Few facilitators truly understand the power of the pen.  When facilitators don’t record what participants say or when facilitators record their own words and not the words of the participants, we are abusing the power of the pen.  As evidenced by the following public safety case study, a facilitator can drive participants dysfunctional simply by abusing the pen.  Abuse of the pen can very easily lead to participants dropping out, participants arguing with the facilitator, and participants not buying into the overall result.

A Case Study

A member of our team was serving as coach and assistant  to a lead facilitator from another organization.  The lead facilitator was working with a group of 40 people responsible for identifying methods to improve public safety in a large urban area.  The task force included judges, police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, juvenile court officers and others who have an interest in public safety. At this particular meeting, the lead facilitator got the session started and asked the participants to identify the key issues they wanted to see discussed during the collaborative process.  One of the participants, a police chief, indicated, “We have to address the recidivism rate.”  The lead facilitator responded, “So, what you are saying is that the recidivism rate is too high.”  The police chief, just a bit annoyed, responded, “No.  What I said was that we need to address the recidivism rate.” Rather than write what the participant said, the facilitator once more responded, “OK, you’re saying then that too many criminals have repeat crimes.”  “No,” said the police chief, “That is not what I said.  I said the recidivism rate is too high!” The facilitator then turned to the other participants and asked, “What other concerns do we have about the recidivism rate?” 


At this point, you could see the police chief get totally exasperated.  He pulled back in his chair and didn’t say a word for the rest of the session.

The facilitator coach added later, “I could see the chief of police getting upset.  All I could think was, ‘Write it.  Just write it.  The man’s got a gun.  Write it!’”

How does the facilitator prevent abuse of the power of the pen?

Write 1st, Discuss 2nd

One of the ways a facilitator prevents abuse of the pen is to write first and discuss second.  Consider the following:

  • If what is said is incomplete, you should write it.
  • If what is said can be improved upon, write it.
  • If what is said is not the answer you were looking for, write it.
  • If what is said is obviously wrong, still write it.

By recording what is said, you, as the facilitator, are implicitly saying, “Thank you for making a contribution.”  It is vital to positive group dynamics that this happens regardless of whether the contribution was good, bad or indifferent.  Each time you record a contribution, you are saying, “Thank you.”  If you stop saying, “Thank you,” they may very well stop contributing!

There are other benefits to writing first as well.

  • Writing first helps prevent your opinion about a comment influencing whether the comment gets recorded.
  • Writing first prevents you from slowing down the activity because you have to ask, “What did you say again?”
  • Writing first helps make sure you record their words and not yours.
  • Writing first helps you – the facilitator – stay on track. Should a long discussion ensue, you will always be able to refocus by looking at the last thing you wrote.

Write What They Said, Not What You Heard

While writing first and discussing second is important for empowering the participants, an equally important empowerment technique is to write what they said, not what you heard.  Facilitators often make it a habit to listen to a participant’s statement, then transform what is said into words more “acceptable” to the facilitator.  Why change the words?

  • Some facilitators indicate they change the words to summarize the idea.
  • Others say they transform the words to promote clarity.
  • Others say they are just trying to shorten the comment to make it easier to write.

Whatever the reason for changing a participant’s words, the potential negative impact on empowerment may far outweigh the benefit.

  • If you try to “clean up” the speaker’s words by writing words he or she did not say, you as the facilitator are implicitly saying, “You don’t know how to speak; let me speak for you.”
  • Over time, less assertive participants will tend to get lazy and look to you to “make all their words better”; more assertive participants will tend to compete with you to come up with suitable words for the other participants.
  • In addition, rewriting comments in your own words decreases the likelihood that participants will be able to understand what was meant after time has passed. This effect is a result of you using words and expressions in ways that are familiar to you, which might not be the way the participants express these same ideas.
  • Finally, writing your words can decrease ownership of the result by the participants, since the words are yours, not theirs.

Learn more facilitation skills in our course, The Effective Facilitator.  The four-day course provides a structured approach for leading teams and facilitating meetings and covers over 100 techniques for getting amazing results from groups.