Friday, February 28, 2014

The Difference Btewen Facilitators Deriving and Driving

I view meeting facilitation as more of an art than a science. While it's good to have a sense of how to structure a meeting and a road map for how to work topics, those are guidelines, not imperatives. While there are approaches to this craft that are formulaic (if you have a large enough tool kit you'll be ready for all occasions), I don't buy it. I believe the only crucial elements are the right mind set and a basic tool kit—because a good facilitator will work with what unfolds, rather than work from a script.

One of my favorite process metaphors is of the facilitator as horse rider, in which image the group is the horse. If the group is being productive and the energy is congenial, you hold the reins lightly, letting the horse have its head. If, however, Old Dobbin is balky or obstreperous, with a tendency to stray off course or to jump the hedge, then the rider needs to hold the reins firmly, giving strict instructions.

There are plenty of people out there who facilitate as if their only concern is deciding who gets to speak next. But good facilitation is way more than something that passive. At the same time, neither is it not about being a taskmaster, where you treat meetings as military campaigns designed to conquer pockets of rebellion. You want to be prepared, yet not dictatorial. A good facilitator elicits everyone's input and than sees how disparate viewpoints can be woven into whole cloth.

You want to be deriving the solution from what the participants bring; not driving the solution based on what you think is a good idea. To be sure, the line between these two can be blurry, and the uninitiated can fail to discern the difference. It may be helpful to think of the facilitator as a potter, where the group supplies all of the clay. The facilitator may play a considerable role in helping to shape the clay, but shouldn't be inserting their own clay into the mix unless expressly requested to do so.

One of the trickiest dynamics I have to navigate as a facilitation instructor is when, in the context of a training weekend, I'm called upon to offer consulting advice to clients—by virtue of my being a process resource—which is markedly different than modeling skilled facilitation. While I work hard to be transparent when I switch hats, sometimes I'm too casual about that and observers can get confused about what their seeing, with the unintended consequence that students can be inadvertently inspired try their hand at free-lance consulting—something they've witnessed go over well when I do it—only to have the group push back when they do it. It can be an awkward lesson. The key here is not simply that I'm a professional and they're not (at least not yet), but that I was asked for my opinion and they weren't.

Good facilitation can look like many things. It can be very quiet and hands off—for example, when you have a focused, disciplined group of consensus veterans. At other times, when the group wanders all over the place, when participants are prone to repetition, or when there's considerable volatility in play, the facilitator may have to work hard to keep the group on track and in a constructive zone. The point is that the facilitator needs to be able to match styles and degree of being directive to the needs of that meeting, not with some idealized picture if what facilitators should be.

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