What to do when you don’t know what to do?


December 16th, 2009

I’m reminded, yet again, of the power of preparation over planning. During these last couple of weeks I’ve had to draw on all of my understanding of groups, capacity to analyse what’s happening and why, knowledge of process, ability to improvise and respond to what’s actually happening (compared with what I hoped might or should happen), and self confidence. Phew! No wonder I’m whacked!

And while this was an extreme case, EVERY facilitation job requires us to draw on these capacities to a greater or lesser extent. I believe my time is better spent building my own capacity rather than trying to predict what the group may or may not do and how I may or may not respond. The key, I think is trust. Trusting yourself that you WILL know what to do when a situation emerges.

Yes, it’s stressful at times. Who wouldn’t prefer to know what’s going to happen next? My experience of facilitating, and life, is that it’s somewhat tricky to try and predict what’s going to happen. I learnt at the Applied Improv Conference earlier this year in Portland about amygdala hijacks (which someone wittily described as *not* a cocktail). When threatened with uncertainty or unfairness or any other dodgy situation, the higher functioning parts of the brain shut down and the primitive brain takes over. This is not so good because the options are limited to flight or fright. Not a good look for a facilitator! The interesting thing for me is that we can TRAIN OURSELVES TO AVOID amygdala hijacks. Improv does this by putting us into situations that could cause an amygdala hijack – and we train our brain to stay functioning at a higher level. I also think trusting oneself and allowing process to emerge while facilitating is another form of brain training. It certainly has got easier for me over time.

And another thing that helps [me] is frameworks. Not everyone likes frameworks. I find them useful as a compass to help me understand what’s going on. The week before flying to India to facilitate a five-day event I decided to immerse myself in Theory U. I spoke with many wonderful people who helped me understand the theory, and to others who helped me explore how to apply it. While I didn’t consciously apply Theory U, it was there in the background and one aspect became critical on the last day.

While researching Theory U the following resonated:

  • What does it mean to act in the world and not on the world?
  • Leading from the future as it emerges
  • The shadow side of the process

Theory U describes (in brief) a process of moving from sensing, to presencing, and finally realising. there’s lots more, of course, but that’s the essence. ┬áSo while I watched the group move thorough cycles of sensing, presencing and realising I also observed the shadow: judgment, cynicism and fear. Naming this on the final day was something I could contribute that I certainly hadn’t planned on. There were many nods of recognition as I described these shadows that thwart our best efforts to learn and improve. This is just one example of drawing on one framework to help a group move through the ‘groan zone’.

I’d be interested to hear what capacities you draw on when faced with not knowing, a potential amygdala hijack and high stakes to ‘perform’.

PS: Something else – the single most important thing I was reminded of was to do nothing. To not react, to simply observe, to allow whatever has to play out to, well, play out. And believe me, this is way harder than doing something!

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