Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walking the Line Between Facilitating & Consulting

As a process professional, I'm frequently asked to both help a group through a tough issue (typically one that's both complicated and volatile, though not always) and to offer advice about how they can operate more effectively & inclusively. In the case of the former, the group is looking more for my skill as a facilitator; in the case of the latter, they're wanting my thoughts as a consultant. Given that good facilitators should not be mucking around in the content of the conversation, it's dangerous business when I'm wearing both hats—and I try to warn groups about that potential confusion up front.

I'll give you example to illuminate how messy this can get. Last weekend Ma'ikwe and I were conducting a facilitation training in Atlanta, at a cohousing community called East Lake Commons. While the teaching aspect of the weekend is focused on facilitation, the live work we were doing for the host community was on the topic of Work Participation (which is a fairly common issue for groups to wrestle with and one that I've worked with as an outside consultant a dozen times).

Going into the weekend, the students had asked me to do some of the facilitating for East Lake Commons, so they could see me work. In addition, the host community had made a request that I offer some consulting advice about how to get through the complexities of the Work Participation (based on my experience with that issue and with group dynamics in general). Thus, when we prepped Friday afternoon for the opening plenary that evening, I was in the awkward position of explaining to the facilitation class how I was going to give advice as a consultant (rather than making clear how I was going to run the meeting as a facilitator).

This got even crazier the next day when I had to caution the class about how to properly digest what happened Friday night, when I laid out a recommended package for how to manage labor. There was a very positive response at to my suggestion that the community establish a standing committee which I styled the Participation Committee, whose job it would be to track what was wanted and what was being accomplished. I recommended that this committee canvass the entire membership to determine what interest, skills, and availability people had for work that the community wanted done, and that it be on call to assist other committees whenever they encountered difficulties in getting needed tasks covered.

Saturday morning I emphasized that what had happened Friday night had little to do with facilitation, and a lot to do with my deep experience as a consultant. Moreover, the community had done a lot of work to be in a position of receptivity to hear advice on that topic. If either of those two ingredients had been missing, the result of my having offered device might have been vastly different and I didn't want the students getting the notion that it was jim dandy to simply spout off with whatever advice they were inspired to give on the topic at hand. (I've seen what can happen when students attempt this without permission, and it ain't pretty—"Who died and appointed you God?")

As it's tempting to want to be the savior (where the group is eagerly gathering the pearls of wisdom dribbling from your lips, to string together into the Necklace of Insight), I have some words of advice about donning that persona:

1) Unless you have been explicitly hired as a consultant, don't offer advice without first getting permission to do so ("I have some suggestions for how you might handle this situation; would like to hear them?").

2) If you're an outside facilitator, you might be better off packaging your suggestions in a report given to the group afterward, rather than steering the conversation toward your ideas in the moment.

3) As a facilitator, you need to be scrupulous about limiting your direction to what members of the group have brought into play. That is, it's OK to suggest ways to work with the ideas and concerns that the members have contributed; it's not OK to start mixing in ideas based solely on your own experience or thinking.

4) If, as the facilitator, you make suggestions about what the group should do, it's important that you monitor closely how the group responds. If there's resistance, it's crucial that you not fight for your position and accept gracefully that the group is not buying it. If you don't, it immediately undermines your neutrality, which is an essential piece of your license to facilitate.

5) If you feel compelled to drift into the consultant role, pause and make it explicit to the group that that's what you're doing—be transparent!

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