Once we become something, like a facilitator, coach, teacher, consultant, trainer, counselor, therapist, minister, or a member of any number of the helping professions, I believe that something very good and something not so good begins to happen. As we delve into our new field, our understanding and expertise deepen, but at the same time, our view tends to narrow. This narrowing is simply a byproduct of our deep focus in our new field and is quite natural.
Hopefully, in time, we integrate our new skills and once again open our focus to take in new and sometimes contradictory perspectives, and our new skill set falls into its proper place in our tool kit. But sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes we join and attend only those institutes and associations that support and nurture our chosen field. We begin to hang out with people doing what we’re doing and agreeing with our points of view and assessment of the problems “out there.” Something begins to happen that borders on the evangelical. We start to view the offerings of our field as the answer to everything–we become fundamentalists.
I’ve seen hints of this among facilitators as well. Facilitation fundamentalists believe that facilitation is the answer to everyone’s problem and that it should be employed at every opportunity. The more one thinks this way, the less open they become to new information that contradicts this view. And the newer a profession or body of beliefs, the more evangelical its proponents often become in “spreading the word.”
Who knows? I’ve probably had my moments where I’ve even been a bit guilty of this myself. However, I’ve come to believe that as great and under used as facilitation may be, there are times when other approaches are far more effective. Knowing the strengths and limitations of facilitation is therefore very important.
There is a secondary form of facilitation fundamentalism that comes into play in arenas where facilitation is determined to be the most appropriate approach. This more subtle form of fundamentalism occurs during a facilitated session where the facilitator believes that any deviation from “pure” facilitation is taboo. On this occasion, during times of participant unrest, the facilitator may rigidly grasp the flag of facilitation while making such proclamations as, “I must remain ‘neutral’ and therefore cannot comment on the content of your struggle.” Or during a session where people are stuck trying to solve an intractable problem, the facilitator spends 30 minutes helping them “tap into their own inner wisdom” to “facilitate” their way into a solution. Or during a meeting, where the same attendees show up having not completed the work they committed to, the facilitator spends 15 minutes “processing” this with them to help them remove their obstacles. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.
Now I’m not saying that a facilitator shouldn’t be “neutral” with regard to content, or shouldn’t help people “tap into their inner wisdom,” or shouldn’t help people process obstacles. I’m just saying that this approach isn’t the best approach in all circumstances.
Loosening hold of your profession in service to your profession.
So how do we grapple with Facilitation Fundamentalism? Just as all true change “starts with me,” we must first check to see to what degree we are “true believers” ourselves! Make an honest assessment of your own behavior as a facilitator by asking yourself the following questions:
Facilitation Fundamentalism Questionnaire
1. Do you talk about facilitation at every opportunity, even in social circles of non-facilitators?
2. Do you often think that if only facilitation were practiced by more groups, in higher levels of government, etc. that the world’s problems would finally be solved?
3. Do you rigidly adhere to the role of “Facilitator” when working with groups?
4. Do you believe that facilitation is always the best way to get things done in groups?
5. Do you grip tightly to your facilitation plan or agenda, complete with the questions that you’re going to ask the group?
6. Do you believe that democratic consensus-driven methods of decision-making are always the best approaches to use with groups?
If you answered “yes” to two or more of the questions above, you may be a facilitation fundamentalist. Knowing this truth, whether you like it or not, is the first step to your recovery. For as all good facilitators know, we must be clear about the nature and location of where we are now, point “A,” before we can get to point “B.”
Here are some insights that will help loosen the grip on Facilitation Fundamentalism.
- Groups are complex entities that are best served by a spectrum of approaches, which may include facilitation and at times, other approaches such as coaching, teaching, training, managing, consulting, and advising. For example, a group with archaic communication skills may need to be taught some basic skills before they’re candidates for facilitation.
- Groups respond to different styles of leadership based on their needs. As an extreme example, consider a group of individuals rendered homeless just days before by Hurricane Katrina. For a time, they’ll need strong direction and the satisfaction of their biological and safety needs before they’ll require any inter or intra-personal facilitation.
- The degree of content neutrality in your facilitation may vary depending on the stage of your group’s development or the level of their personal development. If asked to facilitate the creation of an event plan for a group of students who can’t for the life of them dream up an event, you may have to suggest some options to get them rolling.
- Group needs and interests change like the weather. You need to prepare as best you can before facilitating a group, but once the group is underway, it’s sure to hand you surprises. Some of these surprises will entail previously unknown (at least to you) core issues, that if resolved, will yield results often far more valuable than those realized by your agenda.
- Democratic, consensus decision-making requires a certain level of competence among participants. For example, there are many people who simply want to be “told what to do” and are frustrated by inquiries into their desires and opinions on a subject.
Can you add to this list in support fundamentalist freedom? If so, please respond to this email and with your thoughts and I’ll add them to this list.
Are you a Facilitation Fundamentalist? If so, what are you willing to do, if anything, to free yourself from its grip? In what situation would you’d like to flex out of the facilitator role while facilitating? Please share your questions, feedback, or experience in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.