A few years ago, I had a disappointing experience as a member of a local personal growth group. Even as a person publishing a weekly ezine on the subject of facilitation, it turns out that my passion for facilitation may have been a major contributing factor to the demise of this group. I decided to write about the experience to seek some clarity into what went wrong and what I might have done differently. I hope that many of you, who may have had similar experiences may glean some lessons from it as I have.
Here’s the essence of the story.
I joined a small support group that had already been together for several months using a personal growth book as their guide. At the completion of the book, they decided to split into two different subject groups and invited three new participants into the groups, of which I was one. Group 1 continued with the book with a facilitator; Group 2 went in a different direction. Group 2 is the focus of this article.
At our first meeting, the de facto group leader immediately lead us into an activity for the first 20 minutes. Feeling a little uncomfortable starting a group this way, particularly when there were three new members, I spoke up and suggested that we allow each of us to introduce ourselves, clarify the group’s purpose, our expectations from it, and talk about how we were going to conduct it. I also suggested that we adopt the ground rules that were in use by the other group. Everyone agreed.
Then I experienced a great deal of resistance from the leader to talk about a process, and I began to feel frustrated. I expressed my frustration, perhaps a bit too strongly, in a way that I feel may have put some members off a bit. I continued, to no avail, to explain to this one person the value of process attention. Finally someone jumped in and suggested we go around the room to hear what each of us wanted from the group.
The subject of facilitation never came up again and no facilitator or formal leader was assigned. I consciously chose to surrender any responsibility to facilitate this group.
After a few weeks, and after a particularly unproductive meeting, discussions began among some members outside the group about discontinuing it. We had agreed earlier that if anyone in the group decided to leave, we would come to a meeting and explain our reasoning. Therefore, we decided that it was time for both groups to meet and discuss process issues.
During this meeting, one member facilitated and some interesting things came up. Two participants from the group spoke out about my behavior stating that I tried to force a process that they didn’t want, and felt demeaned by me. By the time they finished, I was THE problem. I garnered my most diplomatic conflict resolution and facilitation skills to elicit feedback from them. I asked them to stay with me to work it through, but to no avail. Their belief was that additional members, especially me, tarnished the original group. My efforts to express a larger perspective to them seemed to fall on deaf ears. Again, I was the problem and they were leaving. However, the other members did not feel the same way.
Group 2 disbanded and I felt that something had gone terribly wrong. Through reflection, I came up with the following points. I share them and this story in the hopes that some of you may have been in similar circumstances and may be able to glean some value and lessons from it as I have.
- My enthusiasm and belief in facilitation may sent the group off course. When my passion for the process became more important than the process, the process went haywire. Hard to admit, but it looks like I may have fallen into the trap of getting too attached to the idea of facilitation and trying to foist them on others. Sometimes it’s best to let the need for facilitation become apparent to a group over time.
- I surrendered my responsibility to facilitate this group because the group resisted an assigned facilitator. This is another amazing trap. I am one who preaches the value of facilitating as a participant and here it looks like I let my ego and my feelings get the better of me. Bottom line: because I wasn’t in charge (lead facilitator that is), I just let the group go off course. In essence, I played the role of a dysfunctional participant to make it apparent why facilitation is important. Certainly this was not my intention, but this may have been my unconscious motive.
- New members change a group dynamic. Sometimes it’s hard for an established group, particularly one not familiar with group process, to believe that they must start over in some ways to bring in the new members.
- Accepting poor leadership is a choice we all made. Still as participants we had the option to exercise leadership from within the circle. Why do we find it so easy to give up our informal power when we don’t have the formal title?
- Developing ground rules is a good thing. Remembering to enforce them is even better! This experience reinforces and highlights the importance of agreeing to ground rules and appropriately intervening when they are breached. In this case, several ground rules were breached:
– Discussions were conducted with partial group membership outside the group about problems going on inside the group.
– Open sharing of personal email interactions were shared without permission with select group members.
I had the perfect opportunity here to intervene on a breach of ground rules but completely forgot about them! Go figure.
- Disowning our power through silence can contribute to group unrest. There were many group members who were silent and never voiced support either way. In many ways, I was expressing the previously silent voice of frustration toward the group leader by members unwilling to voice it themselves. There were many opportunities to intervene on this silence.Their input would have been very valuable to hear.
- Separate personal agenda from group agenda. When I first requested that certain facilitative functions be performed by a leader who didn’t understand or support such functions, my request was ignored. I could have stated my desire for a facilitative process and queried the desires of the group rather than going toe to toe with the leader. In essence I gave her all the power and failed to draw on the power of the group.
- Some groups simply do not want to be bothered with attention to process. Either choose to stay or go. Just make sure you find out that it’s a group position, not simply a vocal minority. As I strongly believe most healthy groups want a healthy process.
- Wow! I really learn a lot from my mistakes…if I take the time to unravel their cause. Giving myself permission to experiment and make mistakes in this volunteer group really helped me learn a few things about facilitation that I might not have learned otherwise.
Have you ever run into any of these dynamics? What did you learn? I’d love to hear from you. Please post your comments below.