Pushing Versus Inviting

There's a prevalent style of facilitation that's mostly passive—where the person running the meeting isn't doing much more than deciding who'll talk next, punctuated by the occasional need to blow the whistle, perhaps to signal that time has expired or to announce a restart, either to referee moments of fulminating tension or to cut through the fog of creeping chaos.

In the interest of safeguarding their neutrality—necessary to be an effective referee—facilitators will often adopt a style that scrupulously steers clear of offering suggestions about how to handle issues on the table. As a facilitation trainer, however, that's not what I teach. Rather, I prefer that facilitators be open to the possibility of their having insights into good solutions that can accelerate bringing the ship into a safe harbor.

This is my thinking:

o Mostly facilitators are members of the groups they facilitate. As such they typically have in-depth knowledge of both the players and the circumstances surrounding the issue. Why shut down a potentially valuable voice when it comes to figuring out what's best? I'm not suggesting that the facilitator's input should carry any more weight than anyone else's, only that it not be discounted, or disqualified.

o On a more subtle level, good facilitators have typically done a considerable amount of personal work to become aware of their competitive conditioning and the ways that we have inadvertently been trained to focus on differences more than similarities. Thus, facilitators can be particularly valuable when searching for common ground.

[It works like this: in mainstream Western culture there is an extreme emphasis on "I" (in contrast with a potential focus on"we"). A consequence of this is an obsession with how we are distinct in any situation—because the "I," a culturally driven imperative, can get lost when wallowing in similarities. Thus, when the glass is half full we learn to quickly hone in on the empty part ahead of the half-full part. Even though both are equally true and solutions are invariably built on common ground, most people have been conditioned to see disagreement ahead of agreement. As such, they can be slow to see potential solutions lying right in front of them. In that dynamic a facilitator who has worked to unlearn their competitive conditioning may see viable connections between positions that others miss—until the facilitator articulates the potential bridge. It's not so much that the facilitator is brilliant (though that's a possibility) as that people tend to find what they're looking for and facilitators often have trained themselves to see common ground. It can be like Magic Eye autostereograms: obvious when you see the underlying three-dimensional image yet totally mysterious when you don't.]

o At the end of the day, it doesn't matter much where a good idea comes from so long as the energy behind it is solid. (I know that I'm articulating a cooperative ideal and that in reality ego enters the equation more than I'd prefer to admit—where it matters on a personal level if the germ of the prevailing proposal came from you—yet it still behooves us to move in the direction we intend to go.)

o There are, I think, two keys to this working well. This first is that facilitators do their best to remain neutral about the outcome and restrict their suggestions to ways of putting together elements that have already been articulated by the group. The image I hold is that it's OK to mold the clay, but please only use clay provided by other group members; do not slip your own clay bodies into the mix. The litmus test is that it should be relatively easy for group members to connect the dots—to see how the threads of your proposal were derived from input given by others.

o The second key is that facilitators present their offerings with grace and humility. Not with a large bow wave that makes it difficult to express reservations. If members of the group feel that the facilitator is pushing, selling, or arm twisting, there is considerable risk of sacrificing their neutrality, which can be very expensive. Keep in mind that this admonition obtains even if the idea is brilliant. What you need to track closely is not so much the quality of your thinking (about which there can easily be divergent views) as the quality of its landing. If there is hesitation in the reception, the facilitator needs to back out of there; not fight for their idea. You should think of your suggestion as a gift. Much as you'd like it to be embraced, if it is spurned, so be it.

o To be clear, I am not suggesting that the facilitator hide their light under a bushel. It's OK to be excited and enthusiastic about your suggestion; just be sensitive to the response and not bowl anyone over. If the succeeding idea mainly comes from a different direction, try to be equally celebratory (hurray we solved the problem!) and not subdued because your idea didn't turn out to be the stairway to heaven.