Rapid Framing as a Facilitation Competency

Note:  This was one of the first blog posts I wrote as my company was in its early startup  phase.  We have matured much but there is still useful advice in this article.

More than once, over my career, I have attended meetings where ideas are being fostered — convergent and divergent — and the facilitator is fielding comments, writing notes and after the conversation runs its course, three or four easel chart pages latter, everyone pauses and it becomes clear that the group is thinking, “now what?”   Then turning to the facilitator I hear the words, “So where do we go from here?” Instantly, as if someone has opened the drain plug, the energy begins to trickle out of the room.  So what goes wrong in meetings like the ones just described? It is my perspective that at the moment the facilitator deferred rather than took control of the process that s/he lost the group.

My experience has taught me that one of the critical skills that a facilitator needs to posses is the ability to assess, synthesize and hypothesize as a rapid framing tool. The skill of rapid framing is a combination of systems thinking and inquiry.  Much like a computer operating system works in the background to keep your computer ordered while you run your word processing program, assessing, synthesizing, hypothesizing and framing is the “operating system” of the facilitator.  Effectively holding the larger system in the background context allows the skilled facilitator to truncate the “pause of desperation” with a skilled intervention that breaks the log-jam of information overload and allows the group to productively move forward.

Let me give you and example.  I once was facilitating an advisory group that was tasked with creating an outline for a fairly complex grant that involved service delivery through multiple channels, required the use of subcontracted advisors, evaluation and marketing functions.  After creating brainstorm lists for each component of the grant, the team experienced a “pause of desperation.”  Staring at the pages of easel paper hung all over the walls it was clear that the group was feeling overwhelmed by the complexity and sheer quantity of information. At that moment rapid framing was needed. I stepped over to a dry-erase board and began to sketch a system’s view flow diagram of the overall project based on all that I heard and processed. This visual served as an organizer to reduce the complexity. Almost as if someone opened the window to let in a fresh breeze, the group energy increased, with folks offering feedback to my visual hypothesis and one person actually getting up, taking the pen from my hand and editing the diagram until there was a consensus on the model.  The pathway for developing the proposal outline based on the several hanging easel sheets became simpler and clearer. The group needed help conceptualizing the frame but was very capable completing the structure once the frame was developed. While this illustration underscores the importance of purposeful visuals it also demonstrates the power of a rapid framing.

This leads to the question of tactics.  What does a rapid framing look like in practice? At some level I believe that the ability to assess, synthesize and hypothesize is more innate and intuitive rather than cognitive and linear however, my training in mediation helped me see that basic rapid framing skills can be taught.  Skilled mediators and facilitators share the core skills of active listening, empathy, and impartiality and with this foundation there are four stages that need to happen in order create and use a rapid frame effectively.

1.  Synthesize Constantly: As I stated above a strong facilitator is constantly holding the larger system in the back of his/her mind and as the process unfolds s/he constantly organizes, sorts and summarizes the story and narrative.

2.  Create a draft Frame: As a facilitator is listening, organizing, comparing and synthesizing during the process, when a group gets stuck, s/he has enough narrative to make proposal in the form of a frame.  In my illustration above, I drew a diagram as a draft frame for the group based on the conversations, notes and directions that I was mentally assembling as the team brainstormed and jumped from one concept to the next.  The frame may be right or may need editing but the purpose is to move the group process forward.

3.  Test the Frame: After creating the frame, the facilitator then needs to check it out with the group.  “Based on what I am hearing from you, I would suggest that you are here.  Does this resonate?”  At that point the group is invited not to focus on their “stuckness” but are invited into the solution space.  Continuing my example above, when the pen was removed from my hand the editing of the idea was well underway and the group was unstuck.

4.  Give Back the Locus of Control:  At this point, the facilitator has broken the paralysis but such an intervention comes at the risk of the facilitator shifting into a leadership role.  The final stage of using rapid framing is to create an intentional pause and reflection on the intervention.  The purpose of this reflection is to shift the locus of control back to the group before moving on.  At this point it is finally okay to say, “So where do you go from here?”

 Many facilitators I have met over the years have the ability to run good meetings.  However, when the stakes are high there is often a need for a skilled facilitator who brings a deeper understanding of systems thinking, the ability to process information, and the mental agility to create rapid and iterative frames.  Skilled facilitators can insert rapid framing as a way to manage the chaos of ideas and then to back out in order to keep the group in control of the process.  Such facilitation is useful when there is more at stake than running a good meeting.


~ Mark

Photo Credit: Pexels



Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.