Yesterday we had a CPsquare session with Robert Tollen who facilitates an online discussion group about Myeloproliferative diseases. He talked about the deep differences in beliefs between members (eg. believing in scientific treatment versus alternative treatment), and how you can deal with this as a facilitator. The lesson that I took from the discussions, is that as a facilitator you have your own beliefs too, and you have to be aware of your own biases, so that it doesn't limit the conversations. So working as a team you may be much more complementary (but you have to analyze that as well).
It reminded me of two practical sessions I facilitated at work where I tried to make use of statements to surface and bridge diverging group opinions, and which worked very well in my opinion. We are working towards a common strategy for network strengthening, based upon practical experiences in various countries. There seem to be very different ideas and beliefs amongst the group so the challenge is to work with this wide variation and arrive at a common strategy. So I tried to formulate roughly 10 statements (ended up with 11), which capture the main controversial issues. Everyone was then asked to look at the statements on paper, write down whether they agree or disagree, after which they transfer their opinions on a flipchart. The results were in our case very revealing in itself. Issues which seemed controversial ended up with a majority of the votes on the same side, showing that we'd agreed more than expected. The second step was to ask a person who agrees to voice his/her ideas and the same for a person who disagrees, after which a discussion follows. This discussion may lead to a complete rephasing of the statement, as the statements are to open the floor. In our case, it has helped us to improve understanding and get to a next level of the bottlenecks.
I guess it's important for the success of this method that the statements are phrased by someone who is familiar with the informal discussions so that he/she can get to the core dilemmas. The great beauty of the method (as compared to an open discussion) is that it highlights individual opinions. Without the counting of the individual opinions, it may look like there is a lot of divergence because two vocal persons disagree.