Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hitting the Curveball

As I write today’s entry, I’m jostling along on the Illinois Zephyr en route to Chicago, rumbling through the foggy morning air enveloping the soggy fields of the Land of Lincoln after yesterday’s cold, all-day drizzle. Ma’ikwe’s reading in the seat next to me, and in a couple hours we’ll arrive at Union Station, where we’ll change trains for the Capitol Limited and our overnight journey east.

We’ll be met around noon tomorrow in Harpers Ferry, and then driven to Liberty Village, a cohousing community just east of Frederick MD. Tomorrow night starts an intensive three-day weekend (fourth in a series of eight) with our Mid-Atlantic facilitation class. By Sunday, this course will be half completed, and I’m reflecting this morning, as I journey by train to the training, about the journey that our journeymen facilitators are on. (Wheels within wheels.)

A significant chunk of class time is devoted to getting ready to do live meetings for our host (in this case, Liberty Village). Friday afternoon we’ll get briefed about the topics the community wants to tackle, and we’ll get a concentrated download about three questions:

—What are the objectives or desired outcomes from focusing on the selected topics? How will the topic be introduced?

—What is the relevant background (what was the output of any prior discussions on each topic; are there any existing agreements that bear on these topics; is there anything we need to know that’s special about how the community makes decisions)?

—Are there any tensions points or pitfalls that we need to know about subject (we’d rather know about the stumbling blocks ahead of time, rather than accidentally trip over them)?

While proper preparation is a core element of facilitation, we also have to teach the students to not be overly attached to their plan. Expectations, no matter how insightfully developed, are only casually related to reality (as opposed to causally related to reality—but that’s a subject for a different essay), and you have to be flexible in the dynamic moment.

Three weeks ago, during a facilitation training weekend in Missouri, we had a first-time student who was cautioned that the topic projected for his slot was likely to evince some strong feelings. As he came into the training with the explicit hope of strengthening his ability to handle emotional volatility, he was psyched about his assignment and devoted most of his prep time to thinking about how he would ride the storm-tossed seas. When the time came and he invited people to voice their unresolved tensions, nothing happened. Now what? Once the script failed, he lost his way.

While there was no doubt that the tensions still existed, the group was not inclined to go there and it didn’t unfold as the best way to use the time. While it might have been the right thing to do, and it was appropriate to be ready for the possibility, the student had trouble adjusting to the anti-climax of needing to facilitate a plain, old vanilla discussion. While this more commonly happens the other way around (where you’ve prepared for you thought was going to be a simple conversation and a fight breaks out), handling the unexpected can be a challenge however it occurs.

The student struggled to let go of his plan and adapt to what the group needed in the moment. In baseball parlance, he was thrown a curveball and couldn’t hit it. The good news is that this was only his first time at bat, and he has several more weekends ahead in which he’ll get the chance to see curveballs again (under our watchful eyes in the batting cage) and we can coach him how to better see the rotation of the ball. For the students in our Mid-Atlantic class, it’s already time (at Weekend IV) for them to be seeing fewer fastballs and more curves.

Because groups of human beings are devilishly creative at manifesting unexpected and complex dynamics, we try to train facilitators to be adaptive rather than directive. Instead of trying to bend the will of the group to what the facilitator thinks is best, we try to develop the facilitator’s capacity to recognize what the will and the mood of the group are, so that the facilitator can work with what’s possible. While we want the facilitator’s ideas about how to structure the meeting to be firmly rooted in objectives that have been developed by the group (rather than by the facilitator), great facilitators know when and how to improvise on the spot, changing formats or the sequence of engagement based on what’s happening in the room—they develop a knack for making a bad thing good, or a good thing better.

This is at the heart of why facilitation is an art. While it’s a terrific advantage to have a large pattern library and familiarity with multiple modalities, skilled facilitation calls for the practitioner to do much more than just follow an endless cascade of if-then choices and decide who's turn it is to speak next. You have to be able to feel what’s happening and what’s possible; you have to develop an instinct for the right direction, such that it unerringly guides your hand when you reach into your toolkit.

In short, you have to be able to hit the curveball.

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