With Halloween just passed, I thought this a good time to look deeply into the fears we face as facilitators as well as those of our shivering subjects. In this week’s article, Feel the Fear and Facilitate Anyway, a host facilitators express their greatest fears in doing group work, fears most encountered by their participants, and tips for overcoming them. We hope you aren’t too frightened by this issue and that it helps you overcome any fears you still encounter in this most mysterious field. We look forward to hearing your reactions. And don’t be afraid of frightening me with your honesty!
Facilitation can be a scary business. Both for you and for your participants. We often encounter the unexpected and are asked to deal with the ever-complex issues of dynamic human systems. Further, the sharing, challenges, and changes we ask of our participants can be scary for them too.
For this issue, we asked facilitators to share with us their greatest fears and those typically encountered by their groups along with proposed coping strategies. These are summarized below. If you think of some we haven’t listed, please email them to us. Though they may scare us, we’re up to the challenge.
What are your biggest fears as a facilitator?
Uncooperative group or key person in a group. Individuals playing out personal vendettas in the meeting. Spend time in advance understanding the group members and how they work together. Create contingency plans for uncooperative or disruptive behavior.
Not understanding some underlying tension between or amongst participants, or similarly not understanding the culture that is one of fear. In both cases one that prevents you from even breaking the ice to start into the process, i.e. blank stares.
Doing your homework thoroughly is essential. Probe deeply to discover issues that may prevent the process from moving forward. If you feel perhaps the convener or organizer may be holding back in any way, start interviewing participants to see how they feel about the process and moving forward. Usually any underlying issues will surface. If not, you will at least have begun a relationship with participants that may help in at least starting into the process.
That I won’t know what to do in a given situation, i.e., which quality tool or problem-solving tool to use. That I’ll be faced with a problem or question that I have no response for. That someone will ask me an “unanswerable” question, i.e., “All this sounds good in theory, but you don’t know my — ‘supervisor’, ‘manager’, ’employees’, ‘work unit’, etc. How am I supposed to do apply this in real life?” That I’ll have a “tough crowd” or just one or two cynical ones who will challenge everything I say.
What I’ve found effective for my own fears is that, once I’ve actually had the experience, it no longer has control over me. Do I hate not to know answers to questions? Of course I do, especially when I think I should know the answer. But I just admit freely that I don’t know or that I’m having a complete brain lapse. I’ve come to realize that being honest and authentic with my audience (whether a team or a training group) makes a huge difference in how much slack I cut myself and how much slack the groups cuts me. Do I hate having folks challenge everything I say, or just check out? Sure I do. I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m not responsible for everyone else. I can only present the material in the best way I know how, ask good and thought-provoking questions, challenge assumptions, and be respectful of differences; the rest is up to them.
I think my biggest fears center around inadvertently opening up a topic or conflict or concern that a group does not have the intention or ability to hold in a healthy, life-giving way. I am always aware of the possibility of harm for the organizations, teams and individuals that I serve. What I’ve found to be effective is trusting my gut, leaning into my intuition and always listening intently and asking clarifying questions. Staying focused on my client’s business objectives. Being transparent about my objective view of what I am seeing–energy, leverage, conflict, opportunity. Spending time with my client and a representative design team, creating, testing and validating the session design.
My biggest fear as a facilitator is that my mind will go blank. I print the ‘notes’ version of my powerpoint slides where I have scripted what I want to say. It’s printed in a font large enough to read without my glasses, so that I can glance down and easily pick up where I left off. Editor’s note: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our minds would actually be free of thought now and then? The average mind can’t go more than 3-5 seconds without one! What if you just surprised yourself and said whatever you were moved to say?
My biggest fear is that I have misinterpreted the sponsor or group’s request and am not effective in helping the group achieve their goals. I combat that fear by asking the group for confirmation each step of the way and take their advice if the session needs to be adjusted.
Disrespect and “mutiny” or ganging up of the group of participants for the activity or process being facilitated. Negative attitudes can spread like wild fire if there is a strong bully(s) in the group. This is a fear I have had facilitating for youth groups, especially groups of young men in a correctional facility type program. Participants who are not engaged and won’t allow themselves to be participants, the body language, the sighs of annoyance, the questions of “when is this over, are we done yet”? These behaviours build the walls that I try so hard to break down.
Using experiential learning, the participants can became so involved and engaged in the process that they lose themselves and aren’t aware of the external peer forces at play anymore. It can be a difficult process to get to this point, but worth it for the participants.
Have I prepared well enough? I deal with this by understanding the clients’ training needs and communicating with them about how the program will meet them. A well thought out agenda helps (as a security blanket) coupled with plenty of flexibility to respond to learners needs, and knowing that I have more than enough material for the session.
Will I be able to manage the group dynamics? Set ground rules with the group seeking agreement on how responsibility of managing dynamics will be shared with group. Then provide honest communication, focus on the group, listen actively, and call people on behaviours that violate these rules.
Having the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recontract with the learners or cancel the training.
