Background reading

Facilitation, Mediation and Negotiation


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Facilitation, Mediation and Negotiation

Bernard le Roux


As these notes focus on facilitation, we need, first, to understand what we mean by the word facilitation and what a facilitator’s role entails. Merriam-Webster defines the verb facilitate as follows: “to make easier; to help bring about”.

Facilitation then is the act of making something easier or helping bring something about. But what is it that is made easier and for whom? Why and how we facilitate will be explored during the course.

As regards collective intelligence, we can say that the facilitator’s task is to make it easier for a group to bring about that which it needs to do using the collective wisdom of the participants and those they represent.

Now, you might think, that sounds like a fluffy definition if ever there was one. Can’t you be more specific? Shouldn’t you have a clear picture of what you want a group to achieve before you start a process with them? Shouldn’t you play a leading role and help the group to achieve a set goal? That is after all what experts are for, you might say. The answer to all these questions is “no”.

The facilitator, in our thinking, enables the group to make its own decisions. The facilitator follows the group rather than leading, pushing or nudging it. She may contribute with her experience of process and with her special skills but always does so in order to support the group – to help bring about that which the group needs to achieve (rather than what she wants to achieve).

There is an important distinction between the role of the facilitator and that of the leader or the participant. In an advanced facilitation course, we will explore the relationship between the leader, the participant, and the facilitator in more depth. Let us keep it simple here and say that the facilitator’s job is to create an environment that is optimal for the group to express itself and to resolve its difficulties to attain the goals it sets for itself.

We often say that the facilitator’s task is to create a safe space for that which needs to be said to be said – no more.

This may sound simple, but as you will discover, it is no easy task. If we are to avoid the kind of meetings where everybody says that which is “politically correct” or that which “won’t rock the boat”, there is the risk that the conversation will get stuck when any kind of contention arises.


Mediation more clearly implies the position of a facilitator as being in the middle (the Latin “medius” means middle). A mediator acts as an intermediary to bring about some kind of accord (MerriamWebster).

Being in the middle implies that there are at least two sides. This then gives us a clue as to the mediator’s role: the person who helps two sides – implying two opposing sides – to talk to each other to achieve a result; preferably a result that works for both of them.

The mediator’s role is to assist two opposing sides to move forward – and in the spirit of collective intelligence, this would mean moving forward together.

I use the words “moving forward” rather than speaking about resolving a conflict or finding solutions to a problem. Mediation does not need to resolve a conflict or solve a problem. Sometimes parties can agree that they disagree and move forward despite their differences.

A mediator, in our thinking, is a facilitator. The difference is that the mediator works within the field of tension created by conflict. She operates in that space between two opposing perspectives.

As we shall see below, conflict can be seen as an escalating scale. Conflicts contain different degrees of tension and may affect groups and individuals in different ways.

(See the additional notes on mediation below)


Negotiation differs from both facilitation and mediation. We can describe it as the “art” of getting what you want or getting others to do what you want them to do.

So why negotiation? Isn’t our focus on getting others to resolve their issues themselves?

In all dialogue, there is inevitably an element of convincing people that speaking about an issue is better than keeping silent or attacking each other verbally, physically and on social media. At this point, you move into the role of negotiator.

It might involve getting parties into the same room or even simply agreeing to engage in a dialogue. Sometimes it involves a breakdown in communication which needs to be restored. We have also found that “selling” the idea of dialogue to colleagues and organisational leadership requires good negotiation skills.

The form of negotiation we are speaking of is not (repeat not) about manipulating others or forcing them to do something that they do not want to do. It is rather a way of connecting with others in a deeper way, understanding their needs and hopes and working with them to realise these despite internal resistance.

This brand of negotiation is based on cooperation rather than coercion. It is a recognition that you are a co-actor with experience (and conviction) of the value of dialogue. You contribute with your experience and knowledge to create an arena for peaceful resolution of a given problem or issue.

(See the additional notes on negotiation below)

Process design

We distinguish between the roles of the facilitator or mediator and that of the designer of a process. The roles may well be borne by the same person or team, but we find it useful to focus on them separately.

A brief note on roles: while there are people who call themselves facilitators, mediators and designers and identify with these labels professionally, we believe that it is possible for anybody to take on the role of facilitator, mediator or designer. This does not mean that everybody will be equally competent at it, but it is a role that can be filled by any given person in a group at any time. It is possible then to shift from the role as a leader or expert to that of a facilitator and back.

