Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Personal Growth & Facilitation

I've been offering a two-year facilitation training course for 11 years now, and it's the most fun thing I do. There are three main reasons why:

1. As a cooperative group process consultant, I figure any chance we have of manifesting sustainable culture rests on our ability to successfully make the transition from a competitive, adversarial overculture to a relational, cooperative culture. While this is not that difficult to envision, it can be the very devil to put into practice.

For decades I've witnessed groups struggle to act cooperatively in the heat of the moment. When the stakes are high and people disagree, they'll fall back into reptilian brain combat mode, clawing and scratching in order to "win." It's not pretty.

Fortunately, there's hope. Experience has taught me that under the guidance of a skilled facilitator, groups can effectively be reminded of the cooperative principles they meant to be operating by, and bring their actions into alignment. (It's not about twisting arms; it's about invoking our higher selves.) While the impact of the facilitator tends to diminish as a group matures and its members become more accomplished in the art of cooperation, having a good one present to midwife the transition can make a night and day difference in outcomes. All too often, well-intentioned groups don't appreciate the importance of investing in facilitative skill and fail to survive their infancy because of the inadvertent damage to relationships sustained in meetings run by amateur-hour facilitators.

Given how important cooperative culture is to our future and how valuable good facilitators are in manifesting cooperation, I figure I can't train facilitators fast enough. The way I see it, it's my greatest point of leverage as a social change agent—and what can be more fun than doing the work you know in your heart you're meant to be doing?

2. My training model is slanted heavily toward having students facilitate live meetings. There is minimal time spent in the classroom talking about the theory of swimming, and maximal time preparing for, delivering, and debriefing performance in front of real groups wrestling with real issues. I figure you'll learn faster if I throw you in the deep end—promising to pull you out if you start to drown.

Since all the live meetings are unscripted and the best teaching moments occur in the context of how principles are applied to real-world dynamics, I never know ahead what I'll teach or when the opportunity will arise. Thus, I have to be on my toes the whole weekend. I think of it as teaching improv, which keeps the material fresh and as three-dimensional as possible. Each weekend is a three-day swim meet, where you never know in advance how long you'll be in the pool or what strokes you'll need to use.

3. Unlike consulting jobs, where I can devote all of my attention to the client and make decisions about what to do at any given moment based on my sense of what's best for the group, training weekends are more nuanced. In addition to tracking the live meetings for the host group (where real work is happening and I have bottom line responsibility for it going well), I am also tracking what's happening for the student facilitator, and there are times when what I think is best for the student—about whether, or how, to step in to redirect what they're doing—is different than what I think is best for the meeting. It can get tricky, yet I love the challenge of being stretched to access the full breadth of my attention and skill.

• • •
While it's more or less a miracle that my training course today still looks substantially like what I started with in 2003, the program has definitely evolved. Having just completed Weekend V of the training underway currently in North Carolina, it's a good time to reflect on how the course has morphed over the years.

A. Leadership Training
My original concept was simply facilitation training, where the focus was on how to understand and manage the dynamics of plenaries. My thought—which I still hold—was that if you can handle large groups well then smaller groups (down to two people) are that much simpler.

However, one of the teaching modules is a segment on Power & Leadership and a former student (now my wife) helped me connect the dots about how the skills needed to be an effective facilitator in cooperative groups maps well onto the essential elements of servant leadership. Duh.

To be sure, you can aspire to be a group leader and/or have an aptitude for it without being drawn to the role of plenary facilitator (and vice versa), but I've come to realize that my training is a two-for-the-price-one deal, and I now market it that way.

B. Personal Growth 
Taking this one step further, it's hard to be an effective facilitator (or leader) if you're not walking your talk. In particular, facilitators sometimes need to ask people to look at their motivation for a statement or action, to reflect on how their choices might be misconstrued, or to see things through another person's eyes—rather than insisting on their viewpoint and the righteousness of their behavior. Thus, I've slowly come to realize the primacy of wanting students who are willing to do personal work and inner reflection when they encounter rough patches in the training. I need students who are willing to own their part of what's hard and to try to work through tensions when they arise in the class.

Rigid boundaries and flexible facilitation don't tend to play well together.

C. Different Strokes for Different Folks 
People don't all learn the same way. I got that lesson viscerally in the very first round of the training when I had two women from the same community, each eager to learn facilitation. The first woman watched me facilitate once and was then ready to try it herself. She knew that she was unlikely to get it right the first time, but had learned that (for her) falling down and getting up again was the quickest way to grok the lessons. She had no embarrassment whatsoever about not looking good in public.

The second woman was much more cautious. It wasn't until the fifth or sixth weekend that she was ready to try her hand at facilitating a live meeting (role plays are way easier), by which time I was suspecting that she'd never be ready. But I was wrong. She just had a different pathway by which she learned. She needed to see facilitation modeled many times before she felt secure enough to attempt it in public, where every misstep might be seen by God and everyone. Yet when she finally went—to my amazement—she gave one of the best first-time performances I'd ever seen.

Both women knew how they learned best and the two styles were very different. While that knowledge does not guarantee that I will be a great instructor for all styles of learning, I am at least sensitized to the need to take that into account.

D. Left Brain/Right Brain
Over the years, I've learned to offer greater and greater variety in both what we teach and how we deliver the lessons.

Thus, instead of all lecture or didactic discussion, we mix in role plays, kinesthetic exercises, guided visualization, and ritual. Over the course of the eight weekends, we move increasingly from directive to interactive; from "watch me," to "now you do it"; from "we'll tell you what to pay attention to," to "you figure it out"; from teachers as awesome, to instructors as (fallible) peers.

We pay particular attention to body-centered engagement (in contrast with the aural and visual) and to developing intuitive and emotional sensitivity (to counteract a cultural basis toward the rational). We're tinkering with this all the time.

E. Saturday Night Dinner
When I first cooked up the idea for this training, I envisioned five-day weekends (it was no problem thinking of all the cool pedagogical things I could do with that degree of spaciousness). Then the reality of people's busy lives brought me down to Earth and I scaled back the weekends to a more doable three-day commitment, and each weekend is packed.

After everyone gathers for Thursday dinner on site, the only things we try to cover that first evening are a schedule review and a check-in. Then the pace picks up Friday morning at 9 am. We typically run until 10 pm that night and then are right back at it Saturday morning. By the time the group has debriefed a live meeting Saturday afternoon, most of the class is running on fumes. By design, we all go out to eat together Saturday evening—simultaneously giving our host a break from meal responsibilities and offering the class a complete change of focus. While people are allowed to talk shop at dinner, it's not particularly encouraged. The emphasis is on fun, social engagement, and recharging the battery (which often means a certain amount of discharging from the intensity of the preceding 48 hours).

Not only does this feature of the weekend result in better attention on Sunday, it also creates greater depth of relationship among the class, purposefully commingling the professional with the personal; work with play. Above all else, facilitators need to be human.

F. Advanced Training
At this point there are around 80 students who have gone through the training, and I'm starting to field requests for taking this to the next level. In general, classes contain a mix of people who are: 1) already serious about facilitation (and fairly accomplished at it) and are open to working with groups other than their own; 2) people who aspire only to being competent facilitators at home; and 3) those who aren't really interested in being facilitators themselves yet believe that knowing the role better will help them be better meeting participants (or perhaps better leaders).

The program works for all three and (fortunately) having a wide range of objectives and prior skill has not been a problem. That is, the more advanced are not bored, and the neophytes are not (unreasonably) overwhelmed.

One of the key elements of the training model (that helps contain costs) is that each is held in a relatively tight geographic area, reducing the commute time for students. While the trainers may have to travel across time zones, that's rarely asked of students. If we put together an advanced training program our expected audience would be Group 1) above, which means they'd be dispersed all across the country. That means that travel might cost as much as the participation fees and students may need to take additional time off to get to and from the training site. So we're still scratching our heads about how to structure this.

Logistics aside, I'm excited to think about what the curricula might encompass:
o  Teaching facilitation
o  Self care
o  Teamwork versus solo
o  When to get help
o  Developing process peers
o  Critique of techniques and modalities (what are we collectively learning?)
o  In-depth peer review
o  Preparing for work with outside clients
o  Negotiating compensation

I'm proud to say there appears to be no danger of running out of work.

1 comment:

syman said...

Personal growth “I would love to help you out" the body should be relax . your article is very interesting.