Fear that the ‘standard’ program won’t meet this non ‘standard’ group. Sometimes there’s quite strict parameters and assessments and while I can adjust the delivery method, am sometimes stuck with unflexible content. How I deal with this varies from group to group. Do a bit of, “If it were your job to do this, how would you do it.” Or, “If this was just the material you wanted, how would you use it?” Or, “Who do you know who would use it and how.” Or, “Which bits are useful and which bits will be you able to pass on to someone else?” etc. Do what you can to create and maintain a feedback loop between the needs of the participants and the content czars, doing your best to communicate that when the needs of both are served, all of our jobs will be easier.
Fear that the program that has been slashed to two days from three but still has the same learning outcomes will be too rushed. I usually find out what the participants personal objectives are anyway and manage them first.
Fear that this highly technical group, to whom I am delivering a ‘standard’ program, will find it too simple. I usually get them to tell me which bits they relate to and which bits they think we can skim over.
What are the most common fears you encounter in participants?
“Playing games” and looking silly. Understand in advance the level of “game playing” the group will be comfortable with. Also explain the purpose of the games and the kinds of benefits others have received by engaging in them.
Opening up in front of their superiors. Encourage superiors to model vulnerability for their subordinates. Also, give people “permission” to sit out if they are uncomfortable.
Dissenting when the rest of the group is in agreement. Set up group norms with the group prior to the meeting to create a safe environment for the minority opinion to be expressed. Protect individuals from attack. Keep participants focused on the idea and issues, not on individual personalities.
Nothing will come of their efforts on the team; i.e., nothing will change. Inquire into the source of this attitude. Ask what kind of changes or outcomes they’d like to see. Ask how their attitudes and behaviors are helping to maintain the status quo. Ask them what price they’re willing to pay to make the changes they seek.
They will have more work to do as a result of a team project; i.e., things will change. Set up criteria for changes that will assure that they are sustainable both structurally and personally.
They will have accountability for the outcome and can’t blame it on someone else. Very possible. Make self-responsibility–No Blame–a ground rule. Suggest they explore the prices of victimhood and benefits of being self-responsible.
I may have to tell the truth. Seek to uncover reasons that make truth-telling unsafe and address them directly. Alternately, provide ways to acquire group inputs using anonymous means.
This is going to be a waste of time. Find out what participants do value and would like to see come out of their group work. If some participants are truly unwilling to engage and see no value in it for themselves, invite them to leave. No one is served when participants feel forced to be involved in a group.
I hope we don’t have to hold hands and sing! Involve the learners in the process and content as much as possible. Also warm up the group in the introduction to reduce fears and to make the rest of the program much easier. When I say warm up I mean warm up to the topic, to each-other, and to me.
I’m afraid to offer input. I do my best to make them feel comfortable with easy questions to get communication going, often of a personal nature, and if possible before the meeting. Also, I really do ‘love’ my learners. I mean that when I am with them I care about each of them and I give them my focus. I don’t take my work home with me, so it’s not a ‘burden’, but I have a ‘train with love’ approach that seems to work….or has so far!
Fear of self expression “breakthroughs” that can happen in a group of peers. The vulnerability exposed through experiential learning. Overcoming the pressure of the bully(s) in the group. It isn’t “cool” to play these kind of games, or the bully and his buddies will tease me if I look like I am having too much fun or participating too much.
Planning for the most active/engaging roles for a challenging group where everyone is in a position that is meaningful for themselves and for the rest of the group. Employing safe strategies that can “silence” the bully, using humour, setting the stage with metaphors for the role playing and the scenarios to fully immerse everyone in the process mind, body and hopefully soul. Having a solid debrief planned and changing the timing of the debrief if needed to allow the learning and the shifts in power that occurred to sink in.
What will be the expectations placed on me in the workplace as a result of this training? Discuss expectations beyond the training room with participants. Identify and record particular workplace challenges during training, develop strategies with participants, and provide links to formal and informal support networks
Can I do this, i.e. understand this, take in all this information, and do this back at work? Feedback to participants, share stories of previous experiences, allow time for review and reflection throughout course.
Fear of failing. That is, the fear of making mistakes, of looking foolish, of ruining the experience for everyone else. I use humor to directly address theses fears before we start. For example, I will often start one of my corporate team building drumming programs by saying (after the participants see the drums and percussion instruments in front of them), “I know none of you here would be thinking right now…but I ain’t got no rhythm!” This always elicits laughter from most of the group, because, of course, this is exactly what some of them were thinking at that moment! I will then say, “Group drumming works because everyone has a part to play on their instrument, and the parts fit together to create the complete rhythm. This is the same as in any successful group; everyone contributes their individual skills, talents and personalities to shared goals and values. No one person is responsible for making the entire rhythm work, and no one person can ruin it for everyone else.” Aha! They get it!
By now, it’s probably obvious that you’re not alone in the fears you’ve had about facilitating or participating in groups. With that said, if there’s anything anyone missed, please add it by commenting on this post below…BOO!