed by the emotional tension, while helping participants manage their own emotional tension so that fear doesn’t drive the process. If fear is in the driver’s seat, participants may give up the vision for more practical goals. Fear can sabotage the group’s ability to fulfill its own purpose.
The term dynamic tension originates from the combination of the con- cepts of creative tension and polarity in organizational development and management. Polarities are opposites that are wrongly approached as prob- lems to be solved. In actuality, they are dilemmas to be managed. Both sides are essential to the well-being of the organization, and choosing one pole over the other doesn’t generate a solution but exasperates the imbalance (Johnson, 1992). As an example, consider the process of managing an eval- uation project. What’s best, structure and planning, or flexibility and adapt- ability? Based on an evaluator’s comfort zone one may lean toward planning more (the first pole) or adapting in the moment more (the second pole). While there are obvious strengths in each pole, there are also downsides. Even intuitively, we know that if one stays rigidly on either pole, the evalu- ation will suffer. Both sides are indispensable to an effective, relevant, and well-managed evaluation. The polarity is best managed when one is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each pole. An effective facilitator capi- talizes on the strengths while keeping an eye on the weaknesses.

Foundation: Definition of Facilitation

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m defining facilitation as the art of surfacing, stimulating, and honing the creative tension within a group to help it move where it wants to go, needs to go, and how it wants to go. The where can be determined by the group jointly or in the way individual perspectives coalesce or oppose each other once the group interacts. The how can also be defined by the group jointly or interactively. To leverage and hone the creative tension, the facilitator must engage and welcome the dynamic tensions in the group.
For facilitators to leverage the energy of a group’s creative tension, they need to recognize the dynamic tensions that are present. This means wel- coming both opposites or poles and encouraging participants to allow them to coexist and be expressed by resisting the temptation to elevate one side as “right” over the other. By allowing the opposites to coexist, the creative energy between them is released. The facilitator cannot control the moment in which this release takes place, but she or he must trust that it may occur, which it often does. In practical terms, the “release” is often expressed in the finding of a third way, an innovative idea that is not a compromise but a coalescing or a creative solution that energizes the promoters of both sides, generating a shared sense of belonging and accomplishment that propels the process even further.
There are multiple schools of facilitation: Appreciative Inquiry, Deep Democracy, PeerSpirit Circle, Dynamic Facilitation, World Caf’e, and so on. Each has its own purpose, philosophy, methodology, and area of practice. In this chapter, I will use the lens of the Art of Hosting meaningful con- versations (AOH), a community of facilitation that is especially effective in engaging issues of social complexity, because honing and engaging the creative power of group tensions are at its core. AOH is “an approach to leadership that scales up from the personal to the systemic using personal practice, dialogue, facilitation and the co-creation of innovation to address complex challenges” (www.artofhosting.org). While AOH uses this philos- ophy and practice of facilitation for the duration of its events whether they last hours or days, the practice of this type of facilitation has much to teach evaluators even if used for a much more limited time frame within a much broader evaluation context. In fact, it can help us prepare for the moments in which even our well-planned meetings may veer out of control. AOH, in fact, highlights the creative role of chaotic moments and the need to learn to create the conditions for a conversation to occur instead of controlling the conversation itself. 

Dynamic Tensions for Evaluators Who Facilitate

Dynamic tensions in social settings can make facilitation much harder, so balancing or managing the tension is fundamental to competent facilitation. I’ve identified seven dynamic tensions that are most relevant for evaluators who facilitate.

Hosting Self ← → Hosting Others

In the Art of Hosting facilitation tradition, hosting self and hosting oth- ers are two components of the fourfold practice.1 Hosting self means being present to oneself and to one’s own values, priorities, feelings, and needs. It means not subduing our needs to those of the group, but holding a heartfelt presence to ourselves while we are in a group setting. For a facilitator, that may be as simple as pausing for a glass of water when needed, or as difficult as having awareness of how the behavior of a group member is affecting us personally.

