Thursday, December 30, 2010

Paint by the Numbers Facilitation

After 23 years as a group process consultant I'm getting ready (slowly) to write a book about facilitating cooperative groups. It's a big topic—and doesn't get any smaller by virtue of my going deliberately. In fact, one of the trickiest parts is knowing when to ease off of doing in order to write about doing. It's a little crazy-making.

One the themes I stress as a trainer is that a good facilitator needs to be able to work both with content and with energy. I call this "riding two horses," and it's no small feat. The skill to do one well is completely unrelated to doing the other well, and it's not unusual to encounter students who are fairly accomplished equestrians with one horse, yet total greenhorns on the other.

One of my motivations to author a book about facilitation is that most of the existing literature on this subject is slanted toward the content horse—how to manage the conversation effectively and efficiently. I'm convinced though that you also need the second horse, to be able to read the the subtle undercurrents and handle volatility (pretending that upset doesn't occur, or making a rule against its expression, simply doesn't work).

My attitude about this is rooted in 36 years of community living, where there's a clearer understanding that relationships are primary to quality of life, and that you haven't solved a problem if there isn't a high level of buy-in from the individuals in the group. While I think this is essentially true for all cooperative groups, it's more apparent in intentional communities, where discord and disgruntlement have more immediate deleterious consequences.

One of the spurs (riding the equine metaphor for all it's worth) for my writing about facilitation is that most authors offer up a recipe for good meetings with an "if A, then B" approach—suggesting that if you could get good enough at it (that is, learn all the rules), then you would always know what to do. If you could only get a large enough set of colored pencils, then you would always have the one you wanted for filling in the dragon's eye.

Some authors focus principally on expanding one's tool kit (the person who has mastered the most techniques wins). See Holman & Devane's The Change Handbook for an example of this approach, offering up their sense of the best of whole systems practices.

Others have a favorite technique that they view as a golden compass, always pointing you in the right direction. Or perhaps I should say a golden hammer, where every group challenge appears as a nail. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication comes across this way, where the key is learning how to speak as a giraffe instead of as a jackal. The sociocracy craze is founded on the notion that the right organizational structure will see you to the promised land. The Institute for Cultural Affair's Technology of Participation offers an up-tempo formulaic approach to problem solving.

While I definitely think it's worthwhile learning patterns, and I believe that many of the above approaches have merit, meetings are not like pantyhose, where one size fits all. [Ma'ikwe just proofread this and informed me that even pantyhose does not come all in one size fits all—who knew? Probably I should confine my metaphors to lingering on topics about which I have more knowledge, and stretch less to offer metaphors about confining lingerie.] In my view, there is no single approach that always works or is always best in any situation. While you want to learn principles, you need to stay fluid about their application.

I see facilitation more as an art form than a craft, and this is a crucial distinction. While I'm all in favor of facilitators doing their homework and coming to a meeting prepared, they also have to be light on their toes and willing to alter the plan to follow the energy, adapting to what presents in the moment. This does not mean that facilitation is all about contact improv, yet it does mean that you will be too brittle if you're adamant about following a script.

For my money the facilitator's mantra is: What does the group most need right now? It could be a summary; it could be a graphic laying out where you are in the conversation; it could be a pause in the action to give attention to someone in tears; it could be a potty break. It's way more than just deciding whose turn it is to speak next. While the baseline skill is accurately hearing what people are saying, a great facilitator needs to also hear what's not being said, and the deeper meaning that underlies what's happening on the surface. A top-notch facilitator needs to be able to look around the curve, see what's coming, and decide whether to keep the herd moving in that direction or pick another path.

In short, facilitators need to be able to develop their horse sense and come to meetings with a fully stocked saddle bag; they need to know when to trust their instinct and when to haul out a technique. In the end, it's all about what works—by which I mean what moves the group productively and authentically through the agenda and builds relationships in the process.

While it's no doubt an easier pedagogy to teach brush strokes and how to mix pigments, I don't think that's really good enough. Sometimes, to get the full beauty of the moment, you have to color outside the lines. And that's the kind of facilitation I teach.

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