Blog > The value of facilitators?

July 2, 2007

In a recent comment about facilitator language Johnnie Moore wrote:

I just find it incredibly hard to define facilitation and I think our efforts to do so can be counter-productive. I’m very wary of saying facilitators bring special skills to bear. I don’t think it’s ultimately about either skills and certainly not about knowledge about people. The best I can manage is to say that it’s much more about presence and a willingness to participate.

I have a feeling that the language is emergent from that willingness/intent. I feel troubled by the idea that we can be identified by the language we use; I think faciliators are often understandbly mocked because they are seen as cliched.

I didn’t respond earler because I was in the midst of facilitating and pondering what value, if any, I brought to the group. I don’t think facilitators bring special skills only known to facilitators – indeed, anyone could learn the skills of facilitation – it’s just that many don’t want to. And understandably too. I think good facilitation requires a healthy ego AND the ability to keep that ego in check. I’ve learnt more about facilitation from the edges than from mainstream facilitation. For example, traditional facilitation training (and experience) has given me some robust processes, an understanding of staging and design, and some awareness of logistics and of working with groups – large and small.

Other learning has taught me about being present, authentic listening, the ability to ‘feel’ the mood of the group, building rapport and most importantly, the ability to let go – of pre-conceived ideas, of process, and of anything that gets in the way of the group.

I’ve learnt this from Open Space – of being present, of holding the space, and of doing one less thing – and also from improv. When Johnnie posted this comment I was in the middle of a two-day workshop with about 40 or so senior execs. Mid way through the second day I had no idea what to do next. I’m not kidding – this was NO IDEA AT ALL. People returned from the lunch break ready to begin work and I still had no idea what to do. None of my facilitation training was of any help at this point. But my improv training was. I remember very clearly thinking ‘what would improv suggest I do now?’ I didn’t panic, but do recall feeling quite uncomfortable with 40 pairs of eyes watching to see what would happen next. So I did three things – I made an offer, I did the obvious, and I did something! I called two senior folk up the front and we had a tete-a-tete in front of the flip chart where I’d written a couple of questions I thought the group could explore. After a couple of minutes the three of us had come up with a way forward. I turned around, took a bow and told everyone they had just seen ‘facilitators at work’.

Could they have done all of this without me? Of course. So what value did I bring? I think facilitators bring a focal point (maybe a lens is a better metaphor) where groups can view their world and their work from a different perspective. And why do groups need an external facilitator to do that? Maybe it’s because they are busy doing the business that they prefer to outsource this role to an outsider. They could do this themselves, maybe they just choose not to.

And so I return to language. I think there are two elements to the language of facilitation. There’s facilitator jargon – like any other professional group we have our own jargon, or shorthand, for what we do. I try never to use this language with groups. Then there’s the language of status which I think is a lot more interesting and relevant to facilitation. A facilitator is endowed with temporary status with a group – a tricky thing to navigate, and often very precarious. Ask any inexperienced facilitator what their greatest challenges are and they’ll tell you it’s ‘difficult’ people. One of the attributes of ‘difficult’ people is that they sometimes challenge the facilitator’s process. This is often seen, by the facilitator, as an attack. I see this as an offer – and work hard to equalise the status between the ‘difficult’ person and myself to ensure communication can continue. I’ve seen some faciliators, inadvertantly, create a status gap that generates ‘winners and losers’ and can bring a whole workshop tumbling down around them. The language that accompanies status is interesting. A high status posture can be combined with low status language and sends a particular message to the group, or more often high status language is used with lower status body language. When I feel it’s necessary to issue an instruction ie ‘do this now’, I do so intentionally with lower status body language. When challenged, instead of raising my status and lowering the other person’s, I try and raise my status AND theirs so that we both can contribute to the success of the workshop. As improvisers know, status is dynamic and constantly shifting. I think this is true of effective faciliatation too. Language is not something that is learned per se but does indeed emerge from the process, and understanding, of the role of facilitation.

And so what is the value of facilitation? I think partly it’s the ability to do this thinking, to bring different perspectives to bear and to provide a focal point/lens.

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