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Group Facilitation (life experience rationale)

by Criss Ittermann

Group facilitation is a means of enhancing a planned, as opposed to spontaneous, group communication process. When people get together to discuss topics of a personal or sensitive nature, or about a specific topic, they often have no idea where to start, or people are reluctant to open up and share their personal opinions or experiences amongst a group that is usually composed of strangers. All other skills and technicalities of the process aside, the main role of the group facilitator is to help the group make the plunge into a gratifying experience of time well-spent sharing and listening to other people share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings about a topic. I have participated in and facilitated a variety of formal and informal groups, including support groups, discussion groups, special-interest groups, formal and informal workshops, and online discussion lists, giving me a wealth of experience in group facilitation in online and offline (face-to-face or FTF) group environments.

Through observation and experience, I have found that there are many similarities in the online and face-to-face facilitation process. In every group, it is helpful if the moderator has subject-matter expertise, although that is definitely not a requirement in all groups. When the facilitator is a knowledgeable person on the topic-at-hand, they help define vague and specialized terminology for other group members, describe new concepts to the group, and make specific references for followup information on the topic. There are similarities in augmenting the group process such as maintaining group focus, establishing and enforcing group boundaries, welcoming new members and new member orientation, making referrals for other resources as appropriate, introducing topics, enhancing and leading conversations, moderating and mediat- ing disputes, guarding the group from predators and abusers, developing rules and guidelines, maintaining a safe or sacred space, being a role model, encouraging authentic communication, modeling appropriate sharing, and maintaining focus on the myriad intricacies of the group process. There are other significant differences in the communication process and barriers to communication depending on whether the group is online or face-to-face. Some of these create a stark and important contrast in facilitation and management based on the communication medium.

In face-to-face group meetings, timekeeping is usually important because the group needs to respect members’ other obligations, and often the space the group takes place in is only available or rented for a specific length of time. Aspects of conversation such as taking turns, controlling crosstalk1 and limiting interruptions are very important to facilitating the physical group pro- cess, to foster the growth of a single chain of conversation the entire group can focus exclusively on. Physical and facial non-verbal ques can be read in a face-to-face group, speakers get in- stantaneous reactions or spontaneous feedback, the facilitator can actively encourage less vocal group members to participate, the impact of an emotional anecdote is more palpable, and phys- ical reassurance or contact can be made if appropriate, such as hugs or a pat on the shoulder. There are downsides to the physical group process, such as the impact of inclement weather, the expense of a meeting space, physical accessibility (for the handicapped), time constraints that require that discussions be cut short to wrap up the meeting, the fact that no one schedule is going to fit everyone who wants to attend, the expense and time it takes for members to travel to the meeting location, the more convenient the location the more likely it is to be expensive to rent, and if the topic or purpose of the meeting is socially sensitive or risky the potential at- tendees may not want the risks of being physically identified, threatened, or followed after the meeting. In a face-to-face forum, the facilitator also must moderate distractions to the group and help reestablish group focus after an interruption, possibly handle collections and money the group donates to room costs or the group’s coffers, and sometimes deal with the providers of the space.

In online (“written” as opposed to “chat”2 ) discussion there are also dynamics that differ from the physical group process. Online forums offer the convenience of open scheduling, physical anonymity, lowered expenses, and near -universal availability for those people who have a com- puter and Internet connection. Since there is no travel involved, they are always accessible (to the handicapped), and they are not impacted by the weather. In online forums, a facilitator needs to model concise and clear writing, and concise quotations from the parent messages for context. Most modern online forums allow threading, such that conversations are continuous entities of their own, but not time-limited (they are time-shifted), allowing members to read and respond to whatever particular conversation they wish, at a time that suits them, without risking crosstalk. Responses in online written forums can be delayed for hours or days, or even longer. At the same time, it is easier to misinterpret people’s intent in a forum without physical, tonal, or facial cues, so online discussions have a higher tendency to blow out of proportion and result in personal infighting (called a “Flame War” – a term coined specifically from online forums), and members may read and respond to portions of a conversation before reading moderator warnings or bans on specific topics or threads. Many online forums allow archiving of the conversations, either publicly or only to members, which allows conversations to be searched, older conversa- tions to be referenced for data or information, and new members can catch up on the history of conversations-in-progress. This is of great benefit in technical forums, such as programming or computer support, allowing people to use search engines online to find information that was discussed months or years ago that might be of use to them. Another vast benefit of long-term online written discussion forums is less need for constant active moderation, allowing the forum moderators to check-in periodically and to actively train the forum members to self-moderate.

