The Power of the Pen: 2 Ways To Use It, Not Abuse It

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    The Power of the Pen: Ways to Use It & Not Abuse It

    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. 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.

    How does the facilitator prevent abuse of the power of the pen? Here are two ways:

    1. 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!

    2. 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.
    • And, still, 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, as described below.

    • 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.

    These are just two of several techniques for using, not abusing, the power of the pen. Interested in learning more? Take Leadership Strategies’ course, The Effective Facilitator.


    Certified Master Facilitator Michael Wilkinson is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, Inc., The Facilitation Company and author of the new The Secrets of Facilitation 2nd Edition, The Secrets to Masterful Meetings, and The Executive Guide to Facilitating Strategy. Leadership Strategies is a global leader in facilitation services, providing companies with dynamic professional facilitators who lead executive teams and task forces in areas like strategic planning, issue resolution, process improvement and others. The company is also a leading provider of facilitation training in the United States.