Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When Good Facilitators Step Down

I recently received this inquiry from a group I'd worked with before, asking about how to navigate the delicacy of encouraging folks to join their facilitation team, while at the same time protecting the quality of the work and the solid internal relationships that the team had worked so hard to develop. Here was the communication (suitably modified to obscure the identity of the group):

I have a question that I am hoping you might be able to help us with. Our Facilitation Team has been able to accomplish some really important things with our community over the past two years, in large part because of the wonderful training we received from you.

More recently, the community has had a series of thefts and muggings in the parking lot and this has lead us to organize a series of meetings to figure out a security plan that fits with the values of our group and that tries to bridge the strong opinions members have on how to make the community safe. We would never have been able to figure out how to approach this contentious discussion if we hadn’t had your training.

All this background brings me to our present concern. The members of our team who went through your training are all beginning to think about serving the community in different ways. One has already left to go back to school; another will leave the committee once her house sells; one is thinking of serving on the board next year instead, and a fourth may need to leave suddenly if an adoption comes through.

So, we are trying to figure out how to make sure the community continues to have effective facilitation.

To that effect, we have invited two other students of yours from other groups to come at some point in the spring and lead an intensive training weekend for people we have identified as having potential strengths in facilitation. (We are going to include those individuals who may be too busy to join the committee now but could perhaps become available in the future.)

A big concern for us is that over the past six or eight months we have had a few community members who have joined the team who to our minds do not have much promise of being good facilitators (too scattered to be able to track conversations, in one case, and too accustomed to running meetings in the corporate world, in another). We also have a new team member who has had some disasters in her attempts to facilitate so far. While we might be able to work with her to do some limited facilitating or to participate in some team facilitation, the other two would be very hard to work with. We want to encourage them to stay on the committee and serve in other capacities, but that might be a hard sell.

Our question is whether you have suggestions about how to recruit good future facilitators and how to discourage those who might not be gifted in that direction. We were hoping that you might be able to speak from your experiences or from your wisdom about how to set up a system for continuing facilitation in a community that would keep individuals who are interested but not well suited from feeling as though they have been rejected. We know that our community will not tolerate inadequate facilitation after what they have learned to expect over these past few years, so we feel the need to ensure the best possible facilitation. At the same time, we also don’t want to offend people and potentially set up a bad dynamic in the community.

What a good topic! Let's take the two aspects separately:

A. Recruiting Good Prospects
The first thing I'd recommend is to develop a job description, listing the qualities you want in a Facilitation Team member. If you're open to people serving on the team yet have different criteria for plenary facilitators, then create a separate list of criteria for that. While you may have already done this, the fact that you've attracted some candidates that aren't that well qualified makes me wonder.

Beyond that, it's not hard to imagine the veteran members of the team sitting down and walking through the entire group roster to determine who you'd like to recruit. I would not be shy about doing some sidewalk jawboning to try to talk the more promising prospects into applying. You may need to sweeten the pot by having one or ore of the exiting team members committing to continuing long enough to offer the new folks some decent mentoring.

Maybe you could invite those sitting on the fence (from among the pool you deem worth recruiting) to attend a few debriefing sessions after a plenary, to get a peek behind the curtain on how you operate, and what kinds of things you attempt to take into account. Maybe that would persuade them.

It also may make sense to have a session with the community where you talk up the importance of the job, and the qualifications, to generate some excitement in the work. It seems like the community had a good response to your skills development and you probably have some social capital you can draw on to ask the group to prioritize filling this with folks you deem qualified to follow in your footsteps.

B. Discouraging Inappropriate Prospects
In many ways this is trickier. I think in the long run, you simply have to commit to being honest (as we tried to do in the training class). There's an important distinction between encouraging someone to improve being fed a steady diet of positively slanted feedback, and blowing sunshine up their ass such that they're not really getting it about the gap between how they think they're coming across and how they're perceived.

It's my view that the key assessment here is how well someone hears and absorbs constructive criticism (I'm not talking about someone being able to handle being blasted; I'm talking about how open someone is to working with honest feedback in a debriefing from fellow facilitators where you're being frank.) I figure it's easier to train a naive person who's open to growing and listening, than it is to correct or advance someone who's ears are closed.

Toward that end, I'd make it clear both that openness to constructive feedback is an important criteria in the members you're seeking for the team, and that you'll assess candidates (during a trial period) for their ability to hear accurately, their ability to exercise appropriate discretion with the information they hear, and their relative lack of defensiveness.

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