Facilitating Footpaths

Last weekend Emily and I co-facilitated another round of Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project’s Facilitator Training. 13 volunteers had come forward to take on the facilitation of small groups of people wanting to explore reducing their carbon footprint. This was the 4th such weekend we’ve run and we’re definitely crafting a stronger training each time.

We had an added extra dimension this time around. A third facilitator joined our team – one of Transition Leicester’s volunteers who is very experienced in facilitating the Footpath groups and wanted to build her skills and confidence in facilitating the facilitator training as well.

It was useful challenge because it forced us to revisit and articulate the reasons behind choices we had made as long ago as 2010. It also made us look at things that were safe to assume about each other but not so safe to assume about the new dynamic of a 3-way co-facilitation. And of course a new perspective helps shift some of those little stuck spots.

We made changes and real progress with Saturday’s ‘bad meetings’ activity, as well as with Sunday’s process-work inspired roleplay on facilitating problem behaviour. Both worked so much better this time than before. Our exercise on framing and weather reporting is getting sharper and clearer, but still has a little way to go.

In our debrief of this latter activity we identified some interesting dynamics and some changes we’ll make for next time. One dynamic we observed was the tendency of participants to resist and critique the activity because the task they’re given is a hard one – externalising the difficulty into the exercise itself. Of course that’s not to say that the exercise is flawless. Hence the changes we’ve decided to make.

The evaluations were positive, though not entirely, of course. The training was perhaps a little fast paced for some, and Leicester’s EcoHouse not the ideal venue (but one of the few that works for the Footpaths budget due to Groundwork’s generosity at letting us use the space more or less for free). And, of course, a whole weekend is a lot to give up for busy volunteers. Once again we’re reminded of the dedication of the people who volunteer to facilitate Footpaths’ groups, and countless similar projects.



Facilitate local, change global…

The last couple of training sessions I’ve facilitated have both been local. They’ve also been with groups I’ve worked for before: Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project and the local Steiner school interest group.

I’ve spent a good number of years running round the country working with a large number of diverse groups. That’s been a fantastic experience. It feels like a positive contribution to have made, and of course I’ve learnt loads. I’ve rarely made significant local connections. But increasingly my work is about community-building and the irony of not being active within my own geographical community has become too much to sustain.

So a week ago I ran a morning’s skillshare with 2 of the Steiner interest group’s core group, coaching them through a deepening of understanding of the role of facilitation in groups including the realisation that ‘the facilitator’ doesn’t need to do all the facilitation. We covered a lot of ground in quite a short time in what felt like quite a lively session. It helped that both Tamsin and Susan were very eager to learn and have a genuine commitment to making the group’s processes participatory and equitable.

And this weekend I co-facilitated a second training for Footpaths project facilitators. We’d learnt a lot since the first one last year. The agenda was more spacious and also more focused on the facilitation of change. After all the volunteer facilitators are working with a group to make behavioural changes in order to make ecological change. So we spent a little time looking at the stages of change drawing on a model developed out of work with addiction. The extra space we created allowed us to look at the rank and privilege material we had to heavily edit last time around, although we changed the language this time (to inclusion and diversity). It was a thought and emotion-provoking session that took people into their discomfort zones, but it was valuable stuff and gave everyone a taste of the strong feelings that such material can inspire. Of course the practice sessions, in which participants facilitated for each other, were full of learning for everyone.

If there were an underlying theme I’d say it was consciously taking the group into an uncomfortable but fertile space. This is at the forefront of my mind having recently spent a weekend exploring Training for Change’s direct education approach, one important aspect of which is building  a strong ‘container’ for groups – that is creating and holding a space in which it’s safe to be uncomfortable and to take risks. Given the task of the Footpaths groups being comfortable working with discomfort seems important. They’re working with challenging material both about changing personal behaviour for the greater good but also about working together to make change in communities. Neither is easy or comfortable.

My co-facilitator, Emily, took the evaluations home with her. Once she’s done I’ll get my turn. Then I’ll share them with you.

Catching up….

In case you (very sensibly) spent less time reading blogs over the festive season, here’s a quick catch up with a few gems that were posted recently….

First the usual suspects:

Chris Johnston’s Shepherd and Flock offers a critical analysis of the relationship between campaigning NGOs and their grassroots networks. Here’s a taste:

The bottom line is, if you want extraordinary activists, you need to support them in pursuing their agenda, not yours. And that requires you be a facilitator, not a shepherd.

Dwight Towers offers us a Perfect 5 point checklist for saving the world (just one of many great posts in the last couple of weeks) in which he shares Francis Moore Lappe’s Living democracy checklist.

