31 October 2011 ~ 12 Comments

Facilitation at Occupy Melbourne

General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne, Day 1, City Square

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a fortnight since Occupy Melbourne first kicked off. On the 15th October, as part of a global day of action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Melbourne started at City Square. People gathered, working groups met, workshops were held, information stalls, a library, and a functioning kitchen were set up. Multiple tents went up and estimates of 100 – 150 people camped out. Less than a week later, under the direction of the Lord Mayor, police moved in and ‘evicted’ the occupiers.

Of course, that’s not the end of it. Occupy Melbourne, like similar occupations around the world, continues. The form of the actual ‘occupation’ changes, but a commitment to direct democracy is constant.

Many people are having their first taste of direct democracy and ‘consensus building’ through the General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne. People completely new to facilitation are stepping up to try it out. Experienced facilitators are being challenged by a different process, large groups, and a fair amount of chaos! A lot of learning is going on, in a dynamic and at times very difficult context.

I’ve been a part of the facilitation team at two general assemblies, observed others, attended some facilitation working groups, shared my thoughts on the email list, and recently ran a facilitation training for ten folks involved in Occupy Melbourne. Here are some notes on what I think contributes to effective facilitation at general assembly meetings.


For a gathering to go well we need to be clear on its purpose. The purpose of the Occupy Melbourne General Assembly is to:

  • Share information relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
  • Make decisions relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
  • Build the group – bringing together people involved in Occupy Melbourne

The General Assembly is not the only forum to address these purposes. For example:

  • Information is shared on the website, Facebook, Twitter, in smaller groups, by word of mouth etc
  • Many day-to-day and smaller scale decisions are made at the working group level.
  • All sorts of activities are contributing to ‘building the group’ – such as actions, workshops, music, and social networking.

It is significant that the General Assembly is the time when everybody comes together to focus on Occupy Melbourne. This makes the time precious and also pressured. A lot of people want to get a lot out of the General Assembly, and the facilitation team needs to work hard to juggle those demands.

What participants are looking for

However clear the facilitation team may be about the purpose of the General Assembly, individuals rock up with their own expectations and needs. These may include wanting to:

  • Find out what’s going on – what’s this all about?
  • Get involved – how do I plug into this thing?
  • Be heard – hey everyone, listen to my political perspective/pet peeve/emotional expression/confusion/questions… right now!
  • Connect, make friends, get to know each other.
  • Push a political agenda and gain support for particular campaigns and groups.
  • Sabotage or undermine the process for political or personal reasons.
  • Feel a part of something big and exciting.

What helps:

  • Introducing the purpose and process of the General Assembly at the beginning of the meeting. What the General Assembly is, and isn’t.
  • Providing a range of ways for people to be heard and ask questions at Occupy Melbourne such as talking in pairs or small groups during the Assembly; participating in and running workshops; joining working groups; feeding in to online discussions; addressing people through a speakers corner for ‘soapboxing’.
  • Having clear information about Occupy Melbourne available on the website, info desk, as wells as signs, agendas and programmes of activities.
  • Involving experienced people as contact points and ‘welcoming committee’ for new people, to explain process and give people background on discussions.
  • Setting up shared experiences which aren’t too daunting but break the ice – like chants, songs, jokes, and structured introductory activities.

Building a container

Training for Change, US activist educators, talk about the need to have a strong ‘container’ in order to have a well functioning group where people can take risks and engage in rigorous group work. A container is strengthened by building relationships in the group, providing opportunities for people to show themselves (disclosing at their own pace), and having the safety net of a well structured workshop or meeting.

container: a word for the degree of safety the participants are experiencing. A workshop starts with a weak container – not much safety – so participants are concerned about how others see them and have less attention for learning. The stronger the container, the more participants become authentic and take risks to learn.  From the Training for Change glossary

It would be hard to find a more challenging context for building a group’s container than a General Assembly! So far they’ve been held in City Square, outside the library, from the back of a truck in Lygon St – all with significant background noise, people coming and going, a constantly changing group with different levels of involvement and understanding of the process, rain, acoustic problems with megaphones, time pressures, with police looking on!