Hosting others entails behaving in a way that fosters the comfort of par- ticipants, meaningful contributions, and collective intelligence. We some- times underestimate the role a facilitator plays in setting the tone of the meeting. Chair arrangement, body language, word choice, tone of voice, and the presence of handouts send cues to participants about how open, formal, fun, and even genuine a meeting space will be. As Holman (2010) states, setting a clear intention that energizes the head and the heart is an important aspect of being a host. Setting a clear intention can be even more powerful. While a goal has to be quantifiable, specific, and lead to outcomes, an intention can be a general shared direction that incorporates something more: people being present and aware of their collective purpose. With a clear intention, a group may not get as far as they intended to go at one meeting, but may, in some circumstances, go farther overall. The intention can guide a group to change the process without veering off track, by inspir- ing new possibilities while tending to the needs of its members and while addressing unpredictable issues that emerge.
To host self and others, you may consider:

  • Taking10minutesbeforefacilitating,to“checkinwith”yourbody,mind, and heart and with any colleagues with whom you are facilitating. Take the time to say something encouraging to yourself and each other.
  • Paying special attention to (or role-playing) the first 15 minutes of your meeting. Set the tone for the rest of your time together. Become aware of the routine you follow at home to help guests feel welcomed. Find a routine that works for you professionally—one that is warm and engaging and that says not only that you are competent, but also that you care.

Hosting Stakeholders in the Meeting ← → Hosting Stakeholders Not Present in the Meeting

Different stakeholders have different needs. A skillful facilitator plans con- versations so that people with less formal power can give feedback in a protected setting. Delicate information is best shared in pairs rather than in front of a large group, for instance. It is the facilitator’s role to plan for a meeting by taking into account how differences among stakeholders may play out in real life. Evaluators can also play a key transformative role in the organization by supporting inclusion and engaging project/program stake- holders in conversations about voices that are not represented (Mertens, 2009). These conversations must be handled in a timely and tactful way and are essential to identifying systemic power dynamics and alternate perspectives. Williams and Hummelbrunner (2011, pp. 16–28) explain sys- tems thinking in seeing the system as the “elements that make up the whole,” the “interrelationships that hold the parts together,” and the bound- aries that determine “what is inside and outside the system.” Perspectives of stakeholders who are not generally invited to contribute can provide mean- ingful insights and solutions.

To host both stakeholders in the meeting and outside the meeting, you may consider: 

  • Asking yourself ahead of time for each activity or conversation, Would someone feel uncomfortable doing this? What can I do to increase their com- fort level? Make accommodations for differences in power, learning styles, ages, and personalities. Assess whether you need small-group discussions or large ones, silent journaling or conversations out loud, visuals or lec- turing, and a change of seating to stir up a static atmosphere.
  • Having a conversation with your client before you facilitate about power dynamics among stakeholders. You could say: You know, in any meeting, there are always dynamics born from a shared history that I don’t know about because I’m not part of your group. Those dynamics can affect what happens during the meeting. The more I know ahead of time, the easier it is for me to be prepared. Can you help me by talking, confidentially, about what subgroups are present? Who was and wasn’t invited to the meeting and why? Could I talk with anyone else to get a different perspective?

Observing Group Dynamics ← → Observing Individual Dynamics

In facilitation, as in management, seeing the forest and the trees is essen- tial (Senge, 1990). From systems theory, we understand that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts and that the way each person or stake- holder group makes meaning of a given situation is different (Williams & Hummelbrunner, 2011). The boundaries that the system sets are rooted in how the situation is being framed, or interpreted. The way a person per- ceives a situation is dependent upon the power distribution throughout the system and his or her experience with it. For an evaluator, it is important to discern individual interpretations and dynamics from group or subgroup dynamics even when they are implicit. To help a group reflect on a situation, a facilitator might choose to name a boundary to bring attention to it, or re- frame it, by offering a new interpretation of a situation that is affected by it.
To help you observe both individual and group dynamics, you may con- sider:

  • Checking in during breaks with your cofacilitator (or journaling) about what you plan next. Ask yourselves, does this still seem the right way to go based on where the group is? Should any modifications be made? Are there any hidden dynamics or findings that need to be named? Any perspectives that need to be reframed?
  • Sitting with your cofacilitator (or journaling) during breaks, and making a quick checklist of memorable moments. You might consider asking, what did people say that you remember? What does that say about the relationships between different members? How do individual differences such as race, gender, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation play out in this group setting?

Simplifying ← → Unveiling Complexity

Simplifying means identifying “the least we need to do to create the most benefit” (Holman, 2010, p. 143). As evaluators, we often do this when we facilitate collective sessions to formulate indicators or identify an evaluation focus. It is also important to allow space for complexity when needed. As complexity theory emphasizes (Cognitive Edge, 2010; Snowden & Boone, 2007), the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and psychological realms of in- dividuals are complex, where many factors come into play and the results are not predictable. When evaluators build logic models and indicators, we often are doing our best to simplify complex arenas, which at best allows us to revise the tools we generate, but can also have its risks. In Snowden’s Cynefin framework, he highlights that trying to force simple frameworks upon complex arenas risks “falling off the cliff” and generating chaos. This is the main reason why complexity theory proposes handling complex sit- uations in different ways rather than simplification. Unveiling complexity means welcoming voices of disturbance and disruption (Holman, 2010). For evaluators who facilitate, this set of practices is useful because it can help us prepare for the unpredictable circumstances that are integral to our work. Welcoming the complexity of a group or organization can help us adapt to changing situations, listen for contextual factors, identify latent variables, and acknowledge blind spots and ignored issues already present. Further, these practices can help us engage and include in our evaluations the internal power differences and structural constraints that stakeholders interact with on a daily basis. It is critical to know when to allow complex- ity its place and when to simplify. In a meeting to identify indicators, if we simplify too much, we can end up silencing stakeholders who do not see themselves recognized in the measures that are a priority for the selected few.

To practice simplifying interventions while creating space for complexity and disruptive voices, you may consider:

  • Asking yourself after you’ve completed your first draft of planning, What is the least we can do to create the most benefit? What jargon is familiar to me that is not essential to help others understand me?

  • When someone disrupts while facilitating, resist the temptation to push them immediately back on track and wait to see how other people in the group respond. Watch if the disturbance gets traction and take a note of it. If or when you have to get participants back on track, try to find the wisdom in the dissenting voice and try to find a place to integrate it into another step in your process.

Listening for What Is ← → Sensing and Fostering Emergence

Emergence is a common term used among facilitators who work in con- ditions of complexity when the patterns of interactions or solutions are not yet clear and the collective forces are stirring within a group. “Emer- gence is order arising out of chaos” (Holman, 2010, p. ix). The literature on emergent processes in facilitation is vast and growing (Holman, 2010; Scharmer, 2007). Developmental Evaluation was designed to assist in these processes (Patton, 2010). Most evaluators have had experiences where even a well-planned meeting goes differently than expected and has moments that resemble chaos, where eventually the group manages to make progress through conversation and clarification. Sensing is an essential skill to engage emergence (Scharmer, 2007). Sensing means listening at a deeper level to that which is happening beneath the surface. To sense, one must understand what people say about their reality, while paying attention to the underlying perceptions that created that reality. At the same time, a powerful conver- sation can shift people’s underlying perceptions and as a result, the future possibilities also shift. Sensing means paying attention to the transforma- tion that is occurring within the group and the new possibilities that are slowly emerging. Of all dynamic tensions, this can be one of the hardest to master and is best done with a colleague. The person leading the activ- ity can listen to participants’ surface reactions, while the colleague who is not implementing the activity is focused on sensing the undercurrent of the conversation. Silent observation is helpful to sensing effectively. The more pragmatic among us can think of it as stepping back and identifying the un- spoken common need of a group or recognizing the elephant in the room.
To practice staying in tune both with what is and what is emerging, you may consider:

  •  Practicing how to remember what people say in a meeting the way you would conduct an observation. Notice first what is occurring without judgment. To help you with this, you can seek additional training in rec- ognizing group dynamics.
  • Planning for space and time to sense what is happening at a deeper level. To do this, you need space for being quiet with the group. You may decide to have a cofacilitator or plan activities so that you have some pauses to watch the whole room and simply be present. While your participants engage in an activity, try sitting or standing at the center and taking deep breaths. Notice how it feels to be in the group. A regular meditation prac- tice can also help you sense at a deeper level.

Intuition-Heart ← → Rational Problem Solving

In the fields of facilitation, leadership development, management, and or- ganizational development, there has recently been a growing appreciation of the role of “heart,” emotion, and intuition. There is no doubt that some distance is important for a level-headed perspective, especially in moments of confusion, tension, or outright conflict, but rational problem solving in those moments is not always best. An “open heart” is essential, hold- ing compassion for participants who are absorbed by their own perspec- tives. Further, intuition can be the most reliable tool, because our sub- conscious minds handle intuitively and quite spontaneously a plethora of daily physical tasks that are actually quite complex (Holman, 2010; Senge, 1990). This is one of the reasons working with a partner is rec- ommended. When someone with a similar skill set cofacilitates, it is quite easy to check our intuitions and feelings and make the best choice for the group.

