Principles, principles, principles…
I’m not fond of rules. I don’t like constraints. I do like ‘strange attractors‘ and boundaries that guide our path, whether secretly or overtly.
Principles do that. So I guess I’m a person of principles.
And as I’m pondering this excellent post by my friend Nadia von Holzen on the 10 principles of Liberating Structures (LS), I want to offer, hereby what have become some of my ‘commandments’ of facilitation over the past few years.
Using again this amazing LS body of work and other instrumental sources of inspiration such as Community At Work‘s incredible living legacy, I’m thinking it’s a good moment to offer my 10 commandments of facilitation, based on my own practice and experience.
It’s likely to become a living list which I may update here and there in the future. Though even now this list comprises some fundamentals that I believe prepare someone doing facilitative work to do and be the change they want to see as part of their work…
So here we go…
1. “Stay out of the content, manage the process”
This one doesn’t come from me but from Community At Work’s seminal ‘Group Facilitation Skills‘ training. And it’s pretty fundamental. Not all facilitators are neutral in the content/process dichotomy. Some allow themselves to mingle in the conversation and share their opinion. Others influence the direction of the conversation (even from a process perspective). And yet I can only honour this commandment and recommend it to others, because the role of a facilitator is, to mirror Sam Kaner’s mantra “to help everyone do their best thinking”. Meddling in that process and taking a stand from content perspective means sending mixed signals: you may value certain points of view that are close to your own. Ultimately, it means there is no integrity to expect from the facilitator.
2. Be the one person that works in ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE’s interest
This is perhaps the second commandment from Kaner, Noakes et al.: not only is a facilitator majorly involved in managing the process, but also in nurturing healthy and productive relationships among the contributors present. By focusing on the process and not adopting any bias in any conversation involved, the facilitator can free themselves to pay attention to how everyone is doing, and to protect the safe space and time of everyone to express themselves. This is fundamental, as it goes to the core of what facilitation is about: the practice of skilfully collaborating.
3. Along the way, develop everyone’s process literacy
This one comes much more from my own practice, directly. Now that I’ve started to write about process literacy more centrally it’s only logical that this becomes one of my 10 commandments: As facilitator you (expectedly or arguably) possess a strong process vision, a lot of process knowledge, and have developed critical process skills. All of this is extremely helpful to have. So how about getting every group you work with to benefit from some of that? Make the process scaffolding visible, explain the principles or reasons why you have managed this particular process bit or not. Share your process language and invite others to see the value of this meta-stance. Every individual, every group, every community becomes all the stronger along the way.
4. Whenever you can, involve and co-facilitate with others
Directly in line with the previous principle, seek to work with other co-facilitators, preferably people that are members of the group you’re working with. This way, not only are you sharing a little bit of process literacy with everyone, but you develop – crucially through joint experience with them – a lot of that process literacy with one or a few people that will directly play a co-facilitative role in the process. A great learning and discovery, not just for them but for you too. Still be mindful of the dark side of co-facilitation, but then actively involve others relentlessly, you’re making everyone smarter this way!
5. Do not fall in love with your own interests, desires, hobby horses – it’s not about you but about THEM
It is very tempting, when designing a process, to get attracted to this new participation format you’ve been bound to try out or adapt, or this new visual tool you want to get your head around. Exploring the edges of your repertoire is great, it relates to another commandment below about self improving, but behold this: Is this approach you’re suggesting something your group really needs, or is it something you have suggested to please your curiosity? Very often, groups don’t need the most sophisticated approaches, tools, bells and whistles. Something simple but solid usually does the trick. Use other safe-fail avenues for pushing your limits. When working seriously with a group – especially a group that pays you to do this, honour your commitment to them and keep thinking about what’s in it for them. Time, and time, and time, and time again.
6. Remember your inner yoda – embrace your ethical self
When in the room, facilitating, you have no space to colour your statements politically or ethically. But upstream, when designing the process, it’s your every right – and perhaps duty – to follow your own code of ethics. And I’m thinking particularly about how you look at dynamics of inclusion, diversity, representation, transparent decision-making. Is the plan really paying attention to everyone the way it should? Is it complete? Is it doing due diligence? Is it not reinforcing entrenched power patterns, and perhaps even creating a climate of distrust etc.? Be very mindful of how you contribute to a healthy (or not so healthy) environment and dynamics in the groups you work with by not asking some critical questions upfront.
And this leads me to the next commandment…
7. Be mindful of who you are – the ‘self as instrument’
The ‘self as instrument’ is again a principle from Community At Work. Know yourself and work with yourself in the room. Know what triggers you both positively and negatively. What is likely to make you over enthusiastic and less risk-savvy, and what will rattle you. Understand the “communication styles that bug you” (C@W, still!) and the ones that you display yourself (with a tinge of TRIZ here). Meditate perhaps, so that your inner eye remains open and alerts you to emotional triggers that affect your judgment and your integrity. The more you know yourself, with all your weaknesses and your strengths, the more you are able to serve others fully and unconditionally.
8. Be the facilitation that you want to see in everything you do
Don’t limit your facilitation practice to the events and collaboration initiatives that you end up working on. Apply it to your life, to your working and wherever desirable your personal relationships. Be supportive, be helpful, listen actively, be mindful of outcomes, be collaborative. When you breathe what you preach, people trust you all the more, because they can see that you walk your talk and respect your work and approach. And bonus, doing so you might even cheekily bring people to taking an extra step of slight discomfort that they might not take otherwise, though that’s matter for another blog post…
9. Self-reflect and self-improve
Maybe it’s the heritage of my knowledge management profile, but I firmly believe that much like a lot of facilitation is getting groups to reflect on everything, you should also reflect on how you’ve been doing this or that, what you did well, what you did unexpectedly, what was good, bad, ugly and lovely in all of that, and what you can do to get it even more right next time around. As the LS gospel goes “Learn by failing forward”. Growth thinking drives the best facilitators, and the pie is always getting bigger. So have your portion now, and then some more! Yummy learning! And at that, you might need the feedback of others to help you cover your blind spots and help you grow, which paves the way for the last, but certainly not the least of these commandments…
10. Work with (many) others, and be grateful!
Facilitating is inherently collective. And it takes many people indeed to go through successful collaboration, even during just the space of an event. So go out there and find your partners in crime. Involve the sponsors, the people in the room. Whether they help design, co-facilitate, document, manage time, manage technical platforms, review the works, the more you involve others, the more active the entire crowd becomes and the more likely they are to invest more of themselves in the time together, and in building quality relationships with each other. Besides, it’s sheer pleasure – well, with some spicy moments ha ha ha. Don’t stop there, thank them, and once again show that collaboration scaffolding: it wouldn’t be possible if all of these people, all of you hadn’t been involved.
It’s a beautiful job to facilitate, and I hope you enjoy these commandments, and perhaps apply some of them or share your own here… What are your 10 commandments of facilitation?
- When ‘going online’ invites us to rethink (also face-to-face) interactions – A new dawn for collaboration?
- I am, you are, each of us is an ‘everyday facilitator’ – let’s cultivate this together!
- A daily dose of process literacy
- The role – and attitude – of a facilitator in designing events
- Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes