Chris Corrigan shares his experiences of cultural diversity and this particular learning experience.

While hearing a round of introductions a young man was introducing himself but was going beyond the one things I asked people to say about themselves. At one point I interrupted his train of thought with a friendly reminder about saying only one thing so that we could allow everyone to have a chance to speak. Instantly one of the hereditary chiefs rose, and in a big resonant voices said “point of order!” He then chastised me for “taking the talking stick out of that young man’s hands, and that is something we never ever do.” I apologized to the chief and the young man and he continued his introduction.

I suppose these are the moments in facilitation we sometimes dread, when we get challenged like this. I think it’s true for me that I tend to favour apologising. Here’s how Chris frames it:

It became a little teaching moment for the whole gathering, local politicians feeling their way into working together and the non-Aboriginal ones were quite nervous about protocol violations. Luckily I have no such qualms about making mistakes – in my 15 years on the west coast, I could never hope to be perfect all the time – and in apologizing, everything was set to rights and we continued, but the power was very visible in the room.

As I’ve got more experienced in facilitation, I’ve learnt to comfort myself with the thought that making mistakes graciously is a large part of the work. There are times when you can simply take the blame for what’s going on in a group.

I remember one painful day’s work when a misleading brief, a highly fractious group with elephants under the table, and a measure of naivete on my part led to a tortuous morning. Well it was tortuous for me.

I remember going for a walk at lunchtime and deciding this was one of those occasions when instead of trying to parcel out the blame, I’d fall on my sword, apologise for my ineffective process and restart. I’m not sure anyone there was terribly impressed, but they did manage to unite that afternoon, quite possibly initially in an unspoken dislike of me, but subsequently around some very productive ideas for their company. I chose to be a kind of sacrificial anode. It wasn’t fun, but I comforted myself with the thought that this is one reason why I get paid for this stuff!

A couple of weeks ago I went on a superb weekend workshop on Improv and Mask. It was run by Shawn Kinley and Steve Jarand from the Loose Moose company in Calgary. One of the themes was mistakes and how improvisers experience them. Shawn’s practice seems to be one of embracing the mistake… not so much that notion of “celebrating failure” but getting to a place of being interested in the mistake and seeing what could be learnt from it rather than just ignoring it and charging on (or indulging in self-flagellation over it). Interestingly, Shawn also advocated participants blaming the teacher if they weren’t having a great time. That seems to me to connect to what I’m talking about here.

None of the above is universally true, and there are certainly times when as a facilitator you might want to challenge a group and not take the blame. It’s a paradoxical job, where you get a chance to make new mistakes each time.

4 thoughts on “Mistakes

  1. James Whatley

    Love that you use/reference mask & improv in regards to facilitation.

    I studied comedia de late for a term while at college (I studied Drama for 5yrs) and the mask work/improv skills I acquired during that process still consistently assist me in my day to day life.

    “Embrace failure” is one the key learnings I took away from there..

    Do you know the ‘close your eyes and go and pick up the cup’ exercise? You probably do..

    What I’m trying to say is – we should catch up soon, I really – really enjoy your blog and just think there’s a good conversation to be had.



  2. David Zinger

    I once facilitated a first nations group in Northern Manitoba. I asked a really good question. We waited 10 minutes for the first person to respond and the group took almost 30 hours to go once around. I respect how people often need to talk around something to get into it. We were lucky, we had the time for the response. By the way, the question was: “What was it like to grow up in your family.”

    I appreciated this post. I worked a touch Shawn and Steve last summer and recognize the mistake perspective and how Keith Johnstone also asked us to blame him if things did not work.

    I think at a facilitator/educator I need to start embracing more blame.

    What comes next?


  3. Stuart Henshall

    Johnnie, Great post I think we have all been there. In my experience and those that I’ve found the best to work with can do both. Being able to challenge comes with trust. That’s earned and so seldom comes too early in the process.

    The apology is also important. It has to be sincere as you would well know. Anything cursory and there’s more trouble.

    The early once around the table is always an interesting exercise. The facilitators desire is to get on with it but I’ve found preparing for it to take a lot longer is usually valuable later. Although as in all things we’ll find those that would prefer to waste group time rather than deal with the issues.

  4. Chris Pearse

    And yet, if we take the blame for an unproductive conversation, do we take credit for a good one? Now I don’t know the answer to this – it appears as a paradox to me, but I find the notion that I, as a facilitator, am not responsible for the quality of the conversation utterly liberating. I know that when the delegates take responsibility, things work so much better. And yet I can and do lead people down blind alleys (as above) on occasion when I get things wrong. So where does responsibility lie in facilitation???


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