Why We All Need to Learn Facilitation Skills When Discussing DEI

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

From family gatherings to professional settings, I’ve witnessed firsthand how effective facilitation can transform tense situations into opportunities for growth and understanding. I’ve also seen how effective facilitation can help with brainstorming, creativity, and connection within teams. As a facilitator myself, I believe everyone – whether you are an organizer, manager, individual contributor, or CEO- should have baseline facilitation skills. According to an article in Forbes, Dana Brownlee says that facilitation skills “offer leaders an arsenal of techniques that enable them to strike that delicate balance of focusing on task and relationship,” which, from experience, is true.

More specifically, those of us in formal or informal DEI roles need tools and strategies to support individuals and groups in navigating challenging conversations around identity, bias, or organizational change while deepening workplace relationships. We believe that facilitation skills are essential for DEI-related conversations to be effective. It’s important to understand the role of facilitation, the role of the facilitator, and various facilitation competencies that can support employees during conversations. In this blog post, I’ll share a bit more about how we think about some of these terms and a few facilitation skills that can shift the dynamic of your next workshop, team meeting, or DEI retreat.

What is the purpose of facilitation?

Facilitation creates space and opportunity to explore, question, or shift a specific topic or conversation. Facilitation goes beyond merely guiding discussions; it involves creating an environment where all voices or ideas are heard, and meaningful dialogue can occur. In the context of DEI, facilitation becomes a catalyst for exploring complex issues, challenging assumptions, and finding solutions. Instead of having a top-down approach when leading or navigating DEI-related conversations, facilitation provides a space for all parties involved to be part of the conversation in various ways.

What is the role of the facilitator?

Facilitators play a multifaceted role. You don’t have to have an official facilitator title at work to create and hold space for your team. As facilitators, we want to think about aligning ourselves with the discussion’s goals and the people involved while acknowledging and addressing diverse perspectives. This requires striking a balance between maintaining focus and managing group dynamics. This can be difficult because sometimes the facilitator might need to “fix” an issue, pick a side, or provide all the answers to the group. Our role is to bring the group back to the purpose of the meeting or conversation and to be a guide and partner rather than anything else.

What are some key competencies for effective facilitation?

During the LDC program, we cover a few facilitation competencies that our team has gathered over their collective years of facilitating DEI-related conversations. Here are a few examples:

  • Emotional Awareness: We want to be emotionally aware of ourselves and the people we’re in the same physical or virtual room with so that colleagues can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences. This may mean paying attention to our emotions, feelings, and triggers (instead of suppressing them) and allowing others to do the same or share what’s showing up for them. We can normalize emotions in DEI work by sharing that it’s okay to notice or name what might be coming up for us as we have DEI-related conversations. The goal isn’t to judge or automatically shift how people are feeling but to be a witness and allow others to witness each other.
  • Being Present and Supporting Focus: Sometimes, during group conversations, it can be easy to get off track or to go off on a tangent. Learning how not to control or demand what people should do or say is a skill. We want to remind them why the conversation is happening and support the group with their common goal or intention. Doing so requires us to pay attention so that others can mirror our attentiveness. Time management is also critical, especially in discussions about DEI. In your role as a facilitator, you want to allocate sufficient time for conversations and adapt the agenda as needed to not only ensure productivity but also ensure people don’t feel like the conversation was rushed.
  • Addressing Conflict: I’ve been in DEI-related workshops where a colleague might say something problematic or harmful, and no one knows what to do next or is afraid to speak up. This is why establishing clear guidelines and expectations and having a transparent, agreed-upon model of handling conflict is essential. Effective facilitation will allow disputes to be addressed promptly while upholding psychological and emotional safety for all participants. You may have to use the calling-in/calling-out method, depending on the conversation type.