Saturday, March 22, 2014

Personal Growth & Facilitation 2.0

Nine days ago I published a blog called Personal Growth & Facilitation. Today I want to drill a little deeper, focusing expressly on what I mean by personal growth in relation to skilled facilitation.

A. Examining Motivation
When I spotlighted personal growth in the previous blog, my main point was that high-end facilitators will need, on occasion, to ask meeting participants to reflect on why they said or took the action that they did. That will land as a hollow request if the facilitator themselves is not willing to do the same. Not only will the facilitator come across as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrite, but blind spots will remain invisible to the facilitator (though not necessarily to others), which undercuts effectiveness.

The deeper purpose here is trying to get a handle on what it means that you see things the way you do, and why you respond as you do. This is important both so that you know you're tendencies, which will invariably result in some degree of distortion (which you very much need to be aware of), and because this gives you the opportunity to consider changing what you're doing if it doesn't serve you. 

Much of what we have in the way of patterns was laid down in childhood. Even if those responses and viewpoints served us well at the time (which is not a guarantee—sometimes childhood responses are all about coping, and may not have been all that effective right out of the gate), it's worthwhile to consider whether they serve you as the adult you are, or mean to be. 

Unexamined, old patterns will rarely change, which will color what you see and how you're received. It should be fairly easy to connect the dots about how that gets in the way of developing into a skilled facilitator.

B. Working Constructively with Critical Feedback
This is a big one. First of all, what do you actually let in? Not just can you parrot the words back, I'm talking about whether you consciously consider what might be valid in criticism that comes your way. Most of us have developed (consciously or unconsciously) screens that limit what feedback gets through to our brain and it can be serious work to keep those filters unclogged and as open-mesh as possible.

The vast majority of us have learned to perceive critical feedback as an attack, and respond with denial, defensiveness, or counterattack—all of which get in the way of accessing the information.  The biological equivalent is pain: while no one enjoys pain, it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts when you step on a nail. I'm not suggesting that you look forward to pain; I'm suggesting that you be as open as possible to information about how others have experienced pain in relation to something you said or did. I am not trying to tie your hands in any way regarding what weight you give someone's feedback or whether it makes sense to change your behavior as a consequence—I'm only talking about the wisdom of being open to hearing it as dispassionately as possible.

That said, even if you get it how beneficial feedback can be, there are four dynamics relative to critical feedback that are especially hard to handle well:

—Unbalanced Feedback
Most of us find it easier to hear feedback from someone who is open to hearing it the other way as well (you give me yours and I'll give you mine). While that's fine when it occurs, that's not always available, and it's still in your best interest to receive their input, even if the giver is completely shut down to what you have to say about them. 

While there's no doubt that a balanced exchange will tend to be better for the health of the relationship, it's a big mistake to insist on a quid pro quo as a condition of listening, because the information is good for you regardless (of whether the other person has read my blog or not).

—Raw Feedback
A number of books about communication skills are aimed at learning how to genuinely convey hard things in ways that are minimally triggering. While that's good work (and I encourage everyone to look into it) you cannot count on others to have read the same books. If you insist on pretty envelopes as a precondition for reading the message, you're confusing packaging from content.

Just because someone is rude and aggressive doesn't mean they don't have a point.

—Embarrassing Circumstances
Sometimes the feedback is given kindly and the person is willing to hear your critical reflections in return, yet their comments are delivered in a setting that's challenging—perhaps in front of the whole group, on stage, or witnessed by your children or mother. To the extent that image and public persona are important, this can be excruciating.

I once knew a fellow community networker who simply couldn't abide critical comments stated in front of peers. Privately, offered one-on-one, he was quite open, but anything in front of a wider audience meant war and it took me several years of frustration to sort that out.

—Drive-by Feedback
When critical feedback comes from people who don't know you well, there's a tendency to dismiss what they have to say because it can't possibly be based on sufficient data—how can they know context after so little first-hand observation?

While there's unquestionably a relationship between breadth of connection and accuracy, that does not necessarily mean that observations offered on minimal data are off base. In fact, sometimes it's fresh eyes that see what the familiar miss.

C. Working to Diminish Reactivity
Embarrassingly enough, this is an aspect of personal work that I have devoted serious attention to in just the last year. (It was either that or my wife was going to divorce me—which she may do yet, but at least she's feeling met in this regard and we're on much better footing these days.)

Even though I'm 64, have lived in community for 40 years, and have been a professional facilitator for the last 27 years, I still have personal work to do, and my ongoing attention to it has a direct bearing on my skill as a facilitator. On the specific of my reactivity, there's a double benefit of being more aware of my tendencies: I'm less likely to be triggered, and I'm less likely to respond with fierceness when I am, which is a pretty good deal all around.

[A close friend recently observed me laboring with someone who didn't like the choices I made as a facilitation trainer after witnessing them do something I found awkward in the class context. The student experienced me as reactive and harsh, to which my friend remarked, "Hah, you think that was reactive. You should have seen him two years ago." At least I'm making progress.]

D. Playing with a Full Deck
Humans are complex animals that work with information and "knowing" in a rich variety of ways. While the default mode for engagement in meetings (remember, the context for this essay is how personal growth relates to facilitation) is through rationality, there are many other modalities possible and a savvy facilitator will intentionally cultivate a wider palette:

—Emotional Knowing
While this is a rich topic, there are three things I want especially want to underline:
a)  Ability to know and fully articulate one's feelings without aggression. This can be crucial in terms of coming across to your audience as human.
b)  Minimal tension in the presence of tension in others (at least when you are not the trigger). Ironically, this skill often shows up as an ability to mirror tension in others without taking it on personally. The essential skill is developing a heightened sensitivity to distress in others without going into distress yourself when it manifests.
c) I don't believe you can be a full service facilitator unless you can work authentically and accurately with conflict, and that necessarily means developing a facility with feelings. If you haven't done your own work on distress, you'll be dead in the water attempting to work with others in distress.

—Intuitive Knowing
Over the years I've come to have an increasing respect for intuition, which I think of as the ability to access inner knowing that operates below the level of consciousness. I believe a skilled facilitator needs to develop a sense of what to do in a given a situation. This is not so much about what the answer is, as about what the key question or observation is.

While I want to see facilitators with an openness to intuitive insight, and confidence in acting on it when it bubbles up, this needs to be tempered by an understanding that every offering will not be perceived as brilliant. The skilled facilitator will work, at times, intuitively, yet needs to be able to gracefully abandon a line of inquiry that opens no doors for others.

—Kinesthetic Knowing
There are people for whom physical movement is a powerful entrée into grounding information and integrating experiences. While this learning style is not rare, it tends to be grossly under-served in meeting settings and a sophisticated facilitator will develop a range of formats for long meetings (anything more than 90 minutes) that include movement—both to oxygenate the brain and to stimulate body knowing.

In order to be sensitive to this dynamic, facilitators do well to experiment with how physical movement can enhance their understanding of what's happening, both internally and around them.

E. Understanding That a Golden Path Is Not the Golden Path
The world is full of different personal growth modalities and disciplines, for example: Zazen Meditation, Landmark Forum, Avatar, Co-counseling, EST, and Vipassana. Some of them also offer specific ideas for how to engage effectively in groups, a sampling of which includes ZEGG Forum, Heart of Now, Worldwork, Nonviolent Communication, Restorative Circles, and Sociocracy.

All of the above practices have their advocates who will swear by the efficacy of its life-changing orientation, tools, and techniques. At the same time, every modality also has its detractors, who complain (sometimes bitterly) that the offerings have not worked for them, have been oversold, or are led by people with unhealthy egos who are more interested in generating fees and adoration than in helping people improve their lives. Whew!

When people have a profound experience with a particular teacher or a specific modality, there's a natural tendency to want to share the joy with others (there's no enthusiasm that compares with the rapture of the newly converted). The danger is relating to the modality as a religion that works profoundly for everyone every time. To the extent that facilitators fall in love with a practice they are susceptible to blindness about its weaknesses or the ways in which some will not find nirvana through its application.

I believe the sweet spot is sampling different approaches with an eye toward understanding the genius of each, the conditions under which it will flourish, and the kinds of people most likely to benefit from that approach, without closing one's mind to the potential benefits of alternate approaches.

It is a plus to be able to work sensitively with multiple techniques and approaches; it is a liability to continually rely on a single approach independent of circumstances (if you are enthralled with your hammer, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail).

From the perspective of what will help develop facilitative muscles (which includes sensitivity to what's happening for others and the ways in which people can authentically bridge different viewpoints and disparate realities), I suggest that people look for ways to interpret the quest for Inner Peace as a search for Inner Pieces—of the puzzle of how to get along with each other, without anyone selling out or changing personalities.

F. Managing Ego
Good facilitators need to have done their work about their value in relation to events. In a meeting—the baseline arena in which facilitators operate—the goal should always be a great meeting; not one in which you stand out for your brilliance. Your mantra should be: "It's not about me" and there will be times when the very best thing you can do is to shut up and stay out of the way.

Here's how I relate to that: when I'm at my best, my ego ceases to exist—I'm all attention and energy. While I don't think that's the only path to facilitative excellence, it's the image that works for me. When I'm completely in the flow, I can work with anything, I "see" everything, and nothing sticks to me. (To be sure, this is easier to access if I'm an outside facilitator with no personal stake in the dynamics, but that's always my ideal.)

• • •
How do I relate to all this personally? I don't think there has ever been a time in my life where I haven't looked back with some degree of embarrassment with what I thought was sophisticated, mature, and insightful at the time... which means, of course, that in a few years I may reread this blog and wince. 

Oh well, we're all works in progress, and I'm choosing to embrace the work because I'm desirous of the progress, and that's the only way to get there.

No comments: