I had a phone conversation with a good friend the other day, who needed someone to vent with about a frustrating experience she'd recently had as an outside facilitator.
The group had been struggling with a delicate issue that brought out the more strident and challenging sides of a handful of members and my friend dutifully guided them safely through the thorny thicket of their reactivity. While that's a bread and butter experience for a professional facilitator (you could handle three meetings like that every week and not run out of work before Christmas), in this case her teeth were grinding because she'd worked with that group previously, and it was frustrating to realize that the same people were reprising their same roles as petulant adolescents. Though the specifics had shifted, the dynamics had not. Ugh! It was the intentional community version of Groundhog Day!
While it's often exhilarating for a professional to help a group navigate a mess that they're uncertain how to handle on their own, singing the same refrain a second time is rather like bringing wilted flowers to the altar. What was inspiring the first time was somewhat depressing when the dynamics were on play repeat. What's the point? Is the group learning? While repeat customers are a delight; repeat dynamics not so much.
So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?
Though I can't be certain, I can speculate on some likely possibilities. Here are four:
o Change Is Hard
The most obvious explanation is that pointing out ineffective patterned behavior is the easy part. Shifting it is the hard part. Under stress (as in when we're triggered) we overwhelmingly tend to fall back on our reptile brain and slip into grooved behavior. It takes conscious effort to shift a pattern, and there are few among us who can experience a single different outcome and then successfully break a mold that has been relied on for decades.
While it would be nice if it were otherwise, it often takes several exposures to the "lesson" before it's incorporated.
o Ineffective Pedagogy
Maybe the path through the jungle was insufficiently mapped. Just because the theory is clear to the teacher doesn't mean the explanation was clear to the student.
Demonstrating is only part of teaching. Often people need to do a thing themselves (under supervision) before the lesson can be ingrained in their body. If it's only in their head, it may not be accessible in the dynamic moment. It depends on how people learn.
I know people who can see a thing done once and are immediately willing to jump in and try it themselves, but they're the exception. Most people prefer multiple exposures before venturing into new behavior.
o Compromised Neutrality
Maybe the group's facilitators (the people you're especially trying to pass along knowledge to) were triggered by the dynamic, or hooked on the topic. Once your neutrality is blown you're effectively disqualified as an arbiter of delicate dynamics. Thus, it's possible that there was no one behind the wheel (in the way of an authorized internal facilitator) to step in and take control when things went south. Perhaps they could have handled different configurations of dysfunctional dynamics, just not that configuration.
o Steep Power Gradient
Sometimes it's too daunting to call particular, powerful individuals on their behavior. Maybe they're thick-skinned, maybe they're too well loved, maybe their health is questionable, maybe they have a reputation for lashing out when asked to cease and desist. There can be any number of reasons why otherwise well-informed and well-intentioned facilitators hesitate to act when certain individuals are misbehaving.
It can take major league chutzpah to confront powerful people.
• • •
Undoubtedly it's hard to watch a group fall back into unproductive patterns—especially after you'd worked so hard to help them out of the pit. Yet beating yourself (or the client) up because they weren't able to successfully turn it around after one successful counter example, won't help. Change is hard.
Along these lines I try to remember that life's lessons are mandatory, but the learning is optional. The fact that people don't learn a lesson the first time they're exposed to it can be discouraging, but who's perfect? The other side of the coin is that the same people responded well (again) when my friend guided them a second time. Maybe the third time will go better.