On Mediation


December 16, 2003


Facilitation moves companies, communities forward from dispute

One voice. That was the will of the citizens of La Jolla when they were confronted with the task of redesigning their planning organization. The community needed to develop a voice that represented the entire populace, and not be over-represented by any single entity. Through a series of open meetings, one person after another spoke of feeling disenfranchised, while others defended the status quo. Perhaps, some said, developers and realtors had too much influence on what was being approved by the group. Others worried about traffic and commercial growth, and felt they were not being properly presented to the City Council. Also in dispute: A new gas station being built across from a residential area, and commercial properties, which were sometimes offered variances for building height restrictions.

Councilman Scott Peters hoped that the La Jollans could unite and make recommendations to City Council that would represent the collective will of the people.

La Jolla is a unique community with a history and a future that often come into conflict. Those who felt that La Jolla should maintain, and in some cases, restore its small town "village" image felt excluded from planning decisions. There was a history of several factions speaking for their individual interests at City Council meetings, leaving the decision makers wondering who -- if anyone -- spoke for the community.

The goal of the meetings was to get the community to come together and speak with one voice.

As facilitators, working for the San Diego Mediation Center, we were charged with creating an open forum, structured and fair to all. We held meetings in Bird Rock, The Village and two at UCSD, locations we hoped convenient for all.

Facilitation is a process directed by a neutral party to guide a usually large group toward a common, understood goal incorporating various, often conflicting perspectives. After identifying and evaluating the different interests of those participating, the process works toward incorporating the various interests into a resolution that acknowledges everyone's perspective. While not everyone gets everything wished for, the very least each participant gets is a considerate hearing. They also leave with a better understanding of the opinions of others.

After the four meetings were held, a plan was drawn up to address the suggestions of the group. The new plan would definitely restructure the planning group to be more inclusive. Today, efforts continue to implement the decisions of the participants.

Facilitation has proved a valuable process in many different situations.

Any time there is a group involved with decision making, consideration of all the various perspectives is an effective way to reach decisions without alienating any of the stakeholders. As facilitators, we also facilitate workplace and corporate issues. As we all know, a workplace can be a hotbed for conflict. The close proximity, shared responsibilities, personal tastes in music, quiet, room temperature and so on, are all grist for the dispute mill. The facilitation process helps everyone understand his or her role and how it fits in with the corporate goals. It is then possible to conduct a discussion about even serious issues such as productivity, and a new direction, supported by a newly energized team.

Without violating confidentiality, we recall a workplace-related facilitation that occurred a few years ago. A manager in one department was replaced. The previous manager had a style and manner that the employees liked and appreciated. The new manager was definitely different, and it was important for the entire department to vent their feelings and frustrations over the differences. It was equally important for the new manager to explain his techniques and to hear the concerns of the individuals. The facilitation resulted in a better understanding of the overall structure and communication process within the department. Mutual respect and trust were the long-range benefits.

In such instances, facilitation can be a powerful tool. Facilitation provides clarity of a company's mission, on a micro and macro level. It also defines perception and ensures the communication process among individuals and various departments. Through this process, trust and respect are less likely to fall victim to misunderstanding. Worker morale is improved and molehills are far less likely to grow into mountains.

The facilitation framework is comprised of many components, including ground rules, confidentiality (as appropriate to the company's culture) and an atmosphere of "good faith" on behalf of the parties involved. Critical to the process, since facilitation is future focused, is the shared responsibility of how the individual, team and/or company move forward in keeping with the shared vision, mission and values.

Communication in the workplace is not always easy, and words can hurt more than "sticks and stones." Workplace morale can often translate into loss of productivity and revenue. In the arena of civic issues, facilitation can offer individuals a role in the decision making process. While not everyone is going to be satisfied with the results, at least through this process, they emerge feeling empowered through their participation in a well-structured process that has provided opportunities of inclusion unavailable in the past.

Fobian and Dixon mediate and facilitate for the San Diego Mediation Center.


December 16, 2003