Thursday, September 10, 2015

Back on Stage

Teaching is one of the most fun things I do.

Sometimes it's spontaneous, like explaining to someone how and why to use a steel to hone kitchen knives (you'd be amazed how often that comes up). Sometimes it's a discrete package, like a 90-minute workshop on Membership (such as I just gave Sunday at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference, where I walk through a number of questions that all groups should address—or else pay the price of ambiguity).

While I enjoy both of those kinds of opportunities, nothing compares with the challenges and possibilities that are available in the context of the two-year facilitation course I've been offering since 2003. It has been almost eight months since the last training ended (in mid-January, when Ma'ikwe and I wrapped up a course in North Carolina) and that's a long time between sessions. The good news is that I'm starting a course in New England tonight (working with Alyson Ewald from Red Earth Farms).

The even better news is that I'll also be starting a course in Portland OR, Dec 3-6 (working with Ma'ikwe again), and a third in North Carolina with María Stawksy, beginning Jan 14-17. So I have a lot of fun queued up for the next two years.

One of the most important features of the course is that I get to work with the students eight times, with approximately three months between training weekends, which affords students an opportunity to practice between sessions—an essential aspect of integrating the material. (It's one thing to understand the theory underneath a practice and even to see a thing demonstrated; it's another to be able to do it yourself in the dynamic moment.)

The training is heavily focused on hands-on learning. Fully three-quarters of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing the students facilitating live meetings for the host group. These are not role plays; they are actual meetings where real issues are being addressed and real solutions are being sought. I figure the students learn to swim faster if if they're thrown in the deep end of the pool, under the close supervision of life guards who will step in if things get overwhelming or ineffective—we don't let anyone drown.

The key aspect of this is that the trainers can redirect in the dynamic moment, where the student will learn the lesson viscerally, not just in their head.

While the primary objective of the training is teaching high-skilled facilitation in collaborative settings, it turns out that the course is also cooperative leadership training because there is so much overlap in the skill set and orientation. Both facilitators and leaders need to:

o  Be excellent listeners
o  Work unflappably, yet empathetically with chaotic energy
o  Be minimally defensive
o  Be able to sort the wheat from chaff in complex conversations
o  Be able to focus a conversation
o  Be able to articulate agreements that pull the group together
o  Be able to see and articulate bridges between different perspectives
o  Be able to patiently explain why they're doing what they're doing and where they want the group to head
o  Support others learning the skills needed to competently replace them

Thus, this training is not solely for people who aspire to run meetings. It's also for those who want to develop the capacity for healthy leadership—both so that they can fill that role themselves and so that they can support it in others.

The facilitation training program works for me personally at three levels:

a) Passing on my knowledge about how to run great meetings
This was my foremost objective when I pioneered this training a dozen years ago. In the US I see a society that is desperate for more inclusive and less divisive ways to solve problems—and it's only getting worse. Consensus and cooperative facilitation offers a promising alternative to Roberts Rules of Order and the tyranny of majority rule.

When I contemplate some the challenges ahead (climate change, chaotic economies, increasing disparities between the haves and have-nots) and take into account the need for skilled facilitation to midwife the transition from competitive to cooperative culture, I've come to the conclusion that my greatest calling as a social change agent is to train facilitators. And it's not a moment too soon.

b) Developing a larger pool of professional facilitators
As you might imagine, the skill level of people drawn to take the training varies widely. While I was concerned at first about the range being too wide (the experienced might be bored while the neophytes were overloading their circuits), that's not turned out to be a problem. The more seasoned have appreciated the chance to understand the theory better and gain nuance while helping the newbies get a solid grounding in the art of facilitation. Further, it often works well to pair the more experienced with the less experienced, letting them help each other.

At this point there about 80 people who have gone through the two-year training (which has been delivered in its entirety eight times), and out of that number there are about 8-10 who have a skill level that's professional grade or nearly so. They represent the cream, and are those most likely to put themselves forward as for-hire facilitators (which a number of them are). To be sure, mostly these folks were already pretty skilled before they took the course; I was simply polishing gems.

For the most accomplished students I offer the opportunity to accompany me as an apprentice when I'm hired as an outside facilitators (so long as it's OK with the client). While they don't get paid, they get one-on-one time with their mentor and they get professional exposure (why would someone hire a facilitator with no work resumé?). I didn't have that kind of help when I started out, and I'm committed to giving my students a leg up.

c) Developing a cadre of trainers
Finally, there is one more circle, even smaller than the last. The very best students are not only professional grade facilitators, they are good enough to be trainers, and I am committed to helping them get exposure in that capacity—mainly be having them pair with me as teachers of the training.

Thus, I will be working with three different co-trainers in the three different trainings about to start—Alyson, Ma'ikwe, and María—all of which are former students in the program.

It's incumbent on me as both a leader and a trainer to be working with purpose toward the day when I will no longer be able to do either, such that the spirit of my work, as interpreted and owned by the new people in whom it resonates, can continue after I cannot. It's part of the human dance.

Meanwhile, the lights go up on the teaching stage again tonight, and I can smell the roar of the greasepaint.

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