Trainer as social engineer?

It’s been a funny few months in terms of feedback on training I’ve been involved in facilitating.

In February myself and a co-facilitator received one of the most affirming pieces of feedback I’ve ever received. To paraphrase we were told that we didn’t teach the group anything, but they learnt loads. Music to the ears of anyone that believes in an elicitive* and participatory approach to learning – we simply create the frame within which the participants paint their own artwork drawing on their own experience, knowledge, and vision.

This weekend it was suggested that there was social engineering taking place in a workshop. It was fairly obvious that the criticism was leveled at me in my role as trainer. From an empowering and empowered model of training to manipulator and puppeteer in a couple of months (and yes, when  asked what social engineering meant in this context manipulating towards hidden ends seems a reasonably accurate paraphrase). That’s some fall from grace.

Perhaps naturally, there’s a part of me that wants to write it off as a participant with “issues” about working in groups. Whether or not there’s any truth in that is not the point, however. It would be far too easy to stop listening at that moment in time but something in me says there’s more than a measure of truth in the criticism.

Of course the role of trainer can be slightly (or vastly) different from that of impartial meeting facilitator. Much training is still based on the ’empty vessel’ approach of the trainer pouring his or her wisdom into the group. Maybe there are echoes of that left in the training I run? I certainly feel that the work I do is far more elicitive than it once was, as I’ve learnt to trust the group to have the answer, and to craft the right question. But on reflection however committed to drawing out learning from the group I am, there are definitely times when I have my own agenda or worldview as a trainer and that leaves open the possibility of ‘social engineering’.

This was a nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop. I do have a model of NVDA that I train around, which includes many assumptions – co-operating as a group we are more powerful than we are as individuals; leadership is best when shared throughout the group; safety and support roles are as important as ‘action’ roles (or perhaps more important); and so on. These may seem like sensible assumptions, but do I always articulate them and check them out with a group? No. Am I ever drawing out learning to confirm certain pre-occupations and biases of my own, however widely shared. At times, almost certainly yes. Can I see that the fiercely autonomous individual, the free spirit, or the  self-sacrificing martyrs out there will find these assumptions grating? Yes. Does the fact that these folk can be on the margins of groups mean I shouldn’t listen? No.

I’m grateful for the interaction, especially as we were able to explore it more after the session was over. More work to be done on defining my role as trainer, preferably in collaboration with the group I’m working with, and continuing to develop the skills and attitudes needed. But isn’t that the joy of the role of trainer?

* Training for Change, in their handy glossary of terms, describe elicitive tools like so:

elicitive tools: exercises or activities that draw out participants’ knowledge, wisdom, feelings, humour, curiosity, motivation, and so on. When facilitators use elicitive tools, they find that the participants already know most of what the facilitator wants to teach, and the facilitator only needs to add. Elicitive tools invite participants to do most of the work of education, instead of the facilitator!


5 thoughts on “Trainer as social engineer?

  1. I really appreciate your commitment to being honest and self revealing about your work successes and learnings. This was, as usual, a gentle reflective piece that challenged me to wake up, again! Never stop posting.

    • You’re very welcome and your feedback is greatly appreciated. There’s always that moment just before you hit the ‘publish’ button where you pause and think – “is this useful reflection or embarrassing disclosure?”. I only hope you’ll let me know when it’s the latter!

  2. You’re very open about your own doubts and uncertainties – a model reflector! Thanks for your honesty here.

    There’s something about transparency in what you describe, which you’ve picked up (being clear about your own assumptions, the aims of the training, the models it is predicated on).

    I think there’s also something connected to it, about the agreement of the ‘trainees’, who choose (or don’t) to come along to training in the first place. ‘Training’ *does* imply that the person or people leading the session have some particular knowledge or skill (almost certainly built upon some assumptions of the kind you articulate), and that the people who attend choose to do so because they would like to increase their own knowledge or skill. If the participants disagree with the knowlege (“it’s not true”) or do not think the skills useful or relevant (or skilful), then that’s problematic, of course. But it seems a bit much to use that disagreement to fuel an accusation of social engineering. That must have hurt!

    The concept of ‘informed consent’ seems important in this context: you might choose to attend some training thinking it’s one thing, and then discover it’s another thing when you’re there. So there is a responsibility on all parties to be as clear as possible about the content, intentions and assumptions built into the training so that a choice to attend it can be a well-informed choice. If people discover during the opening session that they are ‘in the wrong place’ then they may decide to leave.

    It’s often hard to know what your underlying assumptions are, until they are challenged. Plenty to ponder on.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Penny. As usual I agree with all you say (with the possible exception of “That must have hurt”. In this instance the content of the criticism was very challenging but it wasn’t given aggressively).

      I suspect that much of the problems lies with the ideology of some trainers (myself included) who come from a background of working with fiercely “non-hierarchical” groups. In the same way that many of those groups kid themselves that there is no hierarchy simply because there’s no agreed hierarchy, I think trainers such as myself can kid ourselves that we’re purely facilitating rather than training – due to our own discomfort with the role of ‘expert’. If we fall into that trap, even a little, then situations like this are inevitable!

  3. Pingback: Occupying direct action | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus

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