Moving the Elephant
Dynamic Facilitation and Transformational
In the December issue of News for a Change,
we considered the story of the three blind men who
come across an elephant, each one touching a
different part. The man who finds the leg thinks the
elephant is like a tree, only this tree moves around
and causes problems. To solve these problems, the
blind man resorts to a thinking process that has him
breaking the problem into parts and building barriers
as he tries to control things.
This orientation toward control is how we think in
most meetings and through goals, guidelines, and
agendas. As a result, we work only on issues for
which control is appropriate and skip the big,
impossible-seeming issues for which creativity is
needed. Most people are more comfortable with this
approach than with the seeming chaos that accompanies
The control-oriented approach doesn’t help
us to see the
elephant. Breaking big problems into smaller ones is
an intentional narrowing of the mind, looking
carefully at the elephant’s toes and how the
knees bend. It drives us to be more mechanistic in
our thinking about issues.
Because it is natural for people to look for and to
see the whole elephant, people often become
frustrated with the superficial way of talking in
normal meetings and how the big issues go
In that same article, we introduced “choice
creating,” a way of thinking about difficult
issues with “heart creativity,” as well
as “head creativity” and achieving
breakthroughs. Using choice creating, we can see the
whole elephant, and we can see new solution
Dynamic facilitation is a way of facilitating
meetings where choice creating is natural. This
process is guided by the energy of the
meeting’s participants more than by objectives,
guidelines, or the agenda. The group is helped to
identify an issue they care about deeply. Then people
are helped to express themselves fully and
If the elephant is going to be seen, at least one
individual in the group will need to break out of the
old patterns. This breaking out may feel like
frustration at first. When this is expressed, the
dynamic facilitator writes it down on a list of
concerns and reflects the list back to the group.
He/she creates a context so this
“negative” energy can transform into
something positive. Comments are captured on one of
four different charts: solutions, data, concerns, or
problem statements. No matter what someone says,
it’s part of a creative group flow where each
comment sparks new thinking in others. With this
approach, passion is an asset, not a liability,
because it makes breakthroughs more likely.
This energy-driven process stimulates choice
creating and empowerment, which makes elephants
seeable. For instance, one group of employees in a
social service agency all wrote letters to top
management trying to get rid of their new manager.
They were resisting her and her ideas. In a meeting
the dynamic facilitator asked the manager to describe
what she wanted from the group. First, she expressed
her frustrations, which were captured as concerns and
points of data. Then she described how she wanted the
department to run. Others did the same.
Soon, it was clear to all that the problem
wasn’t the manager or her proposal, but her
authoritarian approach. That was the first
breakthrough. Then as people talked further, a new
discovery was made: One of the conditions of her
hiring was that she exert authority over the
department. Now people could see this wasn’t
her natural style but something that had been imposed
on all of them.
The old problem was solved. It was in the
group’s relationship to upper management.
People accepted the new manager and even her ideas.
Her relationships to people in the department were
becoming healthy after the elephant was
As the group continued talking, they became more
empowered to make change. They spoke to upper
management and discovered an even bigger elephant in
the form of state policies. All felt empowered to
address that, as well.
In most meetings, people won’t allow
problems to get bigger or for elephants to be seen. A
more normal approach to dealing with such resistive
employees is to use “conflict
resolution.” This can lead to a negotiated
settlement about the exact nature of employee and
manager responsibilities and a contract of behaviors.
This doesn’t get to the real issue and may
hinder a heart-felt solution.
With dynamic facilitation, people address and
solve “impossible-to-solve” issues. The
key is the sincere, creative quality of thinking that
dynamic facilitation elicits, which is known as
JIM ROUGH is a consultant,
seminar leader, speaker, and author. He invented
dynamic facilitation (www.ToBE.net) and the
wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit
Center for Wise Democratic Processes (www.WiseDemocracy.org).