Building bridges through facilitation

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Rosemary Cairns
The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford, England (photo by Rosemary Cairns).
Bob MacKenzie

Bridge-building as a powerful metaphor

From the outset, the metaphor of bridge-building has been a compelling, energising and unifying device for this special, themed conference edition of e-O&P. And so, while recognising that facilitators work with words, silences and images that are more ephemeral than metal, wood or cement, we wanted to begin by reflecting on the nature and purpose of bridges.

‗A bridge is a structure built to span physical obstacles such as a body of water, valley or road, for the purpose of providing passage over the obstacle. Designs of bridges vary depending on the function of the bridge, the nature of the terrain where the bridge is constructed, the material used to make it and the funds available to build it … The first bridges were made by nature itself — as simple as a log fallen across a stream or stones in the river. …‘1

While nature does not consciously plan to build a bridge across a stream, people have been able to shape and use these accidental linkages for our own purposes – to traverse what might otherwise be an impassable divide. Today, bridge building often has become much more scientific. Engineers assess structural efficiency as the ratio of load carried to bridge mass, taking into account the unique permutation of material types used in their construction (Moody, see endnote 5). But, whether the result is a simple rope bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge, the purpose remains the same – to get from one place to another, across what otherwise might be a natural barrier.

In many ways, that is the work in which facilitators are engaged. They help people reach out to each other across barriers, they create linkages, and they build connections. And just as bridge builders have done since the dawn of time, they use many materials and many techniques to help people create these bridges. But the key test is always the same – are the bridges fit for purpose? Do they achieve the linkages that the builders – or indeed the travellers – envisaged? Do they carry the weight of the group?

The challenges of bridge building

Xerxes‟ ambitions for the floating bridge over the Hellespont3

And as facilitators have often found, bridge-building can be challenging when there are different notions of what that bridge should look like, what purposes it should serve, or even if a bridge should be built at all. A classical example, particularly apposite to the location of IAF Europe‟s 2011 Conference in Istanbul, October 14-16, is Herodotus‟ 5th century BCE account of the floating bridge over the Hellespont2. He records how, in preparation for an invasion, the Persian king Xerxes the Great invested a colossal amount of resources in constructing two parallel floating bridges from present day Turkey to Greece over the narrow strait of what is now called the Dardanelles.

An artist’s 1909 illustration depicting Xerxes’ alleged “punishment” of the waters of the Hellespont4

When the first attempt failed, it is said that Xerxes beheaded his engineers, and had the turbulent waters whipped and symbolically shackled, in an attempt to reduce them to submission. How often have facilitators been made scapegoats for ill-conceived commissions or interventions?
Whether simple or complex, natural or engineered by humans, bridges are vulnerable creations. Exposed to the vagaries of the elements or human depredation, they require constant oversight, maintenance, repair, and sometimes re-design, demolition, dismantling or replacement. One does not build a bridge and then simply abandon it. So, too, facilitators must keep in mind the need to help participants learn how to maintain their bridge once built, or even to decide when that bridge must be demolished and a new one built. And that is a theme you will often find reflected in these articles – the importance of empowering people to manage process for themselves.

The iconic Stari Most bridge in Mostar had stood for centuries, until it was destroyed during the Bosnian war. There were other links between the two parts of Mostar, but none had the symbolism of this one. When it came time to rebuild, however, there were no plans because it had been constructed so many centuries ago.
To rebuild, they had to recover the original stones from the river bottom, and figure out how they should go together, from the stones and from the pictures of how the bridge had once looked in the minds of many people. In their minds they were not just rebuilding a bridge – they were rebuilding a community spirit.

The reconstructed Stari Most bridge in Mostar (photo Rosemary Cairns)

Shaping our world

Thus, as well as being elegant artefacts, icons, symbols, or feats of engineering, bridges shape our world and can bring dramatic change to our environment by connecting people who are otherwise divided or separated. This, too, has similarities to the work done by facilitators, and you will find stories here about how they are doing this.