The designer of a dialogue process has the responsibility to make decisions about the structure and form of the process. This involves, to put it simply, decisions about who speaks to whom, what they speak about, and when and how they do it. It also involves, as you will learn on the course, where, when and how best to intervene in order to achieve the best results. These decisions can be made before a process starts but might need to be made during a meeting or between meetings. If and where possible these decisions need to include the participants in some way.

This raises several issues. We have often been asked whether we can provide a handbook of methods for dialogue. A method enables us to follow a process step by step – the way a recipe helps us to bake a cake. However, when an issue is complex (we will explain the idea of complexity below), it is also dynamic. This means that it changes – either over a longer time or suddenly – thus requiring decisions to adjust the process to the changed circumstances. We do not believe that it is helpful to force a group through a method when it clearly is not being helpful. Involving the participants in the design of the process is an issue that we will discuss in more detail under the meta-skill of inclusion.

(You will find a comprehensive discussion on design and our model in the section in the text “A process logic”.)


Additional thoughts on mediation

Mediation can be described as a process where a neutral third party helps parties deal with a conflict, disagreement or tension between them. Here are some important points for the mediator to keep in mind:

  • Follow the parties: allow them to make decisions about the process and the content of the conversation
  • Slow the conversation down (using mirroring and summarising)
  • Your job is not to find solutions for the parties. It is their conflict, and you only make it possible for them to have a good conversation to find a way forward that works for them
  • Transformative Mediation suggests that the mediator enables parties to resolve their conflicts by improving the quality of the interaction (or conversation) between them. You will notice that the three skills that we have covered in detail, mirroring, summarising and clarifying, all contribute to openness and clarity (or empowerment and recognition as Transformative Mediation refers to it). By constantly using these tools, the parties will become more open towards each other and clearer about their own position and that of the other.
  • The purpose of mediation is not necessarily reaching an agreement. Parties may differ on some issues but agree that they can live peacefully side by side despite these. They may also realise that they cannot agree, in which case they are hopefully clearer and more empowered to make their own decisions about a relationship with the other party.
  • In some ways, the Transformative Mediation approach is similar to facilitation and indeed the two overlap. While mediation relies on a neutral third party, facilitation may at times be a role that a leader or a participant chooses to take without necessarily mediating or having a formal facilitation function.
  • There are other schools of mediation that have other approaches to both the function and the method of mediation. They might seek to solve a problem using problem-solving methods or to reconcile parties to one another. The transformative approach seeks to transform the conflict interaction, which may, in turn, lead to the parties experiencing a personal transformation and/or the transformation of their relationship.
  • Finally, you might find yourself as a facilitator of dialogue moving more into a mediation mode at times and at other times facilitating the conversation in a more laissez-faire way or by using more active dialogue tools.


Additional thoughts on negotiation

As a negotiator you are trying to convince someone to follow a course of action. You are not neutral as a negotiator although you should move into a “neutral zone” when you listen and seek to understand the person you are negotiating with.

There are many approaches to negotiation. On one end of the spectrum you have negotiation that seeks to maximise the gains for yourself or the party you represent. On the other end, there is negotiation that seeks to find solutions that work for both. Here the relationship is valued above the individual gains you might achieve.

There are also different ways of using negotiation. A more confrontative mediation uses techniques to pressure the other party into agreement or to manipulate them into believing that they are “getting a good deal” (which may not be the case). A relational approach to mediation will use tools that are very similar to those we have covered in order to establish a relationship and a connection with the other person. This approach makes the claim that very few decisions are made rationally and that by establishing a deeper connection with the other person, you will be far more likely to reach a deal than when you argue rationally to convince them.

We use negotiation in dialogue processes more than we think. In the preparation phase we try to get parties to come to the table (or to join the dialogue). We listen, we establish trust and relationship, we explain and try to address fears that people might have. We listen to their NO and then move to the other parties to see if they would consider building in safeguards to make it easier for the other party to participate. All this happens before the actual conversation takes place. We might even negotiate the rules of engagement (the rules for the conversation) before the parties physically meet each other. At times it might happen that somebody becomes upset and leaves the room. Even here negotiation to get them to join the conversation again might be appropriate.

There is a decision-making process used in the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy that is in fact a form of negotiation. First it seeks the majority view in a group and then makes it safe for the minority voice (or the NO) to be voiced clearly. The facilitator then asks the minority (often one by one) what they need in order to support the majority decision (the question is a brilliant one: “What do you need to come along?”). This raises the doubts, concerns and fears of those not supporting the decision and these are regarded as wisdom for the majority. The majority decision is then adapted to include the suggestions of the minority and “voted on” or reconsidered by the group. This is a negotiation in the most inclusive sense and has proven to be very effective in reaching more sustainable decisions.