How engaging can a large facilitated online session be?

Facilitated, on-line, multi-party sessions can be challenging to say the least. This blog post illustrates one way to carry off such an enterprise.

Martin Gilbraith

Economics of climate change mitigation options in the forest sectorThis was the question that intrigued me when I was first invited to work with with the Forestry Economics team of FAO, to design and facilitate an online conference this month on the Economics of climate change mitigation options in the forest sector.  The answer, as it turns out, is pretty engaging!

FAO approached me last September for my experience with the Adobe Connect online meeting platform, with which they are also familiar and which they had chosen to use for the project. Their aims for the conference were to connect researchers, practitioners and others to learn from each other on the costs and benefits of various mitigation options in the forestry sector in different countries, to gather data for a forthcoming FAO publication and perhaps also to establish a community of practice among participants for further learning and collaboration in the future.

The team had not before…

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Lessons from Diplomacy: Learning the Discipline of Negotiation

What can we learn from the practice of diplomacy that will help us negotiate? Whether it is natural resources, workplace conflict, or local policy disputes there are some golden rules to help us.

The Public Diplomacy Council recently published an essay by retired diplomat Donald Bishop who gave six rules that I summarize:

1. Take it all in. Be disciplined to read both sides of the question. You might extend this rule to “read all sides” because in most of our negotiations are not simply two-sided. Be sure to read all the documents.

2. Audit your own partisanship. Test yourself to check whether your support for one side is getting in the way of the negotiation.

3. Practice non-partisanship with careful referents. The author uses the example of never referring to one of our Presidents by using only their last name, but always including the title. For example, it is always President Bush, never Bush. Similarly, when referring to testimony by an opposing scientist, we should say “Dr. Jones” or “Professor Smith.”

4. Avoid partisan non-verbals. The author advises, “When discussing events and issues, don’t wince, roll your eyes, or adopt a sarcastic tone.  Rely on words.”

5. Just the facts. A good negotiator knows the facts and sticks to them: “Command of the facts demonstrates your knowledge, reins in wild thinking, and gives confidence….”

6. Model the America we all want. Perhaps the author gives his best advice when he tells us: “We have all heard individuals with opposing views make the case for civility, for nonpartisanship, for respect, … for enduring values, for transparency, for the long view.  As the old hymn says, ‘let it begin with me.'”

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Making the Process Work–Facilitation

“In control but not the judge.” This is how one facilitator described his role in a restorative justice meeting (Borton, 2013). This description is a classic statement about the role of a facilitator.

In Borton’s study, facilitators agreed on the mechanics of meeting management, including the importance of making the meeting happen, preparing the parties, and establishing meeting guidelines. “Making meetings happen required working out schedules and other logistical details. It also sometimes meant persuading parties to participate by being persistent and talking (with the parties) who were on the fence” (Page 201). Preparing the parties involved asking questions, hearing the stories of the parties, and explaining how the meeting would work. Facilitators used their pre-meeting interactions with the parties to gauge the kind of meeting that would be effective and work out–with the parties–the “little nitty gritty” issues that could make the meeting go more smoothly.

In moderating the meetings themselves, facilitators had to balance two factors: First was the need to develop relationships–through being self-aware, open, and empathetic–so that they could direct communication among the parties without determining the outcomes. Second was the the importance of understanding the needs of each party and making sure the parties were prepared to discuss those needs. Both of these factors are important in helping the parties reach agreements and establishing relationships for future interactions.

Facilitators help the parties reach agreement, but lets reflect on the word “control” that was used by one of the respondents in Borton’s study. Of course, a facilitator cannot control the behaviors of the parties. What the facilitator can do is ensure that the process guidelines and norms are understood and followed by the parties. The facilitator can also help the parties keep on track, especially if a good understanding of the parties’ needs has been developed. The parties make the decisions but the facilitator manages the process.

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The Power of Collaboration

We often hear about the power of collaboration. It is good to find examples. One example appeared in a recent issue of Public Administration Review. The short article by David Wang is entitled “A Simple Lesson about the Power of Collaboration.” He describes a collaboration among farm workers, growers, and buyers. The lessons include having a vision for how the collaboration could work, sticking with that vision over the long-run, receiving some outside support, and building trusting relationships. You can find the article on page 444 of Volume 74, Issue 4.

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Choosing the Right Representative


I have been reading an interesting history of a slice of diplomacy from the Second World War. President Roosevelt used personal representatives–often informally–to help him understand and coordinate with our allies. This led me to thinking about choosing the right representatives as lead negotiators for an organization. 

As Michael Fullilove tells it in his book Rendezvous with Destiny, Roosevelt sent five men as his personal representatives: Sumner Welles, Bill Donovan, Harry Hopkins, Wendell Willkie, and Averell Harriman. These were all people the President knew, but they were not all his friends. One–Willkie–had run against him for President in 1940. They each performed well and provided great service to the United States. 

Was Roosevelt lucky or was he good at choosing these representatives? Probably both. Here are some of the traits shared by the five. First, they were loyal to the President even when they did not fully agree with his policies. Second, they were deeply knowledgeable about American policy and politics. Third, they were hard-working and energetic. Fourth, they each could skillfully build and maintain relationships. 

These are traits we would like to see in those who represent us in negotiations. We have written about other important attributes of a good negotiator (click here to download).

Loyalty: Effective representatives are those who understand the mission and are committed to pursuing it. If they disagree they should be able to tell us and we should be willing to listen.

Deep Knowledge: Representatives should understand the technical details as well as the negotiation or regulatory process.

Hard Work and Energy: Representatives who are able and willing to put in the time and personal resources necessary to perform the task at hand are most likely to be successful.

Relationships: Successful representatives go beyond merely presenting our side of the argument. They listen to the other side, build trust, and empathize. 

Click here to read some other skills.


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Keys to Negotiation 12: Personal Bonds


We often say of negotiation that it is important to establish personal connections. Sometimes this is interpreted to mean that we should get to know the other stakeholders, maybe through social interactions. Social interactions are certainly important, but recent research suggests that one vital key to successful negotiation is the foundation of personal bonds. This implies more than meeting and greeting.

Continue reading

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Addiction to Fear: The Importance of Frames

Often, when we interview parties in a dispute, we find that they have focused on the threats posed by their adversaries. In these situations, it is important to step back and examine the threats as objectively as possible.

A recent article published in The Duck of Minerva gives a good example of using objective analysis to examine threats. Although the example given is threats that would need to be countered by an independent Scotland, the article is worth a read.

The authors suggest three themes that we might consider in an objective threat analysis:

  1. Frames: As we examine the arguments being used  to describe the threats we face, it is important to think about alternative frames. How could this conflict (or potential conflict) be seen from a different angle? Why has the conflict been framed in the way that it has? Have we selected the right frame to guide our planning?
  2. Addiction to Fear: It is always advisable to understand whether or not we have succumbed to the temptation to focus on our fears. If the authors are correct, humans are quick to think about what makes them afraid. Those who are planning a negotiation should be encouraged to also think about opportunities.
  3. Threat Categories: The authors use three categories to examine the question of potential threats. These might be expressed as Structural, Situational, and Complications.

Structural threats arise from the structure of our environment. These “institutional” factors can include the rules under which we operate, organizational policies, or supervisory span of control. Situational threats might include our adversaries’ incentives to cause conflict. Shared incentives to resolve conflicts could also be fruitful lines for examination. Complications might include such considerations as the effects of our alliances.

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