I have a long history of facilitating online and offline groups, starting with attendance as a normal member of a diverse range of groups. In 1986, I attended inpatient group therapy ses- sions and 12-step recovery meetings3, in 1987 I attended Queer community discussion groups, and I began presenting live and private herbalism workshops in 19914 . In 1995 I was mentored as a face-to-face discussion group facilitator for BiRequest5 , where I facilitated approximately 8 or more times a year from 1995-1998, and participated in quarterly planning sessions to set weekly topics, discuss problems in the group, and collaborate on group policies and rules. From 1999-2001 I was an occasional facilitator at Tri-State Polyamory’s discussion group6 , and I was a fill-in at Tri-State Polyamory’s support group once in 2002.7

In addition to running/facilitating instructional workshops since then8 , I also have facilitated discussion groups at a small convention9, and worked as a volunteer helper at a vast num- ber of workshops.10 Since then, I have informally helped numerous other workshop presenters by ensuring that the space is set up and broken down properly, and ensuring that water and props were on-hand, intercepting late arrivals to help them be seated with a minimum of dis- turbance of other attendees, setting up professional audio recording equipment for about 10-15 workshops including some of my own, etc. Settings ranged from hotel convention to wilderness campsite around-the-campfire workshop sessions. I have also led and facilitated online group chat sessions for purposes of group collaboration for writing website materials.

I am currently applying my skills in facilitation to business meetings; I prepare the meeting space at Bear Brook Design for client-facing meetings including setting up computers, projectors, chairs, helping with food presentation, and make sure that everything is going smoothly for the presenters.

My online experience is similarly extensive. I began facilitating in online written and chat forums in 1987, and continue to do so. My experience began on dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSes11 ), and currently the majority of the lists that I am running or moderating are on Ya- hoo!groups12 . I have held online chat meetings13, and used both public and private email list services after 1998.

While I don’t recall having studied materials specifically about group facilitation, I have ap- plied principles from psychology, self-help, business and creative writing, and more, to the pro- cess of group facilitation. What stands out in particular are things I learned about the dif- ferences between male and female conversation styles[Tannen, 1990], framing and reflecting to display understanding[Covey, 1989, Glasser, 1998, Glasser and Glasser, 1999], and setting, defending and maintaining appropriate boundaries[Beattie, 1992, Elgin, 1993, Forward, 1989, Glasser and Glasser, 1999, Katherine, 1991, Mellody et al., 1989, Stratton, 1991].

In facilitating so many different types of groups, I have acquired many skills including a heightened awareness of group communication processes. Group facilitation requires an ability to remain somewhat detached and outside of a group situation, as the facilitator usually has many factors to consider during the discussions that take place. While there can be many variations per specific group instance, there is a general order to how facilitators carry out their responsibilities to the group. Generally speaking, facilitators need to be mentally prepared for the group, whether prepared with a topic introduction or a clear idea of what appropriate or inappropriate group conversation and behavior will be. The facilitator usually establishes the conversational setting, the atmosphere of the virtual or physical space, and performs a variety of tasks to mould the experience for the participants. When the topic of conversation wanders, the facilitator redirects the conversation back on-topic. The facilitator minimizes interruption, maintains the group rules or guidelines, and when appropriate wraps up the conversation or meeting and adjourns the meeting.

I have also acquired skills in opening topical conversation, promoting polite turn-taking, and introducing the phrasing concepts of avoiding generalizations and speaking from personal ex- perience. Additional situations I’ve had to manage as part of the tasks as a group facilitator included handling interpersonal conflict, gaining group consensus and polling the group, en- couraging people who hold back to participate in discussion, managing explosive and implosive behaviors, safety of groups, group confidentiality, group census, dues collection, acquiring vol- unteers, choosing group moderators, peer management and review, co-facilitation and delegation of tasks on-the-fly.

Some skills I have acquired are specific to face-to-face facilitation. There are times during a discussion group that a facilitator needs to be certain that members are not monopolizing conversation, or where too many people want to speak and the facilitator needs to resort to taking names and specifically facilitating turn-taking during the discussion. When there is cross- talk, the facilitator consolidates conversation back to the entire group. tying up loose ends and soothing ruffled feelings before a group meeting ends, Situations I have handled that are specific to online forums include directing members to take their conversation offlist if a private or off-topic discussion between people is developing, and intercepting media representatives who want to interview or film people within the group for a news article, book, or documentary. While this last can happen in a face-to-face situation as well, anonymity on the web and open-enrollment forum increase the chance of someone “just wandering in.”

Amongst the problems and challenges I’ve faced, one specific incident comes to mind: I’ve had to deal with problems with a face-to-face co-facilitator. In one incident, my co-facilitator got into a heated and very ugly argument with a group participant during a discussion group meeting. I had to take the co-facilitator out of the room. I’ve also had problems managing my temper a couple of times online and had to back down when warned by fellow moderators that I was behaving out of line. Although I’ve never been placed in physically threatening circumstances, the incident where my co-facilitator dropped out of her facilitation role was sufficient warning for me to make policies with other facilitators and come up with rules and procedures for facilitator self-protection and group protection. In my online forums, I have made it 100% clear to my co- facilitators that I am not immune to being called on my misbehavior; we all watch each other’s backs.

As a result of all of my facilitation experience I have become an actively sought-out facilitator for group meetings in a variety of venues (for example, my experiences with Tri-State Polyamory, where members had heard of my work with BiRequest and asked me to run sessions for the group, the staff of some conventions who repeatedly ask me to run workshops and discussion panels at the convention, and my one experience with the Tri-State Poly Support Group as an emergency fill-in for the group leader). I have been recognized as a skilled communicator able to pave the way for others to share, to help people feel comfortable and safe even in a room full of strangers. I have been able to enhance group trust consistently, providing a safe space for sharing and planned topical conversations, in a variety of venues including formal and informal discussions and workshops, online discussion groups, and face-to-face support groups, in a variety of subcultures and on a variety of topics. Not only have other group members had a consistently fulfilling experience attending groups I have run, I have also found it intensely gratifying to facilitate groups for people to share and grow in.


  • [Beattie, 1992] Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden Educational Materials, Center City, MN, 2 edition.
  • [Covey, 1989] Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Fireside, New York, NY.
  • [Elgin, 1993] Elgin, S. H. (1993). The gentle art of verbal self-defense. Barnes & Noble, New York, NY.
  • [Forward, 1989] Forward, D. S. (1989). Toxic Parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life. Bantam Books, New York, NY.
  • [Glasser, 1998] Glasser, William, M. (1998). Choice Theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. HarperPerennial, New York, NY.
  • [Glasser and Glasser, 1999] Glasser, William, M. and Glasser, Carleen, M. (1999). The language of Choice Theory. HarperPerennial, New York, NY.
  • [Katherine, 1991] Katherine, Anne, M. (1991). Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. MJF Books, New York, NY.
  • [Mellody et al., 1989] Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., and Miller, K. J. (1989). Facing Codependence: What it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives. HarperCollins, New York, NY.
  • [Stratton, 1991] Stratton, E. (1991). Psychic Self-Defense.
  • [Tannen, 1990] Tannen, Deborah, P. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. Ballantine Books, New York, NY.


1 Crosstalk is when more than one thread or conversation occurs simultaneously in a group, making it dif ficult to follow one or the other conversation. This happens frequently enough in less formal circumstances, such as at a party or a larger dinner table, but needs to be controlled in a physical facilitated group setting. {return}

2 Online chat discussion groups are a hybrid between physical group process and online/written group process. The mode of discussion is more like an ongoing oral discussion, in that people get nearly immediate responses to what they say, and that the entire group is more easily distracted by side conversations, interruptions, and the arrival of new participants. Whether spontaneous or planned chats take place at a certain time, are usually not archived, take place in “real-time” as opposed to being able to time-shift them. The term “time-shifting” is coming into play with inventions such as the TiVo and downloadable cable TV episodes, where one can watch the episode at one’s own convenience, independent of network scheduling. Online written-forum conversations are usually “time-shiftable” in that one can read them and answer at one’s own convenience. Chat forums are generally not archived, and need active moderation in the same way that physical meetings need to be, with the same non-physical limitations of written online forums.{return}

3 Group member, mental hospital support groups, 9 months in 1986-1987, several times a week. Venues included inpatient group support meetings, outpatient support group meetings and 12-step meetings. Able to get a good idea of how it feels to be a group session participant, and to observe facilitators’ behaviors in the meeting. {return}

4 Women’s Health Action Mobilization (WHAM!), 1991; gave a workshop on identification and use of common herbs growing wild in the NYC area to the group. Duties included workshop organization, presenting the idea to the group for approval, making handouts for the group, planning ahead for the number of participants, drawing group attention and minimizing distractions, and mild competition with another workshop presenter scheduled in the same time slot. About 1 hour. {return}

Girl Scouts, 1991; also gave a weed identification workshop and weedwalk to a small group of girl scouts. Preparation of age-appropriate materials and handouts, keeping the attention of children and minimization of distractions. Also the necessity of additional accommodations to talk about safety with plants and to ensure only safe and very easily identified plants were used, appropriate to the audience. About 1.5 hours.

