Facilitating is an art. it requires a mix of personality traits, like the ability to guide and lead a group, a set of knowledge about group dynamics, psychology, and techniques.
A facilitator is usually an external member, someone who enters into a group and guides them through a journey to get to a goal. The design part is the key: a facilitator always needs to know exactly where the group is, the next steps, the timing of every activity and include any eventual recovery plan in case something does not goes according to the plans.
Facilitator’s personality is another essential factor: the facilitator needs to be able to engage and lead the group, mitigate power games and dominant personalities and to involve shy and silent people without putting pressure.
All is clear, until the facilitator faces a challenge: facilitate within a group they know well.
Knowing the group and the context changes all the games and a set of new problems emerges: how can the facilitator detach herself from the group? How to forget about the context and the participants?
This was a situation I have recently found myself in.
I was asked to facilitate a few groups within the company I am working in.
Designing the workshop was not difficult: knowing the tools and methodologies and the goal, is just about thinking about the journey you want to take your participants to.
The key challenge was facilitating: if in a ‘normal’ environment the facilitator is external and has the credibility of an external professional, being part of the organisation reduces the credibility and authority perceived by participants, especially if most participants are seniors or managers that are already skeptical about using Lego bricks and LSP as a serious tool to achieve goals. An internal facilitator makes the whole experience sound like an informal internal exercise made more to let someone to show their hobby, rather than a serious and meaningful team activity.
And if the facilitator is a colleague you are used to manage and whose creativity and work you tend to limit and manage, the result is that the environment the facilitator steps in is, let’s say, slightly uneasy.
So, when I have stepped in the room with my colleagues, a few curious, but a few more skeptical, I realised that was going to be different.
Situated identities did not really worked, as there were too strong pre-existing bonds that would make any situated activity look like a silly exercise, especially with those who thought they had much more serious work to do.
But the hardest part was the moderation: if with strangers is easy to mock people, be playful and make jokes to push them, this is not easily done with people you know well.
When I facilitate, I go with my instinct: a particular word, a change in the tone of voice, or hesitations are clues that I follow to explore the models and to challenge participants to tell me richer and more detailed stories about their model. I make jokes, I play, I can be firm in my questioning, I can elicit reactions from others without knowing details about their real situation… And all works fine.
But when you facilitate with your seniors, the challenge is to forget about the context and pre-existent knowledge and experiences, and to stick only to the models and the stories emerging from them.
At the same time, the toughest challenge was the interaction: how to push storytelling without participants taking questions or provocations personally?
I have found myself thinking before asking questions if that questions emerged from the model or was influenced by previous knowledge. I was cautious in engaging and pushing people, as there could also be the risk that participants may think I had a hidden agenda or that the question was a personal attack to previous experiences and episodes in our shared working experience.
The facilitation was difficult and some participants were resisting the process to prove that they did not need an external help and that playing was a waste of time. Some had some agenda, as ever.
What would I do next time?
I would push playfulness to the extreme – rather than holding back and think twice to the questions and limit the situated identities, I’d literally dress up and change my appearance, create a persona and different outlook to distinguish the me-colleague from the me-facilitator, and push them to build their situated identities to get rid of part of the diffidence and power dynamics.
I would join the room careless, less cautious and more confident: the facilitator’s mood and doubts are necessarily reflected in the experience and transmitted to the group.
It was a great and useful lesson in Facilitation, one of those you hardly find in manuals. But one that has showed me how important is to facilitate playfully and how situated identities are essential to create constructive dynamics to achieve the goal.