Blog > What makes Facilitating With Confidence different?

March 13, 2011

After 13 days facilitation training with my mate Johnnie Moore I’m excited by what I’ve learnt. We’ve had lots of fun, some sticky moments, have met some wonderful people from across the globe, and have definitely learnt as much as the participants. Johnnie has already written about his insights about using gibberish, the flow of time, and the ‘teacher trance’.

Our facilitation training can be  characterised by what’s missing. We provide no agenda (just start and finish times), there’s no training manual that we follow, no lesson plans, no learning outcomes, no presentations, no tables, no assignments, no answers. We don’t focus on processes or techniques. So what’s it like? The participants tell us that it’s enjoyable, fun, confusing, frustrating, challenging, and most of all, surprising. We focus on who we are as facilitators – presence, commitment, curiosity, noticing – rather than what we know – processes, techniques, activities. Our premise is that there’s access to any number of processes and techniques on the web, in books, at other trainings. And ultimately our best resource as a facilitator is ourselves. So that’s what we focus on – each individual developing the confidence and self-awareness to step up, be present, respond in different ways to sticky moments or difficult people, to not be the centre of attention and to enable connection. Order and structure emerge from the needs of the participants, rather than being pre-determined.

Our work has been influenced by a post written by Roland Harwood that explored the importance of conversations first, then relationships, and finally transactions. We believe that focusing on transactions when facilitating, to the detriment of conversations and relationships, leads to ‘premature encapsulation‘ and unsustainable agreements that often get forgotten once the workshop is over.

This last week, this model came into clear focus. It was first developed in the 1960s by computer scientists to compare centralised and distributed networks. In this article by Roland Harwood, he described the three approaches as ‘hub and spoke’, ‘multi-hub’ and ‘distributed’.

*Slap to the forehead*

Of course! This is also a model for meetings and facilitation approaches. ‘Hub and spoke’ depicts the one-to-many approach: presentations, the teacher/facilitator directing proceedings from the front of the room, key-note speakers at conferences. ‘Multi-hub’ is a common format for facilitators: small group work, concurrent sessions at conferences. ‘Distributed’ facilitation is less common: facilitator as participant; shared power, influence and knowledge; open space conferences.

It seems that many participants come to our training expecting to be taught, and to learn how to deliver, ‘hub and spoke’ and ‘multi-hub’ facilitation. What they mostly get is ‘distributed’. We play lots of games – mostly drawn from improv theatre. Channeling Viola Spolin, we try and  ‘let the games teach’. We try and avoid the role of teacher, of expert, and encourage the group to learn from each other.

Gary Schwartz, who studied with Viola Spolin, writes: “Her work is way to become ‘part of the whole’. It is a way to shed the ills of the 20th Century; Ills such as authoritarian teaching and rote learning. Spolin called this the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome and classified it as the basic obstacle to a true relation with ourselves, our environment, and each other.

In Spolin Games, students and teachers work together, to discover and solve problems. Discovery learning is everyone’s birthright and when one discovers a path to a solution on their own, in their own way, learning is integrated and belongs to the discoverer. The joy that accompanies this type of learning makes the exploration of any subject and the inherent skills acquired in the solving of the problem, meaningful and useful to the player forever. It is with this in mind that Viola Spolin began to formulate her theories.”

And it is with this in mind that we delivered our facilitation training these last three weeks. We play lots of games, and focus on what if ‘feels’ like to facilitate. And the best way, we think, to know what it feels like, is to, well, feel it. We suspect some people might prefer to talk about what it feels like, to analyse and discuss – pretty much do anything other than actually feel the discomfort, the pressure, the nerves, the anxiety, the exhilaration, the calmness, the excitement, the connection. The games, mostly, provide a safe way to feel many of the emotions we face when facilitating, and to explore what it feels like to be curious, to make your partner (other participants or a co-facilitator) look good, to let go (especially of outcomes, of doing the ‘right’ thing, and of wanting everyone to act the way you think they should), to build connection, to trust yourself and the other participants, to believe that messiness and confusion is normal, and that difference is more interesting than conformity.  It may not be clear straight away, but we think the next time they face a similar situation when facilitating, not only will their brain be activated, but maybe more importantly, they will remember the experience.

One of the approaches I’m fond of using is a ‘wave analysis’. We used this as one of four or five ways of getting feedback on our facilitation training. Here’s some of what emerged from the most recent training in the Solomon Islands.

Through playing lots of games, and using some facilitation techniques, mostly adapted to be ‘distributed’, getting out of the way, and modeling the principle of ‘getting the participants to do the work’, we hope we have provided the basis for disrupting the patterns of centralised control in meetings and busted a few facilitation myths. More on these later.

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