Given these challenges, what are some things facilitators and participants can do to build the container at Occupy Melbourne?

  • Open with intent. The General Assembly is a particular experience with expectations of a particular kind of participation. Starting clearly, getting people focused, is key. Opening can be ritualised – for example gathering everyone with a song or a chant, making space for Acknowledgement of Country, starting with the description of the purpose and process of the General Assembly.
  • Have a clear agenda. Knowing what’s going on, when, helps folks relax and settle in to the meeting. Preferably this should be displayed visually such as on a whiteboard.
  • Structure the space. Gather participants in to a defined area, have ‘corridors’ for easy movement, set the facilitation team up where they can be seen well.
  • Allow people to get a sense of who else is there. This can be as simple as asking people to raise their hands in response to some questions eg: ‘Raise your hand if this is your first General Assembly’ (very useful information!); ‘Raise your hand if you camped at City Square’; ‘Raise your hand if you were present at the eviction’, etc.
  • Encourage people to meet each other. For example while the group is gathering you could invite people to talk with someone they haven’t spoken to before, and share what drew them to be involved in Occupy Melbourne.
  • Know the limits of the Assembly. Recognise that the General Assembly is not going to have the container to handle some stuff. Smaller groups with stronger containers may need to hash out the details and handle more conflict.
  • Just keep building. Recognise that the container is often built outside the Assembly – through deep and meaningful conversations in the kitchen at 10pm, through ‘a-ha!’ moments in workshops, through buddy relationships forged in the face of police violence.

Sharing the facilitation role

A General Assembly is typically a large gathering with a lot going on. It would be impossible for one individual to hold the whole facilitation role. At General Assemblies the facilitation team is made up of:

  • Moderator – the visible facilitator of the Assembly, who welcomes people, leads the group through the agenda, restates proposals after speakers, checks for consensus etc.
  • Moderator Support – supports the moderator, shields them from distractions, helps them synthesis proposals and keep the process on track.
  • Participants Team – interacts with participants in the Assembly, taking proposals and speakers for and against, and feeding these back to the coordinator.
  • Coordinator – the intermediary between the participants’ team and the moderator support person, ordering proposals consistent with the agenda, and selecting speakers for and against proposals.

This splitting of the role means that each person gets to focus on their aspect of the process – but also means that clear communication between roles is essential. Folks making up the facilitation team need to know each other in advance – through participating in the facilitation working group, and talking through the roles together. It helps if people who are stepping in to a role for the first time are able to talk with people who have done it before. Practising through a realistic role-play helps.

There has been some pressure from participants to vary who makes up the facilitation team. This is useful for skillsharing and making different people visible, but it should also be noted that it tends to take some practice to get into the rhythm of each role and the overall process, and having experienced members of the facilitation team is beneficial to the whole Assembly.

Setting the tone and modelling norms

The Moderator, as the most visible member of the facilitation team and constant presence throughout the Assembly, plays an important role in setting the tone for the Assembly. What does this mean?

  • A relaxed, calm Moderator communicates to the group that things are ok and on track, when people may be tense or anxious.
  • Working towards consensus can be hard work, and some participants will question the process when it doesn’t deliver quick results, or when they have a political opposition to the process itself. It’s the role of the Moderator to communicate a belief in the process and the capacity of the group to navigate it and come up with good decisions. Using humour and providing the occasional pep talk or motivational comment can help the group hang in there.
  • If the Moderator swears a lot or talks aggressively participants will see that as permission to do the same. The Moderator through their behaviour and attitude models norms of the General Assembly.

The other members of the facilitation team also need to model the norms of the gathering – sticking to the process, being respectful, staying calm. Inconsistencies between different roles in the team will confuse people, create frustration, and potentially lead people to view the team as biased.

Staying present

Being present means being focused in the here and now – not thinking too far ahead, and not being side-tracked or knocked off balance by something that happened in the past.

When all around seems to be chaos how do we stay grounded as facilitators?

  • Be solid in yourself. Putting yourself out there in front of a large groups requires self-confidence and healthy self-esteem. If you’re feeling brittle it’s probably not the best day to get up in front of everyone with a megaphone.
  • Follow a clear Agenda – so you know what’s coming up and you don’t have to figure everything out on the run.
  • Remember other people have your back. The Moderator Support role is there for the Moderator to check in with, check their judgement with, and be reassured by. It helps if this person has experience as part of the facilitation team at other Assemblies and knows the process well. As Moderator you should pick someone for the support role who you have good rapport with, and trust.
  • Reduce distractions. The broader facilitator team should be shielding the Moderator from direct contact with participants, so you can stay focused. It helps to make this clear in the introduction to process – if you wish to speak, don’t approach me directly, please talk to a member of the participant team.
  • Take a moment. If your mind is racing, slow things down so it can catch up. Speak more slowly, add some pauses, if necessary let people know you’re going to take a moment to confer with others in the facilitation team.
  • Breathe. Essential! Breathing deeply calms you and stops your voice quavering.
  • Keep perspective. Take it seriously – but don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously. In the middle of it all it can feel incredibly crucial, but the future of the world doesn’t hinge on one meeting. If the group can’t get to consensus, then they can’t – maybe they will tomorrow – or maybe the issue just isn’t compelling enough.
  • Ground yourself. Starhawk has a guide to grounding and centring for activists which looks like a good practice for actions – but also preparing to facilitate. ‘Grounding is a technique that can help us stay both alert and relaxed when all hell is breaking loose around us.’

Facilitation and Authority

When we stand up in front of a group of people to facilitate we can push people’s buttons around authority. Before we even open our mouths we can become the magnet for various feelings and projections, reminding people of experiences from their past with authority figures such as parents, teachers, or politicians. The likelihood that you may be viewed negatively increases in a crowd where a large proportion of people have anti-authoritarian politics.

How do we deal with this?

  • Don’t take it personally, it’s about the role you’re in.
  • Be clear about your role and the process you are facilitating.
  • Don’t let it be all about you. You’re there to facilitate a group process, to help the group get done what it needs to get done. Don’t frame things in terms of helping you, pleasing you, or disappointing you.
  • Reflect on your own experiences of authority, and how this might show up in your facilitation.
  • Be consistent, transparent and accountable to the group.

Evolving Process

The process used at Occupy Melbourne has gone through minor revisions since the first General Assembly, and this will continue to happen. The current Assembly process isn’t the only one available to these kinds of large gatherings. One great example which is widespread in nonviolent direct action mobilisations, and has been honed by the climate movement in recent years, is the spokescouncil. Check out some insightful reflections about facilitating spokescouncils by Tanya Newman, a social movement educator from Aotearoa.

Want more info and resources? See the #Occupy 101 post on this blog for some helpful resources for facilitators and educators in the Occupy movement. Rhizome, based in the UK, are a great source of information about consensus, and have also posted some links relevant to the Occupy movement here. If you come across other helpful resources, please comment below.

This is an exciting time for people engaged in building social movements and promoting democratic group process. Please contribute what you figure out – your rich learnings can benefit people around the world who are organising for a better future.

12 Responses to “Facilitation at Occupy Melbourne”

  1. dwighttowers 31 October 2011 at 5:25 pm Permalink

    This is one of the best-written, most useful “how to facilitate” blog posts I have EVER read. (And a) I read way too much and b) I am not easily impressed). You have distilled a lot of wisdom into a very short (relatively) piece.

    Thank you!! I shall share it far and wide.

  2. Matthew Herbert 1 November 2011 at 5:30 am Permalink

    As I read I’m having flashbacks to meetings where the facilitation team didn’t take your very sage advice and to the frustration and anger that ensued (not to mention loss of trust).

    One thing I would add, around facilitation and authority, but also around the agenda is: be prepared to be wrong. This might manifest in a number of ways. Be prepared to realise that you’re not the right person to moderate for this group, check it out with the group, and step aside if need be. Or be prepared to realise that the agenda you spent hours lovingly crafting just isn’t what this group is there to talk about in this moment (regardless of whether it’s the published agenda). Sometimes as facilitation teams we can get caught up in our own bubble and find ourselves a little out of touch with the group, even if we’re facilitating the agenda that the last assembly mandated us to facilitate.

    I’ve seen problems arise around both these scenarios in UK Climate Camps when facilitation teams were too slow to adapt.

  3. Lindy Amos 1 November 2011 at 6:35 am Permalink

    Holly thanks for posting this. I agree with the post above. The article is succinct and very informative. I don’t have any direct experience with Occupy Melbourne however your insights are very instructive for all facilitators working in the community engagement space, particularly when the community is expecting and demanding to influence decision makers/ policy etc and therefore requires a facilitator ( or a team of facilitators – which i really like) that can support their empowerment. Thanks again and I look forward to hearing more…..

  4. Laurel Freeland 1 November 2011 at 9:40 am Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this relevant advice on facilitation with large groups. I look forward to hearing how things unfold as we move towards a more socially just society.

  5. Nick C 2 November 2011 at 3:04 am Permalink

    Fantastic piece. I have done a stint in each role in Occupy Melbourne’s Facilitation team. It’s the most rewarding experience one can have when it all runs smoothly, and one of the most daunting when it’s a bumpy road. More upskilling, training, skills-sharing, keep the conversations going, would love to see General Assemblies held at other locations within Melbourne.

  6. Anne 2 November 2011 at 12:58 pm Permalink

    Looks like you came to Melbourne at exactly the right time, Holly!

  7. Bairn 2 November 2011 at 10:58 pm Permalink

    I reckon, know, that being in control of a meeting is a challenge. What gives me the right to be the moderator, I want freedom not control. But the assembly wants you to ensure that they have the best opportunity to listen and talk about their desires, wants, needs. They want you to ensure the best opportunity for the assembly to understand their own immediate and longer term opportunities. Opportunities arising in the assembly; out of the assembly in life.
    The Julian Assange case is where the moderator will be challenged to keep the assembly focusing on the goals above.
    Matthews’s post was great emphasising you are in control till you lose it, if it happens – give it up. Better for you and possibly better for the assembly, it could just have been a difficult time/meeting.

    • Holly Hammond 3 November 2011 at 7:13 am Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Bairn. That’s an interesting word ‘control’. When I feel that I’m doing my best facilitating it doesn’t feel like there’s much control going on. It’s more about being deeply connected to the will of the group, and feeling confident that what I say and my use of the process is aligned with what the group wants/needs. Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
      Thinking about it now I would characterise the relationship between the facilitator and the group as about consent, not control. The group consents to me facilitating, to going in a particular direction – but that consent can be removed at any time. Consent is more likely when there is trust in the facilitator and the process, ppl know what is going on, there isn’t arbitrary use of power by facilitators, and ppl don’t feel that they are giving up their own power by participating in a particular way.
      People often say that good facilitation is facilitation you don’t really notice – because it allows the group to get on with its work. We can become most aware of facilitation when it ‘grates’ ie doesn’t represent where people are at and what the group wants. Process starts to feel cumbersome because it is about pushing ppl to do what they don’t want to do – and they understandably push back.
      Thanks for getting me thinking about this! Very useful reflection.

  8. Mike Collins 3 November 2011 at 9:12 am Permalink

    Thanks for this Holly. I have sporadically experienced various part of OccupyMelbourne including the GA on 25 October which I documented as a “naive observer” here: http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/occupy-melbourne-notes-on-group-decision-making-in-challenging

    As conflict resolution is my main area of specialist knowledge, I have some brief thoughts on your illuminating piece. I think its valid to look at GA’s in terms of conflict resolution and practice- for instance note how many references in your piece to different forms of communication, opposition or confusion about process and actions of those wishing to push narrow agendas.

    1. Agenda
    As some other posters have alluded, “sticking to an agenda” or even putting up an agenda on a whiteboard creates concerns over the control that exercises over a GA. The professional mediation and facilitated negotiation field here, in North America and Europe is now split down the middle between the Harvard Facilitative Model(where a process is highly structures and guided by an agenda, emphasis on getting agreement) and the Transformative Model( No agenda, facilitators ‘follow’ the conflict and emphasis on noting disagreement to get deep into relationship building). There’s considerable research that shows that people may be narrowly satisfied that an agenda-run process got a result but remain unresolved within themselves on deeper conflicts. The main criticisms of the Transformative no-agenda approach or specific facilitation methods like World Cafe and Open Space Technology is that they do not offer concrete decisions or take to long to do so. What I observed at one GA was that it was the order at which issues on the agenda were presented appeared to be an exercise of power of some working groups over others.

    2. Cultural Fluency
    Conflict resolution theorists like Michelle LeBaron, Kevin Avruch and Morgan Brigg have been challenging practitioners to look to themselves and their cultural worldviews and recognise how much this may unconsciously affect deciions we make and views we develop. Learnings from indigenous cultures have been a significant influence here. Despite the welcome and crucial recognition of First Australians in the GAs, we can’t get away form the fact that OccupyMelbourne is dominated by university educated, broadly privileged white folks (like me). “We are the 60 or so percent!” may be more accurate in terms of participants social and cultural background. Cultural tendencies towards, for instance, individualism and “in group- out group” dynamics are apparent in OccupyMelbourne. That’s why facilitators need to be very thoughtful about doing things like asking for a show of hands for those who may be first timers and those who have camped etc. Cultures form quickly, and I can already recognise a “I was there at X event, where were you?” tendency which can quickly mutate into a powerful “in group”. Many people I know are fascinated by OccupyMelbourne but intimidated by the idea of turning up an participating in a GA or working group. Ensuring that any process is inclusive and sensitive to all who do show up, even those who film up in people’s face and don’t identify themselves, creates an evolving space for genuine diversity.

    Your piece offers me great hope that OccupyMelbourne is growing its GA process with attention and care.
    thanks again Holly

    • Holly Hammond 3 November 2011 at 1:04 pm Permalink

      Hi Mike – thanks for raising these interesting points, and bringing your experience with conflict resolution. I think how a meeting gets structured relates to its purpose, and in terms of the purposes I’ve outlined here, a structured meeting with an agenda makes sense to me. Having an agenda for a meeting need not be any more ‘controlling’ in a negative sense than having lanes marked on the road in white paint, to make it less likely cars crash into each other. Sure, there are issues with the ways that roads are set up, we need to make them more pedestrian and cycle friendly, and there will always be jaywalkers, but that’s not an argument for not having roads at all… excuse my overworked metaphor!
      I think an Open Space workshop would be a great thing to offer Occupy Melbourne, but that would likely have a different purpose eg: Exploring issues people are passionate about; Building more cohesion around the ‘Why?’ of Occupy Melbourne; Allowing space for deeper consideration of tactics, relationships, diversity etc. All things that deserve time and attention, but very difficult to do in a General Assembly, which understandably serves a different purpose.
      In terms of ‘in groups’ I think these form anyway, it’s just about how visible they are. People new to a group want to get a sense of what’s going on in the group, including experience and ‘rank’. This comes back to Training for Change’s concept of ‘container-building’ but also relates to Jo Freeman’s ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’.
      Thanks for the food for further thought.

      • Mike Collins 4 November 2011 at 9:07 am Permalink

        I take your points Holly and get the road metaphor.It then makes me think about how some places in the world have many more lines and signage of roads than others. Watching some of a livestream from Oakland last night reinforced for me how much the behaviour modelling of GA facilitators may be a significant influencer on protesters when things get dangerous and frightening. I’ll be reading the stuff you’ve referenced- thanks

    • Holly Hammond 4 November 2011 at 8:58 am Permalink

      Here’s another interesting article on different processes which could be used by the Occupy movement such as Open Space, World Cafe, appreciative inquiry, gift circles, and heart circles.

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