“Each time a facilitator does something for a group, he or she deprives
others of a chance to be responsible.” – Janoff and Weisbord
A number of times in this text, I have offered gentle advice about keeping a ‘light touch’. There are so many layers beneath the apparent simplicity of this advice.
When teaching facilitation I often advise students to keep a ‘light touch’. There are so many layers beneath the apparent simplicity of this advice.
The first layer is a caution. In the middle of a session, if you feel like you are wading through deep mud, pushing and shoving to keep things moving, pressing and cajoling a group to complete a task, then something is wrong. And while it may be solved temporarily by force on the day, the bigger danger lies in sustaining momentum and commitment to the session’s result. There are rare occasions when it doesn’t matter. The result is what was needed, and the damage to relationships, or failure of understanding, are neither terminal nor long lasting. Yet, in most cases, it is advisable to step back and reassess. What would allow the group to take greater ownership for the session? Does the purpose need reviewing? Is there some unstated concern that is hindering people’s involvement?
Another layer is a blunt truth about human beings. They are complex. For a single individual, you can barley scratch the surface to truly understand their history, experience, unrealised desires, triggers for anger or for love, intentions for the future. Put them into groups and these complexities multiply. I don’t have the processing power to understand, let alone control, the manifold permutations in people’s interactions.
So the conclusion must be to ‘let them be’. Give people as much choice and influence as possible within the constraints of a group session. Give them the discretion to interpret and negotiate their pathway towards a satisfying result. There are a number of assumptions in this advice. For instance, it assumes that people are well-intentioned, that they can best judge for themselves what their interests are, that they can decide what information is valuable to them, and that they can listen and respond to useful ideas from others. All of these assumptions are contestable. But, on balance, they are much less risky that the opposite conclusion – that you must and will decide each of these issues for them. In which case, you did not need a meeting, just a megaphone. And, perhaps, a cattle prod.
Another layer extends to the social. In a recent book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett explored craft traditions, and noted that an essential characteristic of craft mastery is “the application of minimum force”. But Richard’s work has broader horizons than the individual craftsman. He has teased out the skills involved in cooperation with an almost microscopic lens, for instance, advising the use of the subjunctive instead of the declarative: don’t assert a fixed position but gently explore more tentative considerations (“Have you thought about…?”, “Would it be interesting to consider…?” “If it were possible, is there an option for …”). This analysis sits within a wider contrast between dialectical and dialogical thinking. The former is the clash of conflicting ideas, leading to an eventual synthesis, the latter is a less formal and more creative interplay of ideas, with no final conclusion and open to multiple possibilities.
As Sennett puts it, “The subjunctive mood is most at home in the dialogical domain, that world of talk that makes an open social space, where discussion can take an unforeseen direction. The dialogic conversation… prospers through empathy, the sentiment of curiosity about who other people are in themselves.”
Now a structural layer.
The choices we make in designing meetings can be thought of as shuttling up and down a gradient from high structure to low structure. The standard town hall meeting has a high level of structure, less autonomy and less individual choice (formal chairperson role, Roberts Rules, timed speaking rights). Contrast this to ‘Open Space’ where individuals are encouraged to find and explore their own connections and themes through a robust but flexible structure for interactions.
Then there is the delicious fact that in an informal group context you have the right to silence, to sit and think, to observe, and to wait for the moment when you have something of interest to contribute. A light touch in facilitation gives free play to these fleeting moments of choice.
And last, a political layer, also hinted at in Sennett’s work. Anarchism has a bad reputation, oddly given the rarity of its contemporary proponents. Anarchists are hostile to ‘The State’ and argue that society and economy may be managed through mutually cooperative and voluntary relationships between people. Some early thinkers such as William Godwin assumed the state would just ‘wither away’. There are many strands of anarchism but a common theme would be recourse to the least intrusive, least dominating form of structural organisation that is necessary to support mutual cooperation. In the words of Mikhail Bakunin, a nineteenth century anarchist
“… there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination. This same reason forbids me, then, to recognise a fixed, constant and universal authority, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in all that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life.”
Bakunin’s advice is true for much of our work. Even with a single group of people, in one room together, there is more complexity than a single individual can manage. So it is useful to accept the messiness and incompleteness in some conversations, and work towards a ‘good enough’ result, knowing that the agreement or understanding achieved on the day will always be provisional.
For those who political preferences veer in a less radical vein than nineteenth century anarcho-socialism, Catholics formalised a useful guide in their social teaching – the ‘principle of subsidiarity’. The principle asserts that one should always choose the level of governance or decision-making at the lowest possible level given the circumstances. For a decision about relocating a church hall, the parish might decide the issue, not the national office, certainly not the Vatican.
These latter considerations go beyond our needs as facilitators, though they might assist in establishing suitable decision-making agreements in formal facilitation.
For our purposes, and returning to the early advice, ‘a light touch’ is a useful rubric for design and conduct of group meetings, granting as much elbow room as possible to the people in the room to work their way toward a suitable result. The role of the facilitator is to gently, sometimes imperceptibly, nourish useful interactions between members. The quotation that introduced this piece is from an article with the title “Managing differences – A theoretical rationale for doing very little” (Janoff and Weisbord p248). The title of an earlier book by these authors speaks to the heart of this matter:
“Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.”