Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Chaos of Weekend I

Last weekend Ma'ikwe and I started a two-year Integrative Facilitation training at Dancing Rabbit. It's simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and one of the most challenging things I do.

The program consists of eight 3-day weekends, each spaced about three months apart (allowing for recovery, digestion, and practical application of what happens in one training weekend before being immersed in the next). To describe the weekends as "intense" is akin to labeling the interior of the sun as "hot." Last weekend was especially so.

There are lots of ways to teach and there is a wide variety of preferred learning styles. While we attempt to offer a range of ways to access the material and the skills, the bulk of the course is built on experiential learning—by having the students facilitate actual meetings, rather than relying heavily on lectures, role plays, and practice sessions. I have found over the years (at this point I'm a veteran of 36 training weekends, and have a lot of data points on this) that this generally produces the fastest learning and integration (student "get" in the lessons in their bones, not just in their heads), and it tends to make a night-and-day difference in helping the students understand the energy of the moment, providing context for how to do a certain thing at a certain time, and why.

That said, the live approach is more digestible for some than others. Here's a overview of some of the variables in play:

o Prior Facilitation Experience
The students come into the training with a wide disparity in experience levels, both with the principles and with performing in front of a group. The participants who are newer to facilitation are facing a larger chunk of unfamiliar information—sometimes to the point of overwhelm.

o Intensity of the Feedback
If you don't do well as a facilitator (or think you didn't do well—which is not the same thing, yet may land the same) your shortcomings have been revealed in front of God and everyone. That is, they couldn't have been more public. For some people, this is excruciating. One of the skills we explicitly work on in the training is giving and receiving critical feedback. While this happens in the context of a group that is learning together (and will ultimately happen in a group that becomes bonded through having walked through the fire together), the connections within the group are necessarily weakest and least established at the outset.

o Pace
In the interest of getting the most out of each weekend, we pack the time. In the interest of giving the host community value in the form of outside facilitation, we try to do as many live sessions as possible. These two objectives coincides nicely with the desire to give as many students as possible live experience, yet it squeezes the time to prepare for one session before you're on to the next.

Part of the reason I support this squeeze is that the students learn over the course of the training to think more quickly, to speak more accurately and concisely, to hold more things in mind simultaneously, and to increase their ability to stay focused longer (less space out). Through the process of being exercised in these intentional ways, they develop their facilitative "muscles."

o Acculturation to the Host
For those students who live at the host community, this is the water they swim in. For others, there is a lot to learn, and this can be double challenging for students with no prior community living experience. Of particular interest to the training, visitors need to take a crash course in the host group's meeting culture. I ran into a problem when I didn't take into account how strong a role presenters often play in orchestrating meetings at Dancing Rabbit
[see my previous blog on The Presenter/Facilitator Two Step for more on this]. Beyond that, we need to know how much the community is open to working emotionally, how they know when they've made a decision, how and if they use stacks to determine speaking order, what acronyms stand for, the rudiments of the community's organizational structure (the standing committees and their functions), the local argot (terms with special meanings that only insiders will grok), etc.

But it's worse than that. Even daily functions that we rely on to provide familiarity and routine can be turned on their heads (maybe the food is different, when is it OK to use electricity in a house that's off the grid, where is it preferred that people pee if the house relies on composting toilets). There can be no end to the things that are confusing or disorienting!

o The Trainers' Familiarity with Student Preferences
As Ma'ikwe and I learn more about what works best for each individual (about how they take in, process, and integrate information) we make attempts to tailor instruction and learning opportunities to what works best for that person. At the beginning of the course, however, we know the least about these preferences, and also have the vaguest understanding about the students' capacities (or the ways in which we believe they may have a distorted sense of their capacities).

o Being Asked to Orchestrate Great Meetings with Only a Few Instruments
Because the facilitator skill set is large and because we have eight weekends to lay it all out, we deliver the material in discrete chunks. Unavoidably, during the first weekend the students will have only seen one chunk, with seven more coming in the future. That translates into needing to conduct live meetings with a very incomplete package of instructions. While some are exhilarated by being thrown into the deep end as part of their first swimming lesson, others, understandably, fear drowning and not being able to deliver a good performance.

For all of these reasons, most participants experience Weekend I as the most scary, most chaotic, and most overwhelming. And it isn't necessarily easy (for them) to project that things will get better. As a consequence, despite explicit efforts to inform people ahead about the maelstrom they'll be entering, some people quit after the first weekend.

When I first conceived of this training, I proposed five-day weekends, to allow time for the more tried and true pedagogic sequence of listen (to theory), watch (the trainer demonstrate), practice (doing it yourself in a simulated meeting), and do (it in a real meeting). The more leisurely (read humane) pace would also protect breathing room for the students to reflect on one body of material before being asked to start absorbing the next. However, the reality of people's lives is that this amount of time is rarely possible to carve out. Three-day weekends represent the outer limits of how far most students can stretch, so that's what Ma'ikwe and I work with. We try to accomplish as much as possible in the time available.

While this approach mostly works quite well, sometimes it feels to the students like we're marching them across the battlefield to find out where the mines are… and they don't appreciate the assignment.

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