Facilitating Change: Changing Facilitation?

On Thursday I got an early train to Manchester to meet with Adam, Kathryn and Lucy – my ‘Facilitating Change’ co-facilitators before travelling to Wales together the following day. On Monday evening I got the train back from the event – a little battered and bruised from the experience, oddly exhilarated too, and very tired. I left the others three and a half more days of work to do and with a sense that Monday morning’s work has shifted the dynamic. But I get ahead of myself. Whilst there (there being The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Ecocabins), I kept a rough and ready journal. Here’s a few extracts and some reflections from 48 hours on:

“I’m typing this on Saturday morning before the inevitable early morning facilitator planning session. Friday evening – we started ‘work’ at 7pm, after 2 intensive days of conversation, planning and deep sharing about our needs from each other. We started just as I was really feeling I’d had enough for the day. Our preparation was exciting, revealing and exhausting. We were treading the line between holding to a vision for the event, and our own anxieties about facilitating that vision and sustaining ourselves for a week long event.


In the end we went with our vision – working with the group of 22 participants (from the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and Spain) as the material for the event, and with the event as laboratory. The design of the event? Emergent. We planned as far as ¾ way through Saturday, knowing that even that plan might (would) change. Our intention is simply to give the group an experience of itself and see where that takes us, working with whatever emerges. Handing over to participants as often as we can get away with for them to discern where the group is at, and design and facilitate the next step. Nothing too radical there if process work or similar is your background. But for us it’s a step (and a big one) but one we’ve been working towards for a long time. We expect conflict, we expect strong emotion, we expect difference and divergence. And we expect a hell of a lot of learning for facilitators and participants alike.

We discussed at length whether we’d also have all our facilitator planning and debrief meetings in public. It’s the one area where we strayed from the vision. It felt like too much on top of other risks we’re taking as a facilitation team. Ironically at the end of our first debrief meeting one of us uttered “I wish we’d had that meeting in front of the group”. The result of that first debrief? We’re on track… the approach is working for now and the group are willing to go with it (for now). We discussed the gender dynamics of a 2 women/ 2 men facilitation team. Are some norms already starting to show? Are we dealing with them less than skilfully? Are we letting the task of being ready to meet and greet the participants, and begin the workshop get in the way of us processing these dynamics? Aren’t they themselves “group as material” and shouldn’t we process them in the wider group? Answers on a postcard.

After a brief sentence of welcome we threw the group straight in with a question – “What have you already observed or intuited about this group?”. After some personal reflection and paired sharing we had a group discussion, and only then started covering “housekeeping” information, and introductions. We took our time over the introductions, letting them run for the rest of the evening.


Saturday: I’m tired. Very. And not a little bruised. It’s been an eventful day. This morning we asked the full group to sort 45 or so words and phrases into 3 categories – values, attitudes and behaviours in around 20 minutes. After a few initial thoughts as a full group, they broke up and shared why they had made the decisions they had – to put which word or phrase where. The flip charts they produced were beautiful . From a facilitation perspective there was also plenty of material to work with – the groups issues were definitely starting to show. The next question was “what values were we embodying in the activity so far”. Different small groups then shared one of the values they had experienced in the group in tableau form (by creating a group statue to represent the value). It was a kind of alternative version of Pictionary. The energy was high and there was a definite frisson in the group when one group sculpted ‘Elitism’.


We took the same question to the full group and tried to reflect back the dynamics we saw at play and the approach of group as content for the workshop really came into its own. A strong theme was the restraint, the politeness, and strong grip on emotion. There was resistance – of course there was. Hold a mirror up to any group and there will be resistance – hence my feeling a little bruised. And channelling the emotion of the group – giving myself permission to feel it and reflect it to the group was intense, tiring. As was alienating some of the mainstream voices in the group. It’s the first time I’ve properly gone out to consistently and persistently act as that mirror to the group. Some marginal voices were heard more powerfully than they otherwise might have been. My co-facilitators assure me it worked, but I’m no diplomat and need to work on ‘framing’ my observations in ways that challenge but also support.


It proved to be the backdrop for the rest of the day – an experience that has, to an extent, divided the group by opening up those mainstream and marginal dynamics.


