Managing oneself might be the greatest challenge in facilitation (and the most interesting opportunity for personal and professional growth).
When things go wrong it is never easy. A woman in my training class, who had a persistent stance of opposition and bewilderment, commented that a good trainer should be able to pitch to the lowest skill level in the class. It was an attack and an invitation. The comment came on the last day, when it seemed too late to recuperate the damage. I did take the feedback seriously and recommitted to clearly declare, up front, my overall agenda and the plan for each session, track each topic against the manual, and then confess to any variations at the end. Some people need a stronger scaffold for their learning and it helps them when they can anticipate the agenda – when it is transparent and the leader is conscious of that accountability.
A deeper truth though was that her constant criticism had got under my skin. I was irritated that she was unwilling to consider the value of flexibility in responding to participants’ interests in the moment, and exploring the implications of an experiential approach. I inferred that she was more interested in ‘authority from on high’ rather than real engagement with her colleagues. At a more basic level, perhaps I was upset that she just didn’t like me (she made a point of saying how much she had enjoyed other trainers).
Facilitation is always about entering unknown territory. Perhaps more than some other professions. There is a paradoxical tension at the heart of facilitation. All professionals are contracted to reliably deliver a specific service. Yet, the actual service we deliver is to create new meaning from disparate, often dissenting sources. There is so much unknown, so much unpredictable, uncontrollable, and potentially unwilling and unmanageable about this beast – the group. So the ‘reliable’ delivery of a result is a very bold promise.
So take comfort in reminding yourself that this is the heart of your work. If you are facilitating something where the content is already mapped out clearly, it’s not really facilitation, it’s communication, presentation or training.
Your anxiety could be a symptom of something in the room that needs to be acknowledged, and might in fact be valuable for the group. Try and distinguish – “Is this just about me and my own lack of confidence, or is there something here that others may be sharing?” If it is the latter, consider voicing it and asking the group for advice. This is an authentic and valuable offer to make.
A longer-term approach is to develop more emotional resilience. Che Biggs poses this challenge. very clearly. We each, every day, we strike some challenge to our sense of equanimity and stability. These are threshold moments when we have an opportunity to step forward into a stronger and deeper emotional response. Or, perhaps more commonly, to step back. We resist, retract, defend or refuse. These are choices, or potential choices, as we sometimes don’t even notice the invitation. Our habits of response are so ingrained that the hint is missed. Che encourages us to notice these moments and to step towards them.
Many of us struggle in our professional lives trying to achieve stronger alignment between our outer and inner selves (‘our role and our soul’). For some we resolve it by projecting a tough, no-nonsense professional demeanour. After all, we are being paid or endorsed as the facilitator for this event. From experience, more creative and open contributions from participants come when the facilitator provides a role model for open and honest sharing. This means, to an appropriate degree, sharing something of our own vulnerability. On the contrary, you will strike participants every now and then who are incapable or unwilling to remain within a respectful range of behaviours. To protect yourself and your group, some professional boundaries are necessary and appropriate. How you manage this balance between vulnerability and security, is a question all of us face in each meeting and moment.
When you are in trouble, remember that it is just a conversation. That’s all. Not every conversation turns out. There can always be another one. One of my wise colleagues pointed out that we should think of each meeting as a stepping stone. There is (almost) always a next step, something further down the track.
If you want to explore these questions in depth, I recommend some further references:
Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach. Parker’s book on teaching offers an extended essay on the relationship between identity and integrity.
Brene Browns’s work is an impassioned invitation to greater vulnerability. Start with this video
Che Biggs at the Groupwork Centre on emotional resilience
If you would like to further explore the art and craft of facilitation, come along for a one-day introductory training course, with Ian Colley and Scott Newton
‘Facilitation Essentials’ at the University of Technology, Sydney.
The 2021 dates are:
Or consider ‘Facilitation for Design Thinking’:
Or ‘Facilitating Online’ (delivered over two half day sessions) on
April 23 and April 30
Email me for enrolment details