Lindsay Kishter

Scene from the movie 12 Angry Men

A scene from Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film “12 Angry Men”
Photo from Fogs’ Movie Reviews

My fellow jurors and I had been deliberating for only five minutes when it hit me: we needed a facilitator. After a day and a half of hearing testimony—and express instruction to not utter a word about the case to anyone—we were bursting. We had a clear job: delivering a unanimous verdict on two separate drug charges. But we had no idea where to begin.

First, let me say that there’s no game plan for serving on a jury. The guidance is nil. I didn’t really get this until we entered the deliberation room and I felt the group hesitate. Deliberate? On what, exactly? We threw out facts across the table, we asked questions. We reveled in the ability to finally talk to one another about what we’d just heard. But a decision? Heck no.

And that’s when I spotted the giant whiteboard across the room. We were saved. It was the tool we needed to structure the conversation. I knew if we could just map out the evidence as a group and debate it in a logical order, we’d not only reach a decision, we’d reach the best one. I stood up, grabbed a marker, and found myself facilitating jury duty.

Granted, it was like no other facilitation—there was no time to map out an agenda and carefully craft focus areas for discussions. But the simple act of mapping out our problem and decisions was so effective that other jurors started grabbing markers and joining in. Once we got going, it seemed absurd that every jury isn’t handed a facilitator. Jury duty re-taught me a few key things about what facilitation can do:

  1. No productive discussion happens without first agreeing on the problem or question. We wrongly assumed the question to tackle was “Is he innocent or guilty?” We had tried starting with that, but it went nowhere. Then we stepped back and defined each charge, mapped out the direct and circumstantial evidence separately, and systematically walked through each piece to determine whether we found it true, important, or supportive of either case. Ultimately, we discovered our decision centered on two pieces of testimony. Which did we agree was most credible? That was the question, and it focused the remainder of our deliberation.
  2. Visually map your discussion and decisions so everyone can follow. We were dealing with two separate charges but one set of evidence. Some evidence supported one charge, but not the other. Some evidence we determined was ultimately irrelevant. It was a lot to keep track of. Capturing each decision on the whiteboard gave us something tangible to reference. When someone brought up a point we already discussed, we could refer to the group decision on the whiteboard and ask “Do we need to revisit it?” The answer was usually no.
  3. Each group must find common ground on definitions before any decision is made. “Reasonable doubt” seems like a simple concept until you have to apply it to a real case. I had an exceptionally smart, analytical, and respectful jury. This meant we spent a good deal of time discussing what terms like reasonable doubt meant to each of us and how we should deal with circumstantial evidence. We (of course) whiteboarded this as well. We could not reach a verdict without it.
  4. A structured discussion keeps individuals with different goals and perspectives focused on the common objective. We were 12 strangers with completely different backgrounds and expertise. Breaking the decision down into pieces of evidence allowed each person to contribute and build upon each other’s thoughts. We all also had different goals; one woman made it pretty clear she aimed to decide and get out as fast as possible. By structuring our discussion, we could make sure each discussion was on track, and remind those who were antsy what still needed to be done and why.
  5. Groups need controlled tangents to discuss complex issues without derailing. Each person had a lot to get off their chest: frustration at missing pieces of evidence, stories similar to the trial, concern about having to decide someone’s fate, and offhand comments for some comic relief. On their face, these discussions seemed unproductive; we weren’t making decisions. But they helped us build rapport and made sure each person had exhausted every point they felt was important. After a few minutes on each tangent, there was always someone to bring us back to the job at hand.

Here’s how I really know that a little facilitation can change any group experience: with the verdict reached, we all admitted that we actually had fun. Yes, actual fun.

I’ve assisted or led more than 50 facilitated workshops and meetings. In the hands of a skillful facilitator, I’ve watched diverse groups of people map out solutions to complex R&D problems, prioritize action plans, and develop recommendations for national policy. My jury trial was nowhere near as complex, but it deserved equal attention.  We knew we had an important job to do, and we did it well. That’s exhilarating.