Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Teaching from the Edge

This past weekend I was conducting a facilitation training in North Carolina and my co-trainer, María Silvia, shared with the class that she's teaching "at the edge of what she knows"—by which she meant she often goes into a situation not sure of her footing; where she doesn't know ahead what will occur or how she'll respond. She confessed that there have been times in the class where she felt she had nothing new to say on a given subject, and that it's highly uncomfortable to be in that place (why am I teaching if I don't have more to offer?).

I've been reflecting on that dynamic and believe there's something inspiring about it. I used to believe that, as an instructor or as a facilitator, the ideal was to be calm and confident. Now I think almost the reverse—to the point where I see it as a bad sign if I'm too relaxed or too sure of myself. Now I believe it's better to be somewhat on edge and unclear where the floor is.

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating going into a meeting or a classroom unprepared or unfocused. Rather, I am advocating being loose (not tight) and open to the unknown. While I am not anti-planning, there is a danger of falling in love with your script and missing clues that it isn't working (to defend your investment in creating it). These days I prepare for facilitation or teaching with an outline of what I want to do, yet prepared to go off road based on emerging needs. The most important thing I do is to take time to become centered and clear-headed.

In this way I see facilitation as more of an art form than a science. When I am at my best I rely heavily on my intuition (which is generously informed by three decades of experience in the field). While I am prepared to offer all manner of analysis about facilitation dynamics, in the end, I have come to believe that my most effective teaching is done in the occasional moments when something potent happens—and you never know ahead when those moments will occur. I think of it as teaching improvisation, which turns out to be something that María is very good at it. It has more to do with paying attention and pattern recognition, than with pontificating or proselytizing.

• • •
If you're with me so far—seeing the benefit to operating on the edge of one's knowledge—it necessarily leads to a couple of milestone questions that I've had to wrestle with in the course of developing my career—questions that I believe all professionals must address, though perhaps it's more challenging when there is no accreditation program against which to measure one's proficiency:

Question #1: When Am I Solid Enough to Hang Out a Shingle?
To be in integrity with clients you need to have a certain amount of confidence (or chutzpah) that you can ring the bell if hired. There are a lot of sub-questions embedded in this:

•  Do I love the work or is it just a job? On a more subtle level, if your answer is "yes," why do you love the work? Because you like being in the spotlight? Because you like being the hero? Because you like being in charge? Because you want to help people in need? Because you want to build cooperative culture?

•  Do I know enough to be able to consistently handle a sufficient range of group issues that I can be a full-service facilitator? Or should you limit what you tell the world you can do?

•  How well do I know the literature (and the emerging thinking) in my field?

•  How open am I to evaluating what I encounter in my work to deepen my understanding of group dynamics, adjusting my thinking as appropriate? This may sound obvious but tweaking means reworking materials and revising approaches, sometimes undoing what you had previously thought. It can even be embarrassing.

•  Am I quick enough on my feet to be able to assess developments in the dynamic moment, and make effective choices on the fly? Sometimes there are awkward surprises and sometimes the planned focus or activity is ineffective. Now what? You may be expected to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Can you make good choices in those moments? It's not nearly good enough to be able to articulate an hour later what you should have done.

•  Can I break down what I've done (especially when it works) so that clients can learn to do it themselves?

•  How well can I road map where we are at any given moment and articulate my thinking behind that choice (where are we, where are we going, and why)?

•  Am I OK face planting in front of an audience? Anyone who facilitates regularly will occasionally have bad days (or at least bad moments). If it's excruciating for you to be criticized in public, or to see the meeting you were running fall apart in the last 15 minutes, please know going in that this will sometimes be your fate, and I don't care how good you are. Events are never wholly in your control. If can't pick yourself up off the ground and get back on the horse, don't ride horses.

•  How open am I to receiving critical feedback about my work? Hint: if that door is closed you can't very well expect others to listen to what you have to give them—never mind how accurate and insightful it may be. 

•  How accomplished am I at being able to shift perspectives and see things through the eyes of others (to the point where they regularly acknowledge that you both understand their point and its meaning)? This is a bread and butter skill when trying to bridge differences among strongly held viewpoints. Professionals need to be able to do this heavy lifting.

•  Can I function well in the presence of strong emotions? Can you create sufficient safety for people to articulate their feelings and a strong enough container that the examination doesn't devolve into isolation, accusations, and defensiveness? Heaven help you if you can't.

Question #2: Can I Teach What I Know?
Or perhaps more accurately, do people learn what I teach? This is an additional layer, in much the same way that having a product or service for which there is demand is not the same as having a viable business. I may know something well enough to be able to able to ply my craft as a facilitator, yet may not be effective as an instructor. Here are some sub-questions:

•  Do I want to teach? (Hint: if your heart is not in it, students will sense that and it will undercut your efficacy.)

•  How flexible can I be in how I teach, to cover the breadth of learning styles that I'm likely to encounter?

•  Can I move easily (and accurately) between the specific and the general? If you teach principally from principles, it will prove to be too heady for some. If you teach solely from specifics, the lessons may prove to be too narrow in their application. You need, I believe, to be able to move from one side of the street to the other. 

•  Can I teach groups where there is a significant range of accomplishment among the students (can I bring the novices along without boring the experienced; can I challenge the accomplished without overwhelming the tyros)?

•  How accurately can I describe what skills I can teach? If someone becomes your student, in what detail can you tell them what they'll learn?
• • •
As you can see, thoughtful facilitators need to grapple with a plethora of edgy questions. My advice is to learn to get comfortable with being on the edge of your discomfort.

No comments: