Group as expert

I’ve just debriefed with Denise and Annie, fellow Turning The Tide folk . This weekend we co-facilitated a residential on “effective group working” as part of a year-long course that TTT offer.

A lot was learnt  – including about the vulnerability of the facilitation role as well as the need to sometimes tell a group like you see it,  to hold up the mirror even if the image in it isn’t pretty. For their part, one of the many things the group struggled with (and learnt) was about their own authority, their ability to decide the rules, to question, and to direct their own learning.

And then I read the FacilitatorU post on Finding Value in Our Ignorance – an appeal for facilitators to step away from the role of expert for the sake of the group’s empowerment. Many of the same themes run through their post. Here’s a taste:

“In most cases, facilitators are highly regarded professionals. We must present a strong and professional image as we’re “on stage” much of the time, performing an important function for our clients, employees, students, neighbors, etc. And as is often the case with people standing in front of a room, orchestrating processes, offering feedback and advice, we are looked to as authorities, as experts, as wise men and women.

So it’s not surprising when we begin to believe these things about ourselves and feel we have to live up to the “image” of the professional expert. As this image takes hold in our own minds, it may be difficult at times to not have the answer or know where to go next. In and of itself, this is not a bad place to be, however, we can really short change those we serve by withholding this information…

… I suggest that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader or as a facilitator is to empower your people to access and utilize their own wisdom and problem-solving skills as a group. This is not likely to happen when they are focused on you as the authority.”



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.