Sunday: If the last entry saw me bruised, this evening  I’m bloodied and bruised. It’s been another intense day. We saw a mainstream in the group exerting its power, unconsciously resisting avenues that might empower the margins. Through Theatre of the Oppressed and a long debrief we persisted in trying to open up the possibility that there might be other forms of communication, other meeting structures and cultures, other ways of facilitating, that made room for the margins to participate. That persistence, coupled with allowing ourselves to feel the anger in the room and express it in the way process workers fill the ghost role – the role of what’s there but not acknowledged – opened up a rift between facilitators and the highest ranking participants. It was a risk. Has it paid off? Too early to say, but the margins are more vocal and they are demonstrating their support for the facilitation team.


What we’re almost certainly not communicating as clearly is the connection between this work and our role as social change facilitators. We’re not here for group therapy or for an anti-oppression workshop, valuable though both may be. We’re on this journey because we believe that social action groups and movements are tied into cultural norms theoretically informed by beliefs in equality and democracy, but which lock out behaviours that deviate from those norms. Ironically these democratic structures exclude those who can’t or won’t conform to those norms. We lose many people who might join our struggles because the culture and process of our meetings fail to show solidarity with their struggles. In our meetings we simply can’t handle strong emotion, we deal with conflict poorly, and difference of any kind is a real challenge in whatever form it takes. If we facilitators cannot support groups through these inevitable processes, what are we doing?


2 participants picked up the baton this afternoon with a ‘group process’, drawing on one of their experiences as a student of process work. Again, we were reminded that the UK activist scene needs new approaches to move forward. And proce
ss work has a lot to offer. As is so often the case it was facilitation from the group that was pivotal in moving the group on from a stuck position.


We’ve stretched people a long way. We’re aware that we need to keep going, but we also need to ensure that everyone has the support they need to work through the conflict that has arisen.


Monday: We were only working together this morning – the participants got the afternoon off. We facilitators fielded questions and conversation, and had a short debrief meeting. Kathryn, Adam and Lucy pick up the baton again at 7.30 this evening. Or rather they hold the space whilst a pair of participants design and lead the evening session.

This morning’s work was about consolidation and repair – acknowledging that the work so far has been tough, and stretched people. We gave them a chance to get to know each other more deeply, to support their experience so far with a firmer understanding of the theoretical models, such as margin and mainstream, that underpin it, and then a chance to take another look at the struggle of the margins through a diversity interview. One of the key learnings of the morning’s work was to broaden understanding of margins to the invisible (or less visible ones) such as mental health.


I’ve never facilitated an event at which so much of the work took place outside of the session – all 4 of us were engaged in a series of sometimes curious, sometimes furious conversations with a range of participants. Many of these conversations saw movement and helped us and them process what was coming up during the sessions. They were also an invaluable way for the facilitation team to keep its finger on the pulse of the group. So much was changing over a lunch break, or overnight that the snapshot we had of the group at the end of a session or a day’s work was rapidly out of date.


If last night we were feeling out of our depth (and I think we were), today we saw the clouds lift a little. There is very rich learning happening. The approach of continued dialogue and diagnosis of the group dynamics shaping the design and flow of the work was tough but rewarding. Holding to roles that challenged the group’s status quo was vital to deepen the work, but came at a personal cost – emotional and energetic. We need to reflect more on that and find ways to make it sustainable for us and our groups.


I’m hoping Adam will take over where I’ve left off, posting his learning, that of the group, and the facilitation team at some stage in the future. But he has a full week of this and needs to conserve his personal resources.”

48 hours on and back to ‘normal’ life’ it seems like another world. Knowing that the event is still in progress is mildly surreal. I got a text this evening “Going well, moving forward at least on M&M [margins and mainstreams] and rank. Now leadership is emerging as an issue as well. Positive learning being taken from your work with the group. Sorry you not here to see that…”. Having expected to be quite low after the event I was surprisingly uplifted. We received a lot of support from the margins of the group that made difficult facilitation possible and confirmed that we were doing the right work (even if we need to refine how we do it). Will it create a step change in facilitation here in the UK and elsewhere? Who knows. Will there be a Facilitating Change 2? Who knows. Will there be a lot of learning on facilitation for facilitators and participants alike. That’s guaranteed.