Dwight also pointed us to Viv McWaters blog where she’s been treating us to a series of posts on facilitation:

  • Great facilitation – what is it? In which Viv talks about the qualities of great facilitation – empathy, humility, bravery, playfulness, collaboration and responsiveness. It’s a good list illustrated with good comments.
  • Rethinking facilitation – a video of new educational approaches: If you can google facilitation processes and get millions of result,  watch videos of facilitators in action, read facilitation blogs, articles and even books on-line, why the expense (in time and money) of coming together for training? It’s no longer necessary to come together to get the information you need to facilitate.Not necessary, perhaps, but Viv shares some thoughts about how best to use the opportunity of face-to-face training
  • You wouldn’t paint by numbers, so why would you want to facilitate by numbers?

It drives me nuts when facilitation is described mechanically: do this, then this, then that, and voila! Funnily, it never seems to quite work out that way in the real world.

So here’s the paradox. I love helping others to learn how to facilitate, work effectively with groups, upset entrenched patterns, surface emotions and unleash creativity, have big and small conversations. Yet when someone asks me how I know to do this or that when facilitating, I’m flummoxed. I often don’t know. I guess it’s a bit like asking an artist how they knew to put that stroke exactly there, or why use those combinations of colours. How did they know? I’m guessing they just knew because it becomes innate – through years and years of practice, through trial and error, through trusting their talent and their instincts. Through taking a chance, being brave, by being willing to make lots of mistakes before getting it ‘right’. By mucking it up, throwing it out and starting over. By believing they can do it, that it can be done.

Viv’s a welcome addition to my feed-reader. Hope you agree.

Rainbow lobbyers: training the trainers

Greenpeace UK have a vision of having a trained lobbyist in every constituency in the UK. Their reputation is in taking direct action, but lobbying MPs (and I include MSPs, AMs and MLAs in that), MEPs, councilors and corporate representatives is also an essential part of the work they do. To that end, this weekend, I was training trainers in delivering Greenpeace’s political lobbying training.

The 12 participants all had existing experience as trainers, teachers or lecturers which added to the challenge of creating a workshop that felt useful to them. From the feedback it looks like the agenda met that challenge. Overall the workshop was a success. There were, of course, one or two niggles about specific exercises which didn’t work as well as they might for everyone. This reflects my experience of this kind of course over the years. Because it’s full of opportunities for people to practice and receive peer feedback it’s always well received.

I’ll be emailing out the evaluation form so that people can add further reflections, and because one or two participants had to leave before the final evaluation session. In usual Rhizome fashion, I’ll share anything new

What worked best for me was stepping away from traditional learning theory and focusing on the skills and attitudes that make ensure trainers are also competent facilitators. Because an awareness of things such as learning styles and the need for experiential learning had been applied in the development of the political lobbying training I could afford to change to focus. So we spent much of Saturday working on enhancing existing skills in listening, reporting on the state and sense of the group, and formulating questions that helped to draw learning out of the group. We also dedicated some specific time to looking at roleplay as a tool.

What worked less well from my own perspective was my own reporting on the state of the group. In part this was because I stepped away from this role, having explicitly invited and encouraged the participants to take it on. But they were not always forthcoming, and there were dynamics in play that were worthy of naming in order to both ameliorate them and share some collective learning around them.

Of course I didn’t ignore these dynamics, employing a number of techniques to deal with them. But nor did I shine a light on them in the way that naming them might have.

The Greenpeace staff seemed genuinely happy with the quality of the work they’d received from Rhizome at the weekend and in the run up to it. This was a new departure for Greenpeace. They have other trainers – nonviolent direct action trainers and street campaign trainers who haven’t received this kind of support – sink or swim has been the name of the game to date. I hope that will change and that Rhizome may be asked to be part of that change.

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: lessons learnt

Emily, from Transition Leicester, and I finally got round to debriefing the Footpaths Community Carbon Reduction training for trainers that we co-facilitated in September. We’re preparing for the first of 2 drop-in evening sessions to give ongoing support to facilitators and wanted to ensure we’d learnt the lessons of the training for trainers.

Whilst the training was an overall success, and Footpaths groups are meeting successfully at the moment, there are always things that can be learnt and built upon. 4 sessions dominated our thinking, and I’ll talk about those here – group agreements/groundrules, weather reporting, what is a group, and rank and privilege.

Group agreements – a topic that’s cropped up a few times on this blog. We set out to create a group agreement for use throughout the training. We started with flipcharts with the words “safety” and “respect” written on them and asked the group to think about what they needed to make the training a safe and respectful space for them. The catch? Ensure that their need was expressed in terms of specific behaviour – what they or others could actually do to make their needs manifest.

The session took far longer than we’d allowed it. We planned it to be concrete – an agreement for this group, for this workshop. Talking to the group afterwards, they were working in a far more hypothetical space, naming all possible issues for all possible groups. And some people really struggled to turn concepts such as “openness” into behaviour. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that some people found the pressure to do so a little stressful.

The learning? Reiterate, reiterate, reiterate – why say once what you can say 3 times? We talked in terms of asking the group to name just one issue each, and supporting them to turn that into behaviour – get the agreement made and then have the theoretical conversation about agreements….

Weather reporting – to me this was a welcome addition to the agenda, but one that never fulfilled its potential. Why? Mostly because people reported on their own state of mind and not that of the group as a whole. This is a natural tendency in a training for trainers. There’s always that potential for confusion between “myself as participant” and “myself as trainee trainer”.

The learning? Again, reiterate the task. Maybe add a symbol that identifies the wearer/bearer as “facilitator” – the proverbial facilitator’s hat – and ask people to wear or bear when reporting?Perhaps we could also break down the weather reporting task in 2 ways. Firstly in each activity task someone with a solely weather reporting role to avoid any confusion. Secondly we could also break down the weather reporting role and give specific briefs to people to simplify the role until they gor the hang of it…. report on time-related issues…report on the level of agreement in the group…report on the energy level of the group and so on. Finally we talked about a scripting a roleplay the demonstrates a group with no reporting followed by a group with good reporting. Let people see the task we’re giving them before they practice.

What is a group? – Emily’s material was creative, intuitive and I learnt a lot from watching it. It wasn’t stuff I’d naturally find myself using, but having seen it at work, I will inevitably find space for it somewhere in the future. The problem we encountered was her metaphor of ‘group as an animal’. For some, describing a group in these terms opened up new perspectives and fresh learning. Others struggled with the imagery and failed to engage because of it. In the dialogue that followed it became clear that offering a palette of images might well have solved the problem. Alternatives suggested were ‘group as a machine’.

Rank and privilege – this was an important session that suffered from lack of time. Emily delivered some really good material but we didn’t get as much time as we’d planned for and the group struggled to see the relevance. The learning? The material isn’t easy, and needs the application and practice elements before participants will begin to appreciate its richness and usefulness.

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: training the facilitators

The Footpath project Handbook- for facilitators and participants alike

This weekend myself and Emily Hodgkinson (process worker, facilitator and Transition Leicester stalwart) co-facilitated a day and a half training for facilitators at Leicester’s Eco House. More specifically facilitators of the Transition Leicester Footpaths: Community Carbon Reduction project, which I’ve blogged about before.

The group of 12 was made up of some people already experienced in facilitation and others completely new to it. The agenda was part orientation to the project, part orientation to working in groups and part practice of the core skills of facilitation. The excitement for me was getting to see, and work with, Emily’s approach. I was aware of process work, but not really familiar with it.

One activity that extended the active listening that’s at the heart of most facilitation training I’ve delivered we called ‘Weather reporting’. That is sensing and then naming the state of the group – the mood, the energy, the vibe – call it what you will. Making groups aware of their collective energy, especially when it’s low or negative, has the power to transform it, or at very least allow them to do some conscious work to improve it. Participants raised weather cards whenever they thought it appropriate to comment on the groups ‘weather’.

We also looked at groups as a collective entity using imagery and story. We explored rank and privilege in groups. And of course we gave participants the opportunity to prepare sessions from the Handbook and deliver them to each other for peer feedback and support. The quality of the delivery was impressive. Finally we looked at 2 complimentary approaches for understanding and dealing with ‘problem’ people and ‘nightmare’ scenarios.

The evaluations were positive. Transition Leicester’s evaluation form used both scoring and space for comments. Over 90% of participants said that the training had lived up to their expectations ‘well’. No-one scored the training ‘poorly’, but sadly there was one person scored it ‘neither well nor poorly’. One too many.

Unsurprisingly the participant practice sessions were most frequently named as ‘particularly useful’. The session on rank and privilege was seen as ‘least useful’. I suspect that’s because it was more theoretical, and needed to be grounded in application, but time was short…

We’ve scheduled 2 follow-up drop-in sessions, one in October and one in November. Those will be the real test of the weekend’s work as participants will have facilitated 2 or 3 meetings of their Footpaths group by then. Let’s see what they bring us to help them troubleshoot….

Rainbow lobbyers

Since June, I’ve been working in a small way to support Greenpeace UK in developing a training package on political lobbying skills. The package will in turn play its part in the formation of a new network of lobbyists.

Up until recently my role was simply suggesting potential improvements to the developing agenda. On Saturday I joined Greenpeace trainers and a dozen enthusiastic trainees in Birmingham to see the agenda working in action. It’s rare that I get the chance just to observe. My copious notes will now be fed into a meeting next month. The good news is that the agenda is 95% there.

Greenpeace staff have paid real attention to engaging all learners. They’ve created some innovative activities. For example, I’m a big fan of using the format of the card game ‘Pit’ to introduce the stages of the lobbying process and wake people up after lunch.

And the agenda is supported superbly by the presence of an ex-MP throughout the session.

Then in mid-November Rhizome will be facilitating a training for trainers for lobbyists interested in sharing their skills and experience through training others.

Of course the planned progression of the project (develop training then train trainers prior to sending them out to train) isn’t working out quite as envisaged. This is the world of campaigning, after all, and there are always events to respond to. Stop Climate Chaos’s Big Climate Connection mass lobby now takes place before our training for trainers so some brave souls will be asked to jump into the deep end and deliver trainings for lobbyists before being trained as trainers.

But I can’t complain. The first formal training I ever delivered was Greenpeace nonviolent direct action training. My preparation? Taking part in the workshop once and then being handed a hard copy of the agenda. I didn’t attend a training for trainers until almost a decade later.

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction

In the last few weeks I’ve been working with Emily from Transition Leicester on a training for facilitators which we deliver in about 3 weeks time. The facilitators in question are going to pioneer the first round of Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project. On the surface it’s another carbon footprinting programme based on getting workmates or neighbours together to share the experience of informing themselves and taking small steps to reduce their personal impact on the planet. What’s impressed me is that the vision for Footpaths goes deeper than that.

The Footpaths materials, spread over 7 sessions, includes a conscious and sizeable proportion of material on the nature of groups and the nature of making change in the life of individuals and groups. Real attention has been paid to the psychology of working in groups and of making change, neither of which are always an easy process.

At least part of the thinking behind this seems to be a desire to seed Footpaths groups that carry on beyond the 7 sessions provided by the organising working group as well as to create group-workers who are better equipped to work within their community in the future.

And if that wasn’t interesting enough, Footpaths has adopted a model in which the role of the facilitator changes over time facilitation. For the first one or two sessions the facilitators will undertake a fairly traditional workshop facilitation role but with an increasing emphasis on devolving responsibility to the group until by the end the group are co-creating the agenda and sharing responsibility for both the process and the content. I suspect this will be a challenging transition for some facilitators to make – it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of facilitating one particular way. Part of our work in preparing the facilitators is to support them in enacting that transition.

As for the agenda we’re devising? It’s almost there. The usual struggle to prioritise the material we’ll include and that which we think is valuable but for which there simply isn’t time. There will be 2 drop-in evening sessions in addition to the initial training. These will be strategically placed to offer facilitators ongoing support and allow us to bring in some of the material we’ve not included in the initial session, hopefully at a stage of the facilitators’ journeys when it’s particularly relevant.

Building the capacity builders

On 11th February, we facilitated a couple of sessions at a facilitators’ skill-share. 35 capacity builders from 10 or so of the UK’s campaigning organisations came together to build their skills. The Rhizome contribution was to facilitate a session on ‘facilitating learning’ and co-facilitate one on dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour in meetings and workshops.

This was the first event of its kind for a little known group called the NGO Forum. It’s a meeting of capacity building staff from a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Friends of the Earth through to Campaign Against the Arms Trade taking in CPRE and WDM along the way. The Forum’s been around for 4 or 5 years now and in one guise or another we’ve been involved. We sneak into meetings once in a while to see if we can be of use.

The ‘facilitating learning’ session went down well. It was a very short taster of a longer ‘training for trainers’ workshop. For us the key message is that people need to be involved in their own learning. As facilitators we need to bite the bullet and accept that it takes more time, but participation gets better results. Yes, it adds unpredictability to a training session – once you open up the learning to the group you can never quite tell what direction it will take, except to say that it will go in the direction of whatever the group want to learn at that moment. We don’t see this as a bad thing.

Dealing with difficult behaviour is also about participation. Commonly it is barriers to participation that spark off difficult behaviour. We facilitators can be as guilty as anyone of stereotyping people as ‘difficult’. We write them off and try to either ignore them or marginalise them so they cause as little disruption as possible. This doesn’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly these problems rarely go away because we sweep them under the carpet. It might seem to work at first, but they’ll come back sooner or later, probably magnified. Secondly, if we take the time to think about what’s going on then we’ll often see that the problem lies with us, or with the group as a whole.

This session focused on analysing group dynamics in order to understand what the barriers to participation might be and only then trying to find a solution. When you step back and understand that the group, or our facilitation of it, has limited someone’s participation in the group in some way, the ‘difficult’ person can be seen in a new light.  A common example is that our ‘difficult’ person simply hasn’t been listened to, and is feeling undervalued and alienated. No wonder they kick off in some way. Once we understand that we’re failing to meet the needs of the person in question, leading them to behave in a way we see as difficult, we can take action.  Take a breath. Look around. Understand the situation and then use an appropriate facilitation technique. It’s often as simple as a bit of active listening