The Facilitator's Dilemma

In Rhizome we have recently been sharing with each other the work we have done and how we felt about it. Common to us all of course is working with, facilitating, training, supporting groups of people. Some groups have many tensions unexpressed within them , power struggles, individuals feeling excluded or disregarded, mistrust, misunderstood or vague objectives leading to ineffective meetings and decision making and sometimes explosions of personal emotions which shatter the supposed task to pieces and all one can do is forget the task and start working on building group trust and respect .

As an external facilitator, brought in to help with a decision or a sticking point in a strategy development process, or to help define and clarify roles and responsibilities, it’s often obvious that the group has not spent enough time getting to know each other, exploring what they want or need, some members are marginalised and the group is dysfunctional.  I liked Cruxcatlyst’s article on this issue, When Groups Go Bad, recommending Jamie Oliver among other good suggestions, and also her piece on dealing with black hats!

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses.

And, as an external facilitator, it’s really hard to move away from the task that you’ve been brought in to do to what really needs doing and especially if there is not enough time allotted.  But the one cannot be successfully achieved without the other. A quandary, one which I struggled with recently, ending up giving more time to the people aspect and less to the task. Although this was something of a disappointment for the group, they did feel  they had got to understand each other better and agreed to take the task on to another meeting. Not much of a catalytic intervention, and another occasion when offering on-going support to the development of the group’s health was what I really wanted to do! This is the constant dilemma – to accept with caveats the parameters set by the client, even though you know it will not work, or to hold out for more time and more focus on the group itself before even contemplating starting a decision-making process.