‘Bridges are not only the superstars of the engineering world, they influence the development of cultures, environments and lives in more ways than we can count. Bridges shape skylines. Imagine San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge, or Manhattan without the Brooklyn Bridge [or Istanbul without the Bosphorus Bridge]. These structures also shape our lives, aiding commerce, social life and urban development.‘5

The bridge leading to the oldest part of Tbilisi, Georgia, once a key part of the Silk Route across Asia. (photo by Rosemary Cairns)

While bridges often carry positive associations, the bridge building process may not always be so welcome. People may think the location is wrong; that the building will be disruptive; or that the bridge will create unwanted side-effects. For example, while bridges carry urban traffic, that traffic can overwhelm once tranquil or isolated villages or cause horrendous traffic jams. The spaces beneath urban bridges often provide havens for homeless people or canvases for graffiti artists. People can dive off bridges to test themselves in a community ritual, or to deliberately end their lives. Bridges and bridge-building thus can carry both positive and negative connotations and generate resistance as well as cooperation – just as facilitation can. So it is important for us facilitators to be aware of the process of bridge-building and not just to focus only on the bridge itself. As bridge-builders, we carry a huge responsibility that we must approach both with a creative vision, with skill, and with due humility and diligence.

Writing as bridge-building

From the outset, we have consciously interpreted and developed our joint editorial relationship and role as one of critical friendship, providing constructive challenge and support to authors and each other during the drafting stages. We have also interpreted this project as a process of bridge-building. Jointly editing this edition, for example, has necessitated constant interaction between various people, many of whom have never met in person. This collaboration has also linked members of two different umbrella organisations (the IAF and AMED), which in turn, connect a host of overlapping organisations and interconnecting people. Thus this publishing enterprise spans and transcends spaces between different countries and cultures, different languages, different ways of thinking, and different forms of expression.

As editors, neither of us has so far had the pleasure of „meeting‟ in person, although we look forward to sharing a glass or two of wine on Friday 23 March 2012, following our Joint AMED/IAF Europe post-publication, post-Istanbul conference workshop in London, and we hope you will join us. Yet in the six or so months of our intensive and frequent interactions, we have come to a privileged understanding of how each other – and indeed each author – thinks, acts and writes, building a strong foundation for what we hope has been a facilitative, co-creative process for everyone concerned. This close writing relationship has been achieved through the virtual bridge provided by the internet, bringing home to us powerfully the amazing potential for digital technology, conversation and writing, in the right circumstances, to facilitate communication and action.

For their part, too, the authors have been engaged in building bridges between their own and other facilitators‟ theories, perspectives and practices. So, too, have the clients and other actors who appear as characters in their stories. They have been building bridges between their experiences of current conflict and aspirations for peace, learning how strategic planning can become an empowering and inclusive process, learning how to use the internet collaboratively in effective ways, and learning how to have deeply felt conversations in which the facilitator takes a back seat. They have been learning to share leadership with facilitators, just as facilitators have learned how to take the leadership when necessary.

Bridging structures

Once its foundations were laid, this anthology began to take shape as span of thoughts, ideas, experiences and perspectives, supported by four pillars – the headings of context, facilitator practice, facilitating facilitators and transformative facilitation that are indicated in the Contents Page. These four groupings are artificial, and not mutually exclusive, of course, and there is a considerable degree of crossover – a principal function of bridges, after all – between each.

In these pages, we discern multiple linkages. There appears to be a shared belief that all facilitation is in the service of empowering people when they are „stuck‟, in conflict, or need a better way to tackle challenging tasks. Every author seems to be testing and extending the boundaries of and between the spaces that facilitation occupies. All authors endeavour to fashion ever more precise tools, techniques and approaches, designed to honour, and operate within, the centrality of human relationships and interconnectedness. All would seem to argue that contemporary facilitation requires a reappraisal of traditional assumptions about dominant experts „doing unto others‟. A strong theme emerges of facilitation as a process which requires partnership and collaboration.

There also seems to be broad agreement about the prevalence of a seeming paradox in facilitation – the more you know, the less you (appear to) do. Perhaps this is akin to the state of „unconscious competence‟ – a condition of instinctive wisdom. From this state, it is often difficult to return to „conscious competence‟, where facilitators are able to explain meaningfully or readily to others exactly what they do in any given context or moment, and why they do it. Yet all contributors here have devoted time and energy to taking up that challenge, articulating their experiences and understanding for the benefit of a wider community of practice. While a variety of different perspectives and approaches is illustrated here, all appear to be founded on an aspiration to practise a role close to what Harrison Owen (2008) calls „holding the space‟. Every author has endeavoured to perform this difficult task and responsibility in their own unique way, and we thank and honour them for their enterprise.

