Process push-back: A grounded practical theory for facilitators facing challenges to the meeting design

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 3 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Leah Sprain, University of Colorado Boulder (Communication)

Within the meetings literature, ‘facilitator challenges’ often references difficult situations that facilitators must navigate, such has dominating participants, minimal participation, disrespect, and conflict. This paper takes on a related type of facilitator challenge: moments when participants challenge the meeting design or group process implemented by the facilitator. In, particular, I consider process push-back within public meetings with deliberative designs where a facilitator guides a small group of six to nine participants in deliberative discussion (Gastil & Black, 2008). Rather than presume that these challenges are inappropriate or out of line, this paper turns to social interaction during actual meetings to develop practical theory for handling process push-back given the potential that such push-back may actually be an important form of furthering democratic values. Following Walmsley (2009), I recognize that sometimes public participants uphold democratic values by questioning how facilitators frame the problem or control the discussion. Sometimes process push-back challenges power in ways that serves democracy. Yet celebrating and inviting process push-back could easily derail meetings and undermine their democratic potential.

This paper uses approaches from grounded practical theory (GPT) (Craig & Tracy, 1995) to understand how facilitators should handle participant challenges to the meeting process. GPT starts by considering how people actually act in particular settings and uses that understanding to inform normative theory. The corpus of data comes from three public processes held in in the Rocky Mountain Western United States: a community process to build a new campus stadium, a leadership task force of a regional planning group, and a public meeting on community resilience. Across these three processes, I analyze utterance-level transcripts of 25 small group discussions totaling over 500 pages. I begin by asking about communication practices at the technical level (Craig & Tracy, 1995): how do participants in deliberative forums push-back on meeting design? How do facilitators respond to process push-back? I identify both the discursive forms of process push-back and facilitator responses across these sites. Next I consider the problem level (Craig & Tracy, 1995): how does process push-back uphold and challenge democratic virtues? In turn, I consider: how do facilitator responses further or undermine democratic values? Finally, I use these findings as the basis for normative theorizing, in this case developing principles for deliberative design (Aakhus, 2007; Sprain, Carcasson, & Merolla, 2014) and facilitator practice. In turn, it contributes to the interdisciplinary literature on meeting facilitation, particular how facilitators manage interactional trouble in groups and how close attention to social interaction can illuminate discursive aspects of meeting dynamics.


Aakhus, M. (2001). Technocratic and design stances toward communication expertise: How GDSS facilitators understand their work. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29, 341–371. doi:10.1080/00909880128113

Craig, R. T. & Tracy, K. (1995). Grounded practical theory: The case of intellectual discussion. Communication Theory, 5, 248-272. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1995.tb00108.x

Gastil, J. & Black, L. W. (2008). Public deliberation as the organizing principle for political communication research. Journal of Public Deliberation, 4, article 3. Available at:

Sprain, L., Carcasson, M., & Merolla, A. (2014). Experts in public deliberation: Lessons from a deliberative design on water needs. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42, 150-167.

Walmsley, H. L. (2009). Mad scientists bend the frame of biobank governance in British Columbia. Journal of Public Deliberation, 5(1).

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