Private herbal preparations workshop, 1992; part of my self-run business "The Fairy Ring", a small workshop with few participants on making herbal medicines. Hands on workshop for about 3 hours. Again, had to make appropriate handouts and prepare materials, and in this case more one-on-one coaching and guiding was involved. {return}

5 Bi-Request, NYC, NY - 1995-1998. Rotating facilitator for weekly meetings for several years, facilitated perhaps 2-4 2hr meetings per quarter for several years, participated in organizational meetings and group decision making processes and group guidance. Discussion meetings ranged from 10-25 people per meeting, and had a topic for half the meeting, after which the meeting was opened up to general discussion. {return}

6 Once-a-month meeting, 20-30 attendees. I was not a regular facilitator. Tri-State Poly discussion group 1999-2001; group facilitator for a 20-30 person discussion group of 3 hrs per session. Facilitators rotate, I facilitated only 2-3 times. Polyamory is the love of multiple people. The “Poly” community advocates responsible, open, and honest multiple partner relationships. {return}

7 Tri-State Poly Support Group, The Center, NYC, NY - 2002. One time only, fill-in facilitator for a small (5-10 person) support group held at The Center in NYC, 2002. I was not an attendee of the support group. The support group facilitator, having been to sessions I facilitated elsewhere, entrusted her support group to me when she was unable to make it, so I filled in for this group without knowledge of the persons attending, or the atmosphere. {return}

8 Loving Possibilities™: The Prologue, April 27-29, 2001; ran a weekend-long workshop out of my home, including advertising the event, tracking participants, creating handouts, gathering workshop supplies, refreshments, etc. approx. 20 hrs, 10 attendees.

Loving Possibilities™, KinNorth V (March 2003) – short and truncated version of the longer workshop run during a convention; presenter; approx. 2 hrs, 12 attendees. Included the need to weed through materials to determine what would be covered in the short time allotted. {return}

9 KinNorth I (March, 1999), KinNorth II (March, 2000), KinNorth III (March 2001); two hour discussion group on a specialty topic. Included audio taping of the discussion 1 or 2 years (including my setting up of the taping equipment). {return}

10 Volunteer, New York Open Center (NYOC) approx 1991. Spent 6 months working at NYOC as a volunteer registering people for classes and workshops and where I could attend workshops for free on a 1 hour of class time per 1 hour of volunteer time basis (policies changed thereafter) as long as I worked on room preparation, played "gofer" during the workshops, attempted to anticipate the needs of the workshops presenters and participants so that supplies could be on-hand before they were needed. This experience gave a unique simultaneous sense of helping the workshop tick and participating at the same time as trying to read the presenter’s mind. There’s no end of aid this experience provided towards my future facilitation of workshops. 200+ hours of enabling and setting up workshops, hundreds of total participants (20-150 people per workshop). {return}

11 Owned and moderated a variety of computerized discussion groups on privately owned dial-up bulletin board systems, the latest of which was Expressways BBS (Brooklyn, NYC) owned and operated by Ben Rivera, references available. {return}

12 List owner, 1999-present; owner and/or co-moderator of approximately 10 online discussion groups, most of which are on Yahoo-groups, the content of these lists are basically private. Many members are on "no mail" and it’s not possible to tell if they read the listmail by web, and some lists are less active than others. The most popular list is about 40 active participants, 100-150 less active participants and posts approximately 10-20 emails a day on average, and began in 1999. Duties include drawing up rules for list participation, conferring with fellow moderators on list policies and in judging breaches of rules and means for participant discipline, choosing moderators and junior moderators to help me keep track of the list, welcoming new members, settling disputes and smoothing ruf fled feathers. {return}

13 General “chat room” moderator on BBSes. I also formed, organized and facilitated ongoing topic-based chat dis- cussions called “Live-On-Line” (LOL). I organized and facilitated online group discussions for community website FAQ (frequently asked questions) documents and other group-based documentation/editorial meetings. Most recently, I have helped set up and run online business presentations, using WebEx. {return}