To practice using your intuition, heart, and your problem-solving skills, you may consider several options:
  • When faced with the choice of which skill set to use, refer to the Cynefin framework, which uses Simple/Complicated/Complex/Chaotic to catego- rize situations, to identify what kind of situation you’re in. If you’re in a simple or complicated situation, problem-solve based on your prior ex- perience. If you are in a complex situation, try empathizing with the cur- rent disruptive forces. In complex and chaotic situations, try using your intuition (commonly called a hunch or your gut) to identify new possi- bilities or processes to get through the crisis. Through it all, hold a ten- der heart toward yourself. Facilitating through chaos and complexity is not easy!

Chaos ← → Control

Some of the dynamic tensions above can be explained via the chaos-control continuum. There is an underlying dynamic tension between chaos and order in each group setting. As facilitators, our personalities and circum- stances may carry both of these tendencies or we may be drawn to one over the other. Each characteristic can be constructive or destructive ac- cording to how it’s used. A facilitator with a strong chaos drive may help a group uncover submerged conflicts and steer it toward innovative deci- sions or experiences. This may, however, sow conflict to the point that the group cannot move beyond it. A facilitator with a strong order drive may help restore peace and consensus in a conflict-filled conversation, but may also stifle growth by not challenging the group outside of its comfort zone. It’s best to partner with colleagues of different leanings in the awareness that both order and chaos are needed for the best, innovative, collective re- sults to emerge. It can allow us to walk the chaordic path—the path that emerges when chaos and order overlap (Hock, 1999). The chaordic path recalls Senge’s creative tension as the source of all change.
To learn to dance effectively with chaos and order, you may consider:
  • Increasing your awareness of whether you lean toward chaos or order in group dynamics. Start by observing how you interact in groups in your personal life and the effect that your comments or actions have. Then try challenging yourself to act outside of your comfort zone. If you tend to try to calm conflicts, try offering your perspective boldly. If you tend to start controversies, step back and learn how to listen. When you are ready, try intervening based on what you sense the group needs instead of your usual comfort zone actions. Keep a journal to notice changes. Practice in your personal settings before moving to your professional settings.
  • Partnering with a colleague in professional settings who has an opposite tendency from your own. Preparing for the event by listing what group dynamics to expect and what conflict could be destructive or construc- tive. Set an intention with your partner not to avoid tension, but to use your partnership to leverage it at the service of the group.

Role of Self-Reflective Practice

Mastering dynamic tensions takes time, patience, and not only practice, but self-reflective practice. Below are a few questions to help guide self- reflection after each facilitated session:
  • Which of the above dynamic tensions was I most aware of in this session? Did I make choices based on my own comfort zone or on the group’s needs?
  • Did I offer stakeholders enough freedom to express their own evaluation questions, concerns, or priorities? Did all stakeholders speak up? How can I create an opportunity to hear their perspectives?
  • What was hardest for me to implement while listening deeply? How can I plan ahead or get further support in the future to make up for this?
  • In setting priorities, did I listen enough to hear stakeholders’ concerns before making choices or did I prioritize what I considered practical, operationable, or evaluable?
  • Where was I bold? Where did I step back and sense-in? Which best served the group? Did I get in the way of the group process? 

  • For which activities is it easiest for me to play an implementer role, a listening role, or a harvesting role? Should I work on strengthening those areas or delegate to others?
  • What roles did my partner or team members and I take on? Should we distribute roles differently next time? Did my team members and I com- plement each other well, or did we crowd the room because of overlap- ping strengths? Did I play more of a chaos or order role in this event? Was it to the best service of the group?
  • To enhance reflective practice, one may consider attending a 5- day Group Relations conference by the Rice Institute (www.akrice.org). Through a psychoanalytic approach to group dynamics, one learns how one’s personality affects group interactions.


Considering the breadth and depth of skills needed to facilitate effectively, it is no surprise that facilitation requires ongoing learning. The skills men- tioned above can help an evaluator who facilitates leverage his or her lead- ership skills at the service of the group. As of now, there is little focus in the literature on how to assess or self-assess when these skills are being used effectively. As evaluators, our skill set can be helpful to the field for creat- ing processes and tools that help improve these in-the-moment practices, as well as documenting how and when the skill set is being implemented most effectively. Increased attention to these areas is relevant to improving our practice both as facilitators and evaluators.