It was a bitterly cold Wednesday night mid-way through our week-long Journey of Facilitation & Collaboration Workshop. Darin’s friend Bret agreed to haul several amps and guitars to our workshop site, deep in the basement of Lowell Hall. We set up the amps and guitars, went out for a quick dinner, then came back to play. We started moving through songs we knew and I was grateful that the guys offered me ample opportunity to do some instrumental improvising, something I love to do.
Early in our playing, a concern quickly developed. I had not picked up a guitar in over three months. Because of this, the callouses on my fingers (a wonderful protection fingers naturally develop from regular playing) were all but gone. Yet after playing a bit, my technique developed over years of playing returned. Given my excitement over the opportunity to jam with such fine guitar players, an opportunity I’m not frequently granted, I proceeded to pluck, slide, and bend the strings of my guitar like there was no tomorrow.
Very soon, the tips of my fingers began to remind me how delicate they’d become. Still I jammed on. This was a rare opportunity and time was of the essence. As the burning in my finger tips increased, skin began to peel, and a small cut began showing up on my bending finger, I considered that perhaps a new approach was in order. Out of necessity, I abandoned my standard technique and slowed way down.
Just as this was happening, my compatriots began slowing down as well into a strangely provocative rhythm. As a matter of necessity now, I chose to play only a couple of notes, and much more slowly than I was playing before. Something fresh began to show up. Now that I had no ability to play in my habitual manner, I began to focus less on the notes I was playing and more on the space between them. I began playing with time, by expanding, contracting, and changing the time between the notes. In doing this, something very original and interesting began to emerge. It felt like we were wizards of time and that each new phrase was fresh, alive, and more original than before.
It seemed to me that there was something quite unique about this experience. I was struck that an outcome, so compelling and creative could emerge from paying so little attention to the content of the sound. Our focus was more on the time and space between actions than on the actions themselves. This seemed so counter intuitive that I thought it worth exploring further. I review the insights I gleaned from this as applied to facilitation below.
Lessons in Space-Time Manipulation
Your effectiveness as a facilitator does not depend 100% on what you do. A good deal of your success depends on what you don’t do. Being silent and present to what’s emerging is perhaps the greatest gift a facilitator brings to a group. Inner silence is a rare commodity. It allows you to sense below the surface level of behavior and offers individuals the opportunity to more deeply experience themselves.
Listen for what wants to happen. When we listen carefully, we often get a sense, if not explicit direction about what the group needs to do next. This may be an intuitive sense, a visceral sense, words spoken, or observable behaviors, i.e. people appearing distracted and unfocused. Check in with your group when you get a sense that it’s in need of a new direction. Offer your suggestion and listen to their response. If still in doubt, trust your instincts to initiate a new course of action, then note their response. If things unfold productively, you’re on the right track. If not, try something else.
When you act, is as important as the act. Here are some questions to ask to help you manage the timing of group activities.
- Will the group have what it needs (energy and capacity)?
- Will they be ready to do it (i.e. sufficient trust and capability)?
- What will be the likely result?
- Will the group be mentally ready for the next step?
- Will the group be emotionally ready for the next step?
- High stress activities should be followed by low stress activities.
- Make frequent state changes (every 5-7 minutes).
Use space effectively. There are many reasons to take breaks of various types during group work. Here are a few ways to use them.
- To deal with biological needs (bathroom, food, facilitators need lots of water).
- For mental breaks (to release stress).
- To give facilitators time to analyze and regroup.
- To acknowledge shift of attention and energy.
- To let participants check their e-mail and voice mail.
- To give participants time to process, relax, and integrate learning.
The bottom line here is that silence and timing are at least as important content and technique. These elements are largely overlooked tools a facilitator can use to discover and navigate the underworld of group dynamics.
What have been your experiences working with space and time in groups? I’d love to hear about them. Please share your comments below.