Learning facilitation


April 21st, 2013

Warning: This post will be quite rambling as I’m using it to clarify my own thinking. It helps to know someone will be reading this – encourages some level of coherence. Maybe.

Here I am in Madang in Papua New Guinea, preparing to deliver a five-day facilitation skills training to local Papua New Guineans who will take what they learn back into their communities. Eek! That’s quite a responsibility. What to include? What to leave out? In the absence of anyone to prepare with, I’m using my blog. I’m at least getting my thoughts down where I can come back them.

In general, people want to learn processes, how to deal with difficult people, and how to know what process to use. In reality, difficult people are rare – oh we remember them only too well, and because of that they can take on a life of their own, way beyond the status they deserve. But in all the many, many people I’ve had in workshops and events, only a handful have been truly difficult. To focus on the exception, rather than the more common experience, seems to be unbalanced. And if you scratch below the surface just a bit, people often want to know how to control a group – not that they’d ever say that explicitly. This accounts for so many one-to-many processes, I think, where control is firmly in front of the group – a speaker, a teacher, a chairman, a panel. And if that’s what you want, that’s okay, just don’t call it facilitation!

I see facilitation more as shepherding rather than controlling – keeping people safe and heading in a particular direction, not so concerned with detours, and maintaining some connection and coherence amongst the group.

What of processes? Tricky. After all, process is at the heart of facilitation. Yet facilitation is so much more. You can’t learn to drive without using a car, so you can’t learn to facilitate without using processes. Attitude, knowing what is appropriate behaviour, having some skills in applying the processes – these are also important. Maybe even more so. It’s easy to learn a new process. It takes longer to develop the qualities and behaviours associated with great facilitation.

What are these qualities? What are the behaviours?

Lets’ start with the behaviours, or skills, if you like. This is what facilitators do when with a group…

  • Challenge habitual thinking and behaviour
  • Hold space
  • Model behaviours
  • Notice and reflect back
  • Look for opportunities to get out of the way

Do I hear a how? How do facilitators do all of this? By…

  • Selecting appropriate activities and processes
  • Providing a suitable environment/space
  • Keeping track of time and progress
  • Clarifying, questioning, sometimes challenging and summarising
  • Being non-partisan, not taking sides, not having pre-determined answers/outcomes
  • Ensuring the group does the work
  • Ensuring that the group’s work is captured, when necessary (which implies knowing when that is)

Hmmm….Is that all there is to facilitating? What distinguishes pedestrian facilitation from great facilitation?

Maybe it’s the personal qualities, or attitudes, that facilitators bring…

  • Humility
  • Empathy
  • Bravery and a willingness to fail gracefully
  • Playfulness
  • Presence
  • Curiosity
  • Flexibility
  • Responsiveness

If I’m learning to be a facilitator, I probably want to learn the how (processes, techniques, tip and tricks) first. Then I’d want to know about application, when and why I would use one and not the other. Problem is, learning is not linear. It happens in loops and leaps, in small moments of clarity, in confusion and messiness. In other words, learning, and meaning, emerges. It can’t be structured in a way that makes sense to everyone because everyone learns differently (and no, I’m not thinking learning styles – that’s been well and truly debunked).

Here’s the dilemma. While learning is non-linear, the training is. It starts on Monday, finishes on Friday. Each day has a start and an end. We progress from one day to the next. Doing what? There’s no end of choices really.

It’s the curse of the agenda: in advance, we’ll decide we’ll do this, then that, then something else. I don’t know until I’m in the room with the group what the group really needs. The group becomes its own learning laboratory – it has within it all the complexity and messiness of any group of humans. It comes down to the curse of planning. We have the ability to think ahead, to plan what we’ll do. In many cases that’s a sensible thing to do. If I have to catch a plane I need to plan when to get to the airport, and make sure I go to the right airport. The consequences of not planning are pretty clear. I can apply the same thinking to working with a group of people. I can plan certain things – when we’ll start, when we’ll finish, where we will meet, when we will break for lunch, why we are meeting. It’s harder to plan for what might happen with a group of people, especially once I use a process that is participatory.┬áIf I follow a plan meticulously, I might miss some opportunity, or something important. If I have no plan at all…

I’ll need to draw on my ability to be spontaneous and improvise, to use what’s available (including the people in the room) combined with my own skills and knowledge of facilitation.

If an agenda is not so helpful, what is? Learning outcomes? At the end of this training, you will be able to…will understand…will know… Hmmm… There might be a shift towards these things. Learning may happen during the training. Most likely it won’t. It might happen next time one of them is in front of a group. Who am I to determine what learning you need? Nope, learning outcomes don’t help me.

In the end I need to do what I usually do – start somewhere, see what happens. Notice. Respond. Do something else. Explain what I’m doing and why. Provide opportunities to experience different approaches (processes) – not just watch, actually be a part of them, exploring topics that illuminate even more about working with groups. I need to be prepared for a number of possible approaches and to offer a rich and diverse, human, experience that enables people to learn at their own pace, to struggle in their own way, to allow meaning and insight to emerge by providing space and opportunities for them to make their own meaning, rather than me impose my meaning.

The topic of facilitation is so large, I need some anchors, some boundaries: time is one (a one-day course is very different from a five-day course); the participants and their current level of understanding is another (I won’t know that until I work with them). Briefing from the client? Can be unreliable, especially if they’re not sure themselves what they want. Facilitation principles? Too abstract. Qualities of a facilitator? Too obscure.

To be continued…

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