Four steps to a universal principle of facilitation and learning

This post was first written for and published by Kellow Learning: facilitating curious futures, as the first of a series of monthly guest posts from members of the global Kellow Learning Network.

At a recent monthly meet-up of the International Association of Facilitators in London, the question was posed “is there a single, universal principle of facilitation?”  More to the point of course, if there is – what is it!

It didn’t take me long to think and respond that, in my own facilitation at least, there is certainly something approaching that – a simple four-level model of human behaviour that is always in my mind as I design and facilitate any learning or collaborative process, and that is very often explicitly the basis of the design.  Anyone who has worked or taken training with me, or who is familiar with ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) approach, will know immediately what I am talking about.  It is the basis of the ToP Focused Conversation method, featured in the foundational ToP Group Facilitation Methods course, and it is affectionately known as ORID.

ORID is a model of how we respond as human beings to each other and our environment, and so too of how we learn, make decisions and act.  We perceive our external reality through our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. These are our sources of data, the Objective level of the model.  We experience an internal response to such data initially, whether or not we are conscious of it.  These emotional, intuitive or gut reactions represent the Reflective level.  We discern meaning, ascribe value or significance, and learn at the Interpretive level.  When we come to some sort of conclusion, resolution or action that is at the Decisional level.   We go through this process countless times every day, often subconsciously.  For example, I hear my alarm clock through my sleep in the morning and roll over in bed to ignore it and continue sleeping; until I realise that it is getting late and I must get up, so I reach to switch on the light.

The ToP focused conversation method uses ORID as the basis for crafting a series of questions, by which to lead a group through a conversation which is focused, inclusive and productive.  The conversation is focused by crafting questions explicitly to help the group address a particular topic.  It follows the four levels of ORID in turn, taking the group on a journey together from surface to depth understanding, learning and resolution.  This is inclusive because different people (and people of different cultures) tend to be stronger and more comfortable at the different levels, so this enables everyone to participate where they are most comfortable and to contribute from their strengths.  This discipline of addressing each level together in turn also helps to test unspoken assumptions and overcome unconscious biases, and so helps to make the conversation more productive and conclusions more robust.

I find that this approach applies equally well to an informal small group conversation of a few minutes as it does to an elaborate large group process of days, weeks or months.  For example, I shared the design of a small group conversation from a training context in my recent blog post Three dimensions of the facilitator role – a focused conversation with video.  For an example from virtal faciliation see the twitter chat ‘Facilitating a Diverse Group of People‘, designed and led with @BenZiegler to celebrate International Facilitation Week last October. Another recent post ‘from the archive’ Staff away day with George House Trust illustrates ORID applied to the design of a whole day event – opening, overview, introductions and ground rules at the Objective level; ‘Wall of Wonder’ historical scan and story-telling at the Reflective level; World Café conversation at the Interpretive level, on “How we would like to be able to describe the culture of GHT”; and at the Decisional level, a team-building exercise, next steps, and closing reflection and evaluation.

Also I find that ORID applies well in conjunction with all sorts of other methods and tools.  The World Café method used in the George House Trust example is a case in point.  In a consultation event involving around 70 researchers helping to shape a future grant programme of a national Research Council, I used ORID to structure the four, progressive small-group table conversations of a World Café session – [O] highlights of our own research relevant to the research theme, [R] exciting emerging themes and questions, [I] opportunities for mutual support & collaboration, and [D] implications for researchers and for the Research Council. I plan to share more examples of ORID as a process design tool in future posts.

So, my universal principle is this – whatever the aims for your group process, there will be four key steps to achieving them.  Even if you have an apparently simple, single question to address, often four questions will work better than one.  As another example, if you want to ask “what shall we do about problem X?”, consider that your D-level question and ask first “what do we know about problem X?”, “what have been some of our challenges and breakthroughs in the past in relation to problem X?”, and “what have we learned from our experience about what might work and what doesn’t work in relation to problem X?”.

For a detailed explanation and practical guidance on the ToP Focused Conversation method, including many example conversation designs, see The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 ways to access group wisdom in the workplace and The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools: Over 100 Ways to Guide Clear Thinking and Promote Learning.

If you have found a universal principle of facilitation or learning yourself, please do share it!  I do not claim that mine is the single universal principle…

I am grateful to Sean Blair of ProMeet for posing the question at the IAF Facilitators & Friends London meet-up. Do join us (it’s free) on the 2nd Thursday of the month in central London, or join us online to schedule a meet-up where you are.

See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

15 thoughts on “Four steps to a universal principle of facilitation and learning

  1. Pisa: ToP Group Facilitation Methods training - Pisa - Trova Eventi

  2. Facilitating a culture of participation in organizations: reviewing the past to prepare for the future with IAF Jordan – Martin Gilbraith

  3. Very nice model, thank you. In working with conflict handling (building on the work of i.a. Danaan Parry) I use a similar but not identical approach: supporting the group to disentangle facts (what we know, or think we know – O) from feelings about those facts AND also from opinions about the facts (which gets us into values). From there it’s often quite easy to move to decisions. Lots more to say, but I’m intrigued by both the similarities and the differences!

  4. Emergence and sense-making – Facilitation Anywhere

  5. I like Sandor’s principle and would paraphrase it as, ask questions rather than provide answers, which is the expert’s stance. I also like Martin’s extension, ask the right questions, which can be grouped into the four categories of ORID. I also like Brian Stanfield’s further extension of the four categories to all of the many ToP methods in The Workshop Book, pages 21 and 22, which are summarized below, with his examples for focused conversations and consensus workshops.

    The four phases of all ToP (p. 22)
    Phase I – deals with the objective stuff of life (Focused conversation: objective, consensus workshop: brainstorming)
    Phase II – moves to a sensing of the internal relationship to the content of Phase I (Focused conversation: reflective, consensus workshop: clustering)
    Phase III – sifts the data from phase I and II for clues to meaning, insight and learning (Focused conversation: interpretive, consensus workshop: naming)
    Phase IV – gathers up the data from the previous three phases and projects it forward (Focused conversation: decisional, consensus workshop: resolve)

    I would make explicit a fifth category of questions. In Stanfield’s format it would be Phase 0; what is the context that needs to be known by participants to move forward efficiently and effectively through Phases I-IV?

    Incidentally, in this conversation, we are acting in the expert’s stance. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the results of a focused conversation, a consensus workshop or other ToP method on the topic?


  6. Is there a single universal principle of facilitation and learning? I don’t know. By which I mean, if I had to reduce everything about facilitation and learning into one universal principle, it would be this: I don’t know. When I know something I am less likely to learn about it — because I think I already know it. So I try to exercise doubt. Answers are the opiate of the people.

    If you’re interested, I spilled more words on this topic in a 2002 editorial in IAF’s Group Facilitation Journal, Believe in Doubt ( , and in an article in a 2011 IAF Europe Newsletter, Schuman’s Rules of Problem Solving (

    • Thanks Sandy, I like that – and it is in fact very much in line with ICA’s approach. ICA’s 1986 global conference in Spain was addressed by (from memory) Joep van Arendonk of UNFPA, and he famously (in ICA circles anyway) described ICA as “the People of the Question, because you have the courage to say ‘we don’t know”…

  7. Four steps to a universal principle of facilita...

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