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The Skilled Facilitator (Book Review)

The latest edition of The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz is much improved over the earlier edition, and, in my opinion, advances the art of facilitation by reaching back into the work of Action Science and bringing it into the modern facilitation field. I would like to turn your attention to one facet of this book, because I think it applies particularly to ADR work in general. This is the theory of unilateral control versus mutual control in group work.

I won’t go into great detail about this theory; Roger does an excellent job of that in his book. It seems to me that this is an issue we don’t necessarily handle well. I know from my own experience, in mediation, facilitation and hosting workshops, that I catch myself trying to protect myself and others from embarrassment by easing into a difficult subject with gently leading questions, by proposing courses of action or asking the gentle, open ended questions about other people’s ideas without stating my own ideas or explaining my reasoning clearly, or by acting less consciously than I would like on theories of how the group should act to be more effective that go against what I say I believe in.

The leading questions are in some ways the most difficult for me, because they can subtly morph out of helpful open ended questions that I use to positive effect. I think that the difference lies in my intent in asking the question. To the extent that I am curious to learn the other persons’ perspective I think the question is helpful. The rub comes when the other person resists the question in some way. They may not answer, give an answer that I think is superficial, or answer in a way that is blaming of others rather than revealing the basis for their own views. This is where I find the temptation to gently reframe the same question in an attempt to get them to go where I think they need to go.

I find that this happens to me because I have made a decision at some level, often not very conscious, to protect myself or them from difficult feelings. I may fear exposing my own inaccurate assumptions. I may believe that speaking honestly will increase their defensiveness and create unnecessary conflict in the group.

Roger addresses these questions in several ways. One, from the cognitive viewpoint, uses the two column method for self discovery. That is, write down what was the actual conversation going on in the right hand column, and what you were thinking in the left. Comparing the two can help you identify where you became aware of unstated assumptions and inferences about the situation. You can then look at how you acted to determine some of what was your contribution to the ineffective actions of the group. This keeping private of our assumptions, beliefs and reasoning is a cornerstone of the unilateral control model of professional behavior. The model Roger espouses, the mutual control model, requires surfacing your assumptions, beliefs, reasoning, etc. and talking about it with others in a way that invites expression of their views and discussion of how to address group behavior changes.

There is much more to this than I can go into in this space. I have changed the way I behave as a facilitator, mediator and workshop facilitator. For example, I am more conscious of explaining why I am asking questions or suggesting actions during mediations, and work to prepare my workshops so that there is both a predetermined form and content based on my learning and experience, and room for co-creating the workshops in some ways that brings to bear the knowledge of the participants. I find this process challenging, and very worthwhile in terms of the effect on my clients. I recommend this book to any ADR professional as a resource for personal and professional development.


Sterling Newberry

Sterling Newberry is a Certified Professional Facilitator by the International Association of Facilitators, and has a BA in Sociology from Dickinson College, and a Graduate Certificate in Conflict Resolution from John F. Kennedy University. He believes that organizations are living organisms, that each person plays a vital role in the… MORE >

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