Sunday, December 20, 2015

Walking the Line Between Facilitating and Consulting

As a group process professional I'm frequently hired to be both a skilled facilitator and a cooperative group consultant. On the one hand, I'm wanted to work some thorny issues; on the other I'm generally asked to give advice on best practices or on ways to fruitfully approach complex topics (which I style "hair balls"). Often enough, what consultants supply are the "right" questions more than the "right" answers, but I'm ambidextrous and a free swinger.

When I'm hired in the above capacity I try to be careful to tell people at the outset that I'm about to do a dangerous thing: purposefully commingling the role of facilitator (which should be scrupulously neutral) with that of the consultant (who advocates for a certain approach, just like a stakeholder). I call this "wearing two hats" and there have even been occasions where the group asks me to physically don a goofy chapeau whenever I start pontificating as a consultant, so that they have a visual cue that they can no longer expect the same neutrality as they can from Laird the Facilitator.

OK, so what's the problem?

There are a couple.

Problem I: I'm an Active Facilitator
For some reason, the idealized version of a skilled facilitator is someone who is a quick-thinking, dispassionate person who never gets ruffled and always speaks in well-modulated tones. They pour oil on troubled waters and have the empathy of Mother Teresa, the patience of Job, and the wisdom of Solomon. (What's not to like?)

Well, I'm only sort of like that. I figure my job is not to be above the fray (of human frailties), but to be among the people. I believe that the best meetings are ones where participants bring their full authentic selves, and that includes their passion. So I bring mine, too.

Some of the time I talk softly; other times I get loud and raucous. Some of the time I slow things down; other times I step on the gas. My job is not to be liked (though that helps); it's to be even-handed and effective. 

Interestingly, being even-handed—which everyone I know would say is a reasonable quality for facilitators to aspire to—requires that you change things up as you go along, because it's never a truly level playing field and you have to take that into account. Thus, being even-handed does not mean being predictably even in how you run meetings. Weird, eh?

I know good facilitators who can stand in one place with good posture and good attention for two hours, but not me. I prowl and pace when I'm in front of a group.

Some facilitators prefer to work from a script (mapping out formats and blocking out the choreography of the meeting well ahead of time). Not me. I work from a few notes and try to ride the tiger of the meeting's energy: calming the wild horses and ramping up the mules. 

If the conversation loses all its bubbles, I want to put some seltzer in the mix, trying to find the point of entrée that most speaks to the heart of the matter and to the participants' hearts. If there's an unspoken undercurrent in the room, I'll speak about it. (I'm not particularly respectful of taboos and hidden agendas.) I figure that information is concentrated in resistance, so I can't resist asking about it.

All of this dynamism doesn't fit well with what some hold as the facilitator ideal and concerns can surface about whether I'm trying to control outcomes through some sleight of hand misdirection and whizbang. 

The truth is that I'll apply common sense to pose questions that I feel are in the room but haven't been voiced by participants. While some are disturbed that I'm treating the meeting as a séance (bringing in voices from beyond the circle), I think I'm just seeing around the curve and cutting to the chase.

Taken all together, I believe in good meetings; I just don't believe in dull meetings. In the process, not everyone is comfortable with my swashbuckling jocular panache. Oh well.

Problem II: I'm a Facilitation Trainer
When I teach facilitation (which I do a lot; I'll have three two-year training programs running concurrently in 2016—one on Portland OR, one in New England, and one in North Carolina) I make it a point to see that the students understand the line between facilitator and consultant.

The facilitator runs the meeting, acting with the authority bestowed on them by the group's process agreements. Their job is to structure and manage the conversation, keeping participants on topic, making sure that everyone has a reasonable opportunity to offer relevant input, and helping to uncover and articulate the solution that best balances the input and the sensitive application of group values.

The facilitator is responsible for the integrity of the container in which the consideration happens; they are not responsible for the outcome, and they should be disinterested in which solution emerges.

The mantra of the facilitator is to trust the process.

In contrast, the consultant is there to provide additional resources for the consideration (what have similar groups done in similar situations and how has that worked out?); to suggest pathways to consider the matter that have worked well with other groups; to frame the questions (and perhaps the sequence in which to consider them) that experience has shown will lead to a complete response; to explain the pros and cons that typically accompany different choices, giving the group a look "around the curve" before the die is cast.

The consultant is knowledgeable about topics being discussed and the best way to navigate them. They are like the bourgeois on a canoe trip, with a map in their head that is a larger scale than anyone else has.

The mantra of the consultant is to trust their experience.

When I train facilitators I am trying to teach good process and along the way, everyone gains experience.

Still, there are gray areas. Based on years of experience as a facilitator (note how experience helps people be better at both roles) my advanced skills include:

o  A feel for workable solutions. Because I've rigorously retrained myself to see the glass as half full—looking for common ground before looking at differences—I'm often the first person in the room to "see" a solution. This is an important distinction. I often see solutions earlier than others simply because you're more apt to find what you're looking for. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I have accumulated an enormous pattern library after 40+ years of community living, making it that much easier to "know" the productive approach.

o  An ability to see ghosts. When you've been to a lot of meetings and studied the patterns you begin see that sometimes there's an unarticulated presence in the room that's significantly impacting dynamics. As a skilled facilitator it's my job to feel into that and try to name the invisible intruder. It could be a missing person, or a missing viewpoint but you can discern its presence by observing how others are mysteriously affected by its gravitational pull or magnetic repulsion. This allows you to intuit its presence. Like a Jedi knight, you're sensing disturbances in The Force.

o   An ability to feel the deeper undercurrent when a group is skating over the surface, avoiding the deeper issues. This might entail tiptoeing around unresolved emotional tensions, or perhaps sidestepping a clash of core values for fear that an open examination may lead to irreparable damage to the group. If I sense that, it's my job to take the group there even if it's kicking and screaming. Avoidance is a poor long-term strategy. (And if you really didn't want to go there, you shouldn't have hired me.)

o  Sharpening the dynamic tension. Often this means taking a conversation that does not present as that hard and imagining where the sore spots are for the purpose of exposing them in the group. (Hey, we're here to do the heavy lifting; let's get at it.) After all, if the solution only works in the "easy" cases, what have we actually solved?

When I access these advanced skills students sometimes think I've gone over to the dark side (to consulting) because it appears that I'm employing dark arts, inserting myself into the conversation complexifying along the way (simultaneously building the demand for the consultant and making the student facilitator's job harder). But really I'm facilitating. By exposing all that's in play, I'm ensuring that the final solutions will be that much more robust. In the end I'm following the facilitator's prime directive: offering the group it most needs in the moment to do solid work.

It's a fine line, and I walk it all the time.

No comments: