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Advice & News

February 22, 2019

Seeking Facilitators and Bridge Builders: The Heart of Any Successful Institution


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Conflict abounds. The political, cultural, and social landscape seems more fractured by irreconcilable differences in perspectives and values than any time in living memory. Our workplaces, classrooms, and academic environments are no less susceptible to these realities. There are no easy solutions, but there are choices about the role we play. Do we contribute to escalating tensions or help others work through tensions to find common ground? Is taking sides more important than stepping back to foster understanding, engage in problem-solving, and collaborate to achieve common goals?

Where are the facilitators, conveners, mediators, bridge builders, and peacemakers? Here is an idea: Perhaps you are such a person. This may sound too noble, but think about how serving in such a role in your field, discipline, or profession could make a difference to the individuals and groups you serve or with whom you interact. The skills, traits, and qualities embodied in such roles could, in fact, make the difference in opportunities you receive for:

  • Employment: You accepted a tenure-track position in an institution after serving three years at another institution. You know you were hired based on your teaching and research qualifications, including collaborating with faculty within and outside your former department that resulted in numerous publications and grants. You learn through the grapevine that the other person considered for your position may have been slightly more qualified in a few areas, but was "in it for himself" with a poor record of working with other academics resulting in fewer publications and grants.
  • Advancement: You are part of a student affairs group responsible for social justice co-curricular education. Factions have formed. One group has a "take no prisoners" approach to social justice without apology to the sensibilities of students, regardless of their level of maturity or ability to understand and respond to controversial topics. The other group is overly resistant to the point of naysaying every idea, putting in jeopardy the entire co-curricular program for the academic year. You shuttle tirelessly between these groups, piecing together ideas from both, to develop a program that achieves a reasonable balance. The leadership you demonstrate becomes a factor in being promoted later to a leadership role within the division.
  • Recognition: You spent years in a professional staff role that has involved the development of countless programs and projects requiring collaboration across multiple units within your institution. These endeavors frequently involve conflicts based on competing demands, priorities, time constraints, and resources. You recently received a prestigious leadership award that is conferred to one staff member each year. The individuals who nominated you, who represent many of these diverse units, noted how frequently the success of these projects and programs largely depended on your thoughtful and patient interventions.

If we agree that the conflicts around us are significant, we can agree that the need for facilitators, bridge builders, and similar roles is just as significant. You may not be known formally as a convener or mediator, but that is essentially what you are. It is certainly something employers value. So, what does your resume say? Here are essential traits for such roles, whether or not your resume lists them explicitly. I refer generically to the role of "facilitator" in this discussion.

  • Process advocate. Every interaction involves two conversations: Substance, or what we are meeting to talk about, and process, or how we go about talking about what we are meeting to talk about. When we forget basic communication practices like listening, maintaining respect, and avoiding accusations and personal attacks, discussions on substantive matters falter. Facilitators help others take a step (or two) back to explore how they are communicating to address concerns before returning to substantive conversations. They are process advocates, helping to create awareness about how others are communicating and relating in conversation. This, in turn, facilitates more productive substantive conversations and outcomes.
  • Patient and calm. We tend to lack patience with those with whom we disagree, which can cause us to feel harried, frustrated, and stressed. We can become reactive and agitated with the slightest comment or nuance. Facilitators provide a calming presence and give time for others to think through and reassess their reactions and responses. They don't overreact to communication missteps, so others can learn not to overact either.
  • Non-judgmental. Conflict can involve finger-pointing and blame. People in conflict serve as judge and jury, condemning others for their actions and behaviors while exonerating themselves. Facilitators seek to remove blame and accusation from the equation. Without excusing such behaviors, they help others honestly acknowledge how such behaviors get in the way to resolving disagreement so they can learn from them and move forward with more constructive behaviors and responses.
  • Tireless. Facilitators work ceaselessly until resolution is achieved, however distant the prospect may seem at times. They look for glimmers of agreement to build upon and treat small concessions as great victories. Just when moving forward and finding common ground seems impossible, facilitators find ways to keep people searching. If resolution is ultimately not possible, facilitators are the last to concede.
  • Thick-skinned. In an attempt to divert attention and responsibility for their actions away from themselves, some may fault the facilitator who is trying to encourage resolution. They may accuse facilitators of saying things best unsaid or opening cans of worms best left unopened. Facilitators surface issues so individuals can honestly address them and understand that undeserved blame comes with the territory. They don't allow themselves to be fazed.
  • Tolerant of high emotions and challenging behaviors. Facilitators don't expect people in conflict simply to cease behaviors that brought them to conflict in the first place. Facilitators may suggest some form of ground rules and encourage listening but aren't surprised when others forget and fall back to reliable, and often dysfunctional, patterns or behavior. They tolerate this as part of the process. Continuing with such behaviors and emotions may be necessary for a while, and going too far to manage them can suppress individuals from saying what they need to say. It may also be necessary before individuals are able to more objectively examine how their behaviors negatively impact their communication and interactions with others.
  • Not expecting recognition or praise. Facilitating peace and conflict resolution can be a thankless job. Being the calm, quiet presence for others often goes unnoticed. Facilitators are grounded and centered. They take quiet satisfaction in their contribution in guiding others to resolution.
There are many more skills and traits I could discuss, such as listening, interpersonal competence, capacity to discuss culturally sensitive topics, being vulnerable and self-effacing, promoting dialogue over debate, and coaching others through conflict situations. There is an ever-growing need for individuals who possess the skills and attributes of facilitators, mediators, conveners, and similar roles. Strive to develop them. Embrace the opportunities that await you if you are willing to transcend the conflicts that take hold of others and be the source for releasing their grip.