Trainer as social engineer?

It’s been a funny few months in terms of feedback on training I’ve been involved in facilitating.

In February myself and a co-facilitator received one of the most affirming pieces of feedback I’ve ever received. To paraphrase we were told that we didn’t teach the group anything, but they learnt loads. Music to the ears of anyone that believes in an elicitive* and participatory approach to learning – we simply create the frame within which the participants paint their own artwork drawing on their own experience, knowledge, and vision.

This weekend it was suggested that there was social engineering taking place in a workshop. It was fairly obvious that the criticism was leveled at me in my role as trainer. From an empowering and empowered model of training to manipulator and puppeteer in a couple of months (and yes, when  asked what social engineering meant in this context manipulating towards hidden ends seems a reasonably accurate paraphrase). That’s some fall from grace.

Perhaps naturally, there’s a part of me that wants to write it off as a participant with “issues” about working in groups. Whether or not there’s any truth in that is not the point, however. It would be far too easy to stop listening at that moment in time but something in me says there’s more than a measure of truth in the criticism.

Of course the role of trainer can be slightly (or vastly) different from that of impartial meeting facilitator. Much training is still based on the ’empty vessel’ approach of the trainer pouring his or her wisdom into the group. Maybe there are echoes of that left in the training I run? I certainly feel that the work I do is far more elicitive than it once was, as I’ve learnt to trust the group to have the answer, and to craft the right question. But on reflection however committed to drawing out learning from the group I am, there are definitely times when I have my own agenda or worldview as a trainer and that leaves open the possibility of ‘social engineering’.

This was a nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop. I do have a model of NVDA that I train around, which includes many assumptions – co-operating as a group we are more powerful than we are as individuals; leadership is best when shared throughout the group; safety and support roles are as important as ‘action’ roles (or perhaps more important); and so on. These may seem like sensible assumptions, but do I always articulate them and check them out with a group? No. Am I ever drawing out learning to confirm certain pre-occupations and biases of my own, however widely shared. At times, almost certainly yes. Can I see that the fiercely autonomous individual, the free spirit, or the  self-sacrificing martyrs out there will find these assumptions grating? Yes. Does the fact that these folk can be on the margins of groups mean I shouldn’t listen? No.

I’m grateful for the interaction, especially as we were able to explore it more after the session was over. More work to be done on defining my role as trainer, preferably in collaboration with the group I’m working with, and continuing to develop the skills and attitudes needed. But isn’t that the joy of the role of trainer?

* Training for Change, in their handy glossary of terms, describe elicitive tools like so:

elicitive tools: exercises or activities that draw out participants’ knowledge, wisdom, feelings, humour, curiosity, motivation, and so on. When facilitators use elicitive tools, they find that the participants already know most of what the facilitator wants to teach, and the facilitator only needs to add. Elicitive tools invite participants to do most of the work of education, instead of the facilitator!