Category Archives: Facilitation

Shared Peril

image-0010A few ideas about fear, from Viv‘s and my book, Nothing is Written:

“Few things can bond a group of people like shared peril. If the group comes together in the face of adversity, its sense of camaraderie and trust increases. Without the element of shared peril, these moments of growth would not happen.

Of course, adversity can also break a group. So the focus must be on allowing participants to manage their own experience, so they can be on the edge of their comfort zone, and not pushed beyond it.

And the trainer must be willing to share in the experience. If they only create peril for the participants, that’s more a kind of bullying than learning. Trainers should drop their masks of expertise and reveal their vulnerability.

There is nothing like the connection people can make by experimenting and discovering together. Be part of the adventure, not just the narrator.”

As with other parts of the book, I keep thinking: I need to keep this in mind for myself more of the time.

I’ve come to realise, when facilitating, that pre-match nerves, or stage fright, are a good thing. They’re a sign that I am being present, accepting that working with people is never completely predictable. I think audiences pick up that when someone is a bit nervous, they are also alive to possibility. When they appear too certain, they’re in a kind of trance where they think they really know what should happen next. I think either state helps create different moods for the audience.

I notice that if I fall back on little bits of humour that have worked before, they often don’t seem to work this time. Things said with less calculation, however, often generate more emotional response.

In some paradoxical way, by being somewhat vulnerable, a facilitator helps create a kind of safety in the room. It’s a safety you don’t get by just “agreeing” a set of predictable ground rules.

Emotional connectedness

image-0004Here’s another page from Viv‘s and my book, Nothing is Written:

“A baby is playing with her mother, exchanging looks and gestures and smiles. This is happening over a video link, but the level of engagement seems like it’s face-to-face.

But then, a small adjustment is made. A two-second delay is introduced to the video feed between mother and child. Quite suddenly, the child moves from contentment to distress. Just a small disruption of the synchrony has remarkable consequences.

This is one of many experiments described by Thomas Lewis and Richard Lannon in their book, A General Theory of Love. What emerges again and again is that good parenting maintains spontaneity and a sense of connection. The same may be true of learning.

Maybe we could use our time together to increase our emotional bandwidth, to complement the technological bandwidth we already have on our devices. This means sharing experiences rather than content.

In learning, maintaining a sense of care and attention may be the most powerful thing we can do. Passing on fixed ideas and knowledge is secondary.”

This has been very much on my mind working with groups this year. It’s so easy to get fixated on getting to outcomes and action lists and forget that we’re working with human beings whose minds thrive on connection. A lot can be gained by spending time on introductions so that people can connect with fellow participants, not just the subject experts. Often they will learn more from sharing their own experiences with each other. And spending time at the start on introductions also pays off – not a laborious “go-round” so much as a series of paired conversations or small groups, where people can connect without the pressure of performing in front of a large group.

Experiences over explanation

image-0006From our book, Nothing is Written:

In his book, Friends in Low Places, Dr James Willis describes research in which two groups of people were shown a photograph of a face. After seeing the photo the first group was asked to recall details of the face. The second group didn’t have to do this.

Later, each group was tested to see if they could remember the faces they had seen in the photos.

The second group – those left to use only their innate and wordless ability to remember a face – were twice as likely to remember it.

By attempting to make learning more detailed and explicit, we may be getting in people’s way.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the studies of tennis coach Vic Braden. Braden would ask top tennis players the “secret” of their technique. He found that although they had detailed explanations for how they did what they did, these descriptions were inconsistent and often false. Famously, Andre Agassi insisted that he would roll his wrist as he hit his forehand shots. In fact, stop motion photography showed that this simply wasn’t true. The fancy term for this is confabulation.

Our rational mind invents a plausible explanation for a behaviour, and believes its own propaganda.

Fresh experiences beat old explanations.

Bonus link: The gondola kitten experiment. When you’re busy explaining things to people, are you putting them in a gondola or helping them to discover for themselves?

Are you going to pull it together at the end?

This is question I get asked a lot in meetings, especially those with more conversational and participatory formats like Open Space.

It’s what’s expected of a facilitator isn’t it?

Increasingly, my answer is a form or words that boils down to: No.

I think it’s often more useful for diverse groups of people within the meeting to pull themselves together around the subjects that interest them. If we try to get a diverse bunch of people to all agree on something at the end, we’re likely to go for something bland, or get a kind of fake assent that really means, “I’ll agree to this so that we can all go home.”

Organisations of any size are remarkably complex. They achieve what they do not by everyone following the exact same rules, but by a less predictable series of partly co-ordinated behaviours.

It’s a network, and it has multiple, changing connections. Trying to stand at the end as if we’re all mean to connect around a central person, picture, list of ideas seems a bit flawed to me.

For endings, I like processes that allow everyone, on reasonably equal terms, to share their excitement, concern, ideas, desires for action. Without a big pressure to coalesce around abstractions. I’m struck that what often results is a less precise, but still tangible sense, that we can all carry on together…

Avoiding the teacher trance

image-0008Another sample from Nothing is Written:

It’s easy to slip into a teacher trance.

On the surface, it looks like serious learning is happening as the expert dispenses knowledge and the students appear to be respectfully appreciating it. The trainer is set up as an expert, giving her status over others. This can be flattering to the ego of the trainer, and quite comforting to the audience, reducing their responsibility for the learning. The trainer gets repeated signals that she’s supposed to be authoritative, and becomes quite attached to the power and/or responsibility.

In the teacher trance, we all become attached to explanation and answers, and the surprise of discovery becomes a threat.

But discovery is what really imprints learning. As David Rock and Jeffery Schwartz say in their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership: “For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions… Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking. It is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights.”

By avoiding the trappings of expertise, the trainer is more vulnerable but creates more power and agency for those learning.

Ordinary connection

The Power of Ordinary Practices describes how apparently mundane interactions with managers have a major impact on people’s work.

Management and leadership are so often described in heroic terms, which seem to disconnect everyone from reality. In the search for impact, leaders often miss details and leave people behind. I liked this point from Teresa Amabile in the article:

One, people have incredibly rich, intense, daily inner work lives; emotions, motivations, and perceptions about their work environment permeate their daily experience at work. Second, these feelings powerfully affect people’s day-to-day performance. And third, those feelings, which are so important for performance, are powerfully influenced by particular daily events.

She gives lots of examples of how managers small scale interactions have a big impact on morale, creativity and productivity.

One of my favourite workshop activities is to look at real world conversations, especially those seen as difficult by participants. We’ll often just take two lines of dialogue (a classic “he-said, she-said”) and play with multiple ways of replaying them differently. The results can be dramatic.

The other thing that the article brings out is timing. Too many interactions, or two few, or at the wrong or right time, have big impacts. Failing relationships and conversations often feel to me like badly co-ordinated dances; we think we’re fighting over the content but really we’re experiencing a lack of synchrony.

Hat tip: Keith de la Rue (on Facebook)

Getting over ourselves

image-0016Another extract from Nothing is Written

“In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments of his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use… the ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present.” – Otto Rank

Unlearning and breaking from the past is at the heart of learning and creativity. As Rank observes, great artists like Rembrandt and Picasso were able to leave behind their greatest successes and move beyond old ideas of themselves.

In order to learn, we need to lose our attachment to old versions of ourselves.

Playful learning helps us to try out new versions of ourselves, bypassing some of the stories our minds invent about us.

The value of loose ends

image-0012This is another extract from Viv’s and my new book, Nothing Is Written (free to download).

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the eponymous antihero is fleeing a brigade of Roman soldiers. In his panic, he falls from a ledge into a spot where a variety of zany religious types are preaching to would-be followers. Brian nervously delivers a sermon in the hope of blending into the background and eluding his pursuers.

He’s not very good. The crowd challenge the details of his story, and the more stressed he becomes, the less convincing is his performance. Fortunately, the soldiers pass by and he can relax. So he abandons his story mid-sentence. It doesn’t really matter any more.

But this is just the point at which the audience moves from scepticism to curiosity. The unfinished nature of the story hooks them. As a result, a massive crowd builds up, trying to make sense of what’s happening, pursuing all manner of hilarious possibilities.

The value in training is to open people up to possibilities. It is the responsibility of the learner to pursue those possibilities. Being incomplete can keep people engaged.

Siloes and networks

Greg Satell asks, What makes and organisation “networked”? He makes some points challenging either-or thinking about networks. So bureaucracies and silos aren’t inherently bad, it’s more a question of recognising other networks exist – and you can connect silos usefully without needing to disparage or dismantle them.

In a lot of meetings, I think facilitation can help people to find other ways to connect across the more officially recognised structures, matrices and hierarchies.

What sort of learning?

Just want to point to this lucid article by my friend John Wenger: transformational learning.

If someone wanted to learn something like ‘how to have a difficult conversation with a staff member’ in a transactional way, this may result in him or her having more ‘top tips on difficult conversations’ but it would be unlikely to result in deep or significant shifts in how they relate to their staff. Furthermore, research shows that the half-life of knowledge that is simply transferred is very short. This means that any positive benefit of someone learning what they need to in a transactional manner would be neither deep nor long-lasting. This is simply because material such as this requires the involvement of both the ‘thinking’ brain AND the limbic brain; the part of the brain that governs feelings and how we manage relationships. Research indicates that skills based in this part of the brain are best learned through motivation, practice and feedback, rather than simple transfer of information. In other words things that involve the “F” word (feelings) require a transformational learning process. As Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, states, “A brief seminar wont’ help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.”