Group culture and fracture lines

It’s an interesting question for facilitators – how much do you challenge an organisation or group’s existing culture, or how much do you simply reflect it back to them?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself again in recent months, a reflective process aided by the peer review and co-facilitating we try to do in Rhizome.

If the group wants to talk in greater depth than time allows, to catch up when they don’t see each other enough though they work in the same organisation or network, with breaks expanding to swallow the day, if they want to problematise issues at every opportunity, or keep jumping around talking about different issues all at the same time, where do the boundaries lie in our facilitation role?  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this issue, and won’t be the last.

Despite a facilitator’s best strategies – careful structuring of the time, summarising periodically throughout where the group is at and where it still needs to go, reflecting from time to time if people come back from breaks late or talk at interesting tangents, sometimes group culture like a river will take the easiest route.  It can be uncomfortable knowing in advance that at the end of a session we will run into people’s dissatisfaction at not having fulfilled all their group or personal objectives.

So where does responsibility finally lie?  That’ll partly depend on the style of the facilitator, which can depend on the day and on the negotiated relationship with the group.  It can also be addressed in preparatory negotiations with the key contacts, as long as it’s made clear to the group during the session that you’ve been instructed to challenge their culture; negotiating whole group consent can help in this regard.

Sometimes it clearly helps groups to shake things up a bit – if people are used to hiding behind tables and laptops, why not a circle of chairs?  What warm-ups can you usefully utilise that will help people to step beyond their comfort zones, but not in a way that makes them feel unsafe or that they’re likely to plain reject.  You sometimes have to feel around the boundaries, and experience helps this process.  Thinking about how it’s possible to create a safe learning environment thus helping people try things out that might feel uncomfortable is a good distinction to reflect on.

This distinction was very clear at the recent Power and Privilege Training for Trainers weekend, led by George Lakey, formerly of Training for Change and the Movement for a New Society.  TfC are big on creating ‘containers‘, letting conflict bubble up so that it can be addressed – which is often not the same as resolved.  However, it didn’t go so well – in addition to cultural clashes and issues around the role of the facilitator, quite some people present where left feeling unsafe.  This feeling of lack of safety negatively impacted on the level of participation of some attendees; for others, they left the training feeling unsafe – shaken and stirred.  Not good – more on this in the future from your intrepid Rhizome facilitators who were there.