The bridge across the Semuliki River, the largest river in this part of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Rosemary Cairns)

We also discern an acute awareness that creative facilitation has clear and measurable impacts, even if we are still working on finding ways to measure some of these results. Applying facilitation to public conversations and policy-making, for example, is bridging the divide between qualitative and quantitative measurement that has bedevilled evaluation for so long. When people learn to describe the results of their work, rather than their work alone, they tell a story of change and also generate evidence of what might be called a „return on investment‟. And this, too, is how facilitation is building bridges between how we see the world and the impact of our work within it.

Traffic across the Kalladi bridge at Batticaloa, in eastern Sri Lanka, an area that was greatly damaged in the 2004 tsunami. (Photo by Rosemary Cairns)

Facilitators as bridge builders: the authors   

The bridges constructed here are fashioned out of words.  And they are robust.  Despite their wide range of perspectives and contexts, none of the authors is suggesting that there’s only one way to facilitate.  You’ll not find here any attempt to impose rigid, standardised or homogenised formulae.  Indeed, flexibility and improvisation are recurring themes.  Within significant areas of overlap and agreement illustrated in these stories, there’s a clear commitment to letting a hundred flowers bloom, and to celebrating difference and diversity. 

In this vein, each author has contributed something different and enriching to the discourse of facilitation, and each writes with their own unique signature.  The following summary gives a flavour of their distinctiveness.


Several years ago in Edinburgh, Richard Chapman (UK) took part in a workshop run by Martin Gilbraith on the facilitation profession – past, present, and future. Three aspects came to the fore – individual practitioner journeys, the profession, and the wider social, community and global context.  In the spirit of that workshop, he takes us on a personally-guided whistle stop tour of how professional process facilitation emerged just after WWII, grew through four decades of exploration, research and development, and now offers a peer-developed infrastructure for the profession.

As our world model has shifted from an industrial to an ecological one, how we generate solutions to problems also has altered.  For facilitators, that means changing both how we do our work and how we learn to do it. The focus shifts from tools, techniques and processes, to who we are as facilitators.  Viv McWaters (Australia) and Johnnie Moore (UK) have developed an innovative and improvisational model for helping people learn how to facilitate, and they explain how this helps people learn how to be confident facilitators.

Annette Moench (Germany) and Yoga Nesadurai (Malaysia) also tackle the challenge of how to facilitate in a changing world that is affecting our lives at every level. This new world calls on us to become ‘transformative facilitators’ who can help people move from an individualistic perspective to an inter-connected, collective way of co-existence. They share some frameworks they have developed for this task, including the transformative spiral and the room of potentials, and explain how they have been using these tools in a variety of corporate settings.

Facilitator practice

Successful facilitation usually requires participants to change something, be it attitudes, values and perceptions, or systems, processes, and plans. Thus facilitators are almost always working with people who are making new patterns or breaking or re-shaping old patterns. Understanding the various dimensions of learning means facilitators can help participants learn how they learn, thus becoming more effective decision-makers, problem-solvers, innovators, leaders or team members. Ann Alder (UK) explains how she is drawing on the notions of patterns, norms and research into the seven dimensions of learning in order to help her clients build this meta-cognitive skill. 

Dancing doesn’t work well if both partners try to lead; a smooth process depends on one leading and one following, although they can exchange those roles if they wish. Similarly, in a facilitated event, the formal leader and the facilitator perform a delicate dance in terms of group leadership. Agreeing to facilitation de facto involves the formal leader temporarily relinquishing some of his or her authority. But what happens when no one wants to take the lead? Then the facilitator faces a challenge – someone must lead if the event is to be productive.  Sarah Lewis (UK) offers some lessons from experience about how facilitators can deal with the challenge of temporary leadership of a group.

Can you involve everyone in strategic planning? And can you teach the staff of an organisation to become facilitators, creating an ongoing and long term capacity for the organisation to facilitate its own change? In this case study of a Welsh housing project, Ann Lukens (UK) and Jonathan Dudding (UK) explain how participatory techniques allowed everyone – managers, staff, and clients – to help develop the plan for the organisation’s next five years, and how staff learned to facilitate as the process went along. 

Facilitating online is an art that requires both facilitative skills and knowledge of the virtual world, explains Simon Koolwijk (the Netherlands), who has been facilitating online events for five years. He identifies 12 key factors that make an event successful, including the kind of preparation that is required. Online events need facilitators, but the approach is different from face to face facilitation.  He offers insights into eight competencies demonstrated by successful online facilitators, shares stories of events that worked, as well as one that didn’t, and explains why.

