The Curse of Competence?

Imagine that you’re co-facilitating a day long training session for about 30 people. Towards the end of the day one of the participants expresses, in no uncertain terms, their unhappiness with the particular activity that you are in the midst of. You do what you normally do – try to explore and balance the particular needs of the individual and the needs of the group as a whole. It doesn’t work. In no time at all you realise that you’re in conflict with a member of the group. Fortunately you’re co-facilitating, so there’s another person to step in to the breach, and offer ways forward. The training continues, and those few minutes are a small part of a generally very successful day.

That’s a situation I found myself in last October. I’ve been looking for a chance to jot down some thoughts ever since. A few weeks after the training I had a chance to speak to the particular person involved. We spent about 90 minutes on the phone exploring, conflicting, learning, and I hope appreciating. Some of what stayed with me, from a very wide-ranging conversation, was to do with models of facilitation. Part of the problem seemed to be that as facilitators we’d taken on all of the explicit facilitation roles ourselves. Potentially we’d disempowered others, leaving them feeling “I’ll never be able to facilitate like that, so why bother trying”.

For any facilitator committed to participation, it’s a real challenge. I didn’t enjoy the interaction at the time but it’s proved very thought-provoking.

There’s a whole raft of arguments I can cite for why the way I’ve often worked is best – some of them follow:

  • I know that I prefer to juggle multiple roles when I’m facilitating – keeping an ear to the conversation whilst taking notes, keeping an eye on the clock and on who’s indicating that they’d like to speak next, and who hasn’t spoken at all and so on. Multiple roles allows me to focus and get into a rhythm. Practically speaking taking my own notes helps structure my thinking, allows me to see emerging themes, and begin to place them in the overall meeting process, for example.
  • I often facilitate at activist gatherings, where the facilitator is chosen as the meeting starts, and any co-facilitators are also drawn from the group in the moment. Potentially they’re strangers to each other. There’s no way of knowing how well they’ll do the job. There’s no time in the meeting format to get together, introduce yourselves, talk about facilitation styles and so on. There’s 80 people sitting in a circle waiting to begin.
  • And then, of course, what if the person who volunteers to ‘take hands’ does so rigidly, on a first come first served basis, whereas I might consciously overlook the vociferous and seek out new speakers. What if the person writing up the notes doesn’t accurately capture what’s been said, or worse still fails to write down some points at all?
  • By taking on all of the roles, surely I allow others to participate fully in the meeting?
  • Finally I placate myself with reference to all those facilitation skills workshops I’ve run over the years. If that’s not about empowering people to facilitate what is?

Good arguments perhaps. And yet there’s a nagging doubt that part of the problem is simply the desire to keep control. That task-focused bit of my brain which wants to deliver the best possible results and (arrogantly?) believes that facilitating alone, or planning ahead with a co-facilitator, is the best way of doing that.

Where am I going with this? Simply to share a dilemma and to ask for your thoughts and experiences. For me it’s a clear call to take a few risks in future, to let go a little, and to let roles as well as content and process emerge. I’ll keep you posted.

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