Two weeks ago, I traveled to a rural community in northern Nicaragua with MANOS, a nonprofit organization from the College of William & Mary. They have been partnering with the community for eight years to address their top health concerns: access to clean water, nutrition, and the environment.
I have traveled with MANOS nine times, but on this trip, we tried a few facilitation techniques to guide our meetings about an ongoing small water-tank project. By the end of the week, I had gained a new appreciation for the effectiveness of simple facilitation techniques, as well as the challenges of adapting them to diverse cultures.
Our Meetings in the Past
We have led countless focus group and community meetings in the community, usually formatting discussions with up to 50 participants as unstructured dialogue. We routinely faced a few key challenges of this approach:
- Inclusive Dialogue: We often struggled to create a ‘neutral space’ for community members to share ideas. Power dynamics are intense in the area, with a small number of community members dominating many of the conversations in both small and large group settings.
- Efficient Use of Time: Meetings in the community usually start one to three hours late, and participants leave meetings by 6:30 p.m., because there’s no electricity to light their walks home. Within these constraints, we’re left with limited time to make much progress.
Applying Facilitation Techniques
This time, we decided to try a few new facilitation techniques during our community meetings (35 to 50 people) and focus group meetings (10 to 15 people).
- Timed Agenda: Preparing a timed agenda for each meeting forced us to streamline meeting priorities and to use participants’ time more efficiently. However, the specific times in the agenda became irrelevant because meetings started late, and not everyone in the community could read the agenda. Nonetheless, community members often referenced the agenda to track the meeting’s progress, and our preparation enabled all our meetings to end within the allotted time span.
- Structured Brainstorming: We held a couple of structured brainstorming sessions in each of our focus group meetings to gather ideas from each member. We were worried that community members would find this exercise uncomfortable, but many groups readily engaged with the exercise. It gave each member an equal voice and assured participants their thoughts were being heard.
- Prioritization: We asked community members to prioritize short-term goals for improvement projects. However, we ran into a few issues with this approach given the dynamics of the group. A few members tried to dictate the importance of particular ideas and sway the votes of others. In the future, we will work with the community to develop a system that better matches community dynamics.
In Nicaragua, we facilitate community dialogue to define solutions to community needs. Here at Nexight, we facilitate dialogue to define solutions for industries, companies, and other clients. Regardless of the setting, strong facilitation is crucial for constructive, collaborative, and enjoyable meetings. We certainly encountered obstacles when applying facilitation approaches that had been designed in Western business settings to a rural community in Nicaragua, but these approaches nonetheless had positive results. Working with communities to further adapt these techniques will help us run productive meetings that evoke insight from all participants.