‘Easy and safe’ is over-rated


October 26th, 2016

Working with groups generates lots of dynamics. I want to focus on the dynamic between the facilitator and the group. There’s a long held position about facilitation that the facilitator needs to make the task easy for the group, and to create a safe space. I disagree.

When I’m tired, feeling a bit vulnerable, and wanting to be cared for I relish the easy choice in a restaurant of the chef ‘just bringing food’. I don’t want to make choices, or decisions. I want to be (not literally) spoon fed. It’s easy to sit back and let someone else do the work.

People coming to workshops and meetings are often tired too, maybe a bit resentful that their work time has been disrupted, some may be excited, others apathetic – there is no doubt there will be a whole range of emotions in the room. They want to feel that their time has been used wisely.

If it is too easy they will disengage. There are many demands on people’s attention and an email or Facebook post is just a click away. We don’t have the luxury of patiently explaining what will happen (describing the menu/agenda/process) and easing people into the main game. We will have lost them before we even get there. We need to jump straight in, even if it is uncomfortable or confusing. They will work it out.

Most of us do jump in – begin before we are ready. We start playing a computer game, or try out new software, or start making a recipe before we read the instructions. We go back to the instructions when our experience and knowledge are exhausted and we need more information. We are wired for acting, not thinking about acting.

Facilitators need to challenge, to create some uncertainty, to let go of the need to control what people are doing, and to allow for discovery. This can be messy. It can be scary. It can be challenging.

It’s the practice of easy and safe that has led to one of the biggest criticisms of facilitated workshop, expressed in one way or another as ‘but nothing changes when we go back to work’. Some resort to what Johnnie Moore calls ‘commitment ceremonies’ – rituals that pretend to bind people to a new way of acting, when in reality it’s simply a hollow promise where no-one is accountable.

Facilitators can be a greater service to groups by challenging them and dropping the facade of¬†‘easy and safe’.

An article in The Conversation by Jarod Horvath and Jason Lodge on ‘What causes mind blanks during exams?’ is helpful in explaining why ‘safe’ is not always best. They describe the difference between cold cognition – logical and rational thinking processes – and hot cognition – non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. “Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation”. Exams can be perceived as a high stakes, threat. So too, might a facilitated workshop. The boss and all my colleagues are present, I will be expected to contribute, I have a lot of other things on my mind, I’ve never met this facilitator before, there’s no agenda, and where are the damn tables?

The easy and safe approach would demand that¬†facilitators reduce this response, and stress around workshops, by providing, in advance, all the information participants need, to make the space ‘safe’ by making sure it is comfortable and familiar, thus reducing the risk of mind blanking, or hot cognition. Then when participants get back to the real world of work, with all the uncertainty, demands, unrealistic expectations, challenges and too-much-to-do-too-little-time, they will be equipped with new knowledge and skills to help them. As I said earlier, I disagree with this approach.

Hot cognition – mind blanking – can kick in at any time. And there are a couple of things to do to according to Horvath and Lodge. One is to de-stress a perceived threatening situation. Facilitators can help this by avoiding overloading people’s pre-frontal cortex with information and as soon as possible, get them up and moving about the space, talking with each other – providing just enough structure to get them going. Familiarity calms the brain and leaves people open for whatever else is coming.

The other concerns preparation. Some of my friends who work in humanitarian organisations return from training experiences with stories of extreme stress and sometimes fear. They have been to HEAT – Hostile Environment Awareness Training – which replicates what might happen in a kidnapping or other life-threatening situations. The trainers rightly know that information is not enough for being prepared – actual experiences, simulated nonetheless, but real enough – help people prepare for the unimaginable. “The reason the armed forces train new recruits in stressful situations that simulate active combat scenarios is to ensure cold cognition during future engagements. The more a person experiences a particular situation, the less likely he or she is to perceive such a situation as threatening.” say Horvath and Lodge.

Their final piece of advice for students preparing for exams, and wanting to avoid mind blanks, is relevant for facilitators wanting to make sure workshops are worthwhile.

“So when preparing for an exam, try not to do so in a highly relaxed soothing environment – rather, try to push yourself in ways that will mimic the final testing scenario you are preparing for.”

My approach, when facilitating, is to avoid the gut-wrenching, bowel-tightening scenarios for sure, but provide enough uncertainty and confusion to replicate what it’s like out there in the real world, to hopefully, keep people engaged during the workshop, and prepared for whatever happens, afterwards. How do I do that? With applied improvisation, of course!

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