Facilitating facilitators

Even though participants groan about ‘death by Powerpoint’, many subject matter experts think this is the only way to share a lot of complex knowledge. That is how they were taught to teach.  Changing those habits of a lifetime means helping them understand the physiology and psychology of learning in a different way. Pamela Lupton-Bowers (Switzerland) helps clients design events that allow participants to learn in simulated events, facilitated by experts who have learned how to facilitate. The result has been a series of experiential events in which participants learn with excitement and energy.

And then there is the question of ‘who facilitates the facilitators’? While facilitators can turn to other people and other resources for assistance, another source of aid is always available to us, even in the heat of the moment – ourselves. Bob MacKenzie (UK), as a learning facilitator, has developed a personal self-facilitation framework constructed around four pillars – the personal, the professional, the public/political, and the philosophical. He explains how he developed and uses this 4PSFF framework.

Transformative facilitation

Change within a group takes place at three levels – measurable, intangible, and invisible, suggests Vicky Cosstick (UK). While a range of techniques exist to facilitate change in the first two levels, those techniques don’t impact the undiscussable or not easily discussed topics that lurk at the deepest level. What creates change here is conversation, and the most effective of those conversations tend to leave the facilitator sitting on the sidelines. That is good, because it means the group is holding the conversation and that is what leads to change. In this graceful essay, Vicky explains that in this case, the less the facilitator appears to do, the better the result. 

In some ways, the biggest change in a society is the one that takes a nation from conflict to peace. And just as some of its members facilitate conflict, there are also local people who facilitate peace. Rosemary Cairns (Serbia/Canada) writes about how facilitation skills equip local peacebuilders to work effectively with their communities, giving them skills to deal with conflict effectively, and to build organisations that are uniquely equipped to rebuild peace within their societies.

In evaluation, the idea that a neutral external person should assess a project’s results has been a key premise for a long time.  Jeremy Wyatt’s (UK) organisation is showing that facilitating local organisations to evaluate the results of their own activities can produce practical results that are useful to the organisations and to their donors. And this is no ‘soft’ qualitative evaluation either.  This work is starting to produce ‘hard’ financial data that is showing the effectiveness of these social activities.  Jeremy explains what his team has learned through this process, both about evaluation and about facilitation.


Both as editors and authors, working on this journal has afforded us profound insights into how to facilitate change in groups and individuals. All the authors have shared their practical knowledge and theoretical understandings of why their strategies work so well. We hope that you will enjoy learning from their stories as much as we have. We hope their wisdom helps build bridges that will take you to new levels and sites of thinking and practice in your own work.


Owen, Harrison (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 3rd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.


1 Wikipedia: , accessed 25.7.11
2, accessed 2.8.11
3 Google Earth, reproduced from Rob Zaretsky, Engines of our Ingenuity No 2310: Xerxes and the Hellespont, accessed 2.8.11.
4 public domain image from Wikipedia : , accessed 2.8.11
5 James Moody. Department of Civil Engineering. University of Portsmouth. UK. „Famous Bridges of the World‟., accessed 25.7.11. [ Our insertion and italics]


This special conference edition could not have taken shape without the dedicated involvement and support of many people. In addition to the authors, we would like to thank Martin Gilbraith, chair of IAF, Ben Richardson of IAF Europe, and Ned Seabrook and David McAra of AMED Council, for their enthusiastic encouragement. We would also like to acknowledge the important foundational work behind the scenes of Linda Williams, AMED‟s Membership Administrator, and of two of AMED‟s core editorial board, Deborah Booth and David McAra. David in particular has been indispensable in checking, formatting and transforming text from final draft to online version. Such essential work reminds us that not all bridges are visible to the naked eye.

About the editors

Rosemary Cairns holds an M.A. in human security and peacebuilding and is a Certified Professional Facilitator. She has been an international election observer in South Africa, Bosnia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Sudan, and led a nine-member community mobilisation team during an international project in Serbia. Rosemary is Editor of the IAF Europe Newsletter, and can be contacted by e-mail via

Bob MacKenzie is an independent facilitator, coach, consultant and writer. He is also Professor of Management Learning at the International Management Centres Association Business School , which offers programmes around the globe that are grounded in Action Learning principles. In his spare time, Bob is Convenor of the AMED Writers‟ Group Please feel free to contact Bob by e-mail via

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