That’s me, teaching something about living and dying systems from a decade ago.
Years ago, I worked on a team with a client at a large US Foundation. We were planning a participatory process for a big stream of their work, and they were nervous. Large-scale participatory group methods were new to them, and lots of the leaders were nervous about losing control. That’s not uncommon, but the one thing that stuck with me was a line that came from our direct project lead. He said, “I don’t mind the highly participatory nature of the work, and I don’t worry about the uncertainty. But there is one thing I cannot tolerate. I do not want you to tell me what experience I will have.”
This comment has stuck with me for years, and I understand where he is coming from. Since then, I have never told people up front that “this will be a great meeting… you will struggle and then enjoy…my goal is to ensure everyone is comfortable and happy….” And even after nearly three decades of facilitating meetings, this is still the toughest thing to check me on.
One of the things that many facilitators and hosts worry about with complex facilitation practices is the outcomes and the quality of the experience. It is the hardest thing to let go of and probably the last piece of “performative facilitation” that deeply experienced facilitators are able to release. Of course, we all want people to have a good experience in the meetings that we facilitate, and we want to create conditions that are safe enough for work to get done in a good way.
But that desire and drive for a particular emotional outcome can be as damaging to a meeting as a drive toward a particular material outcome. It can leave people feeling manipulated or invalidated. If a person is truly having a terrible time or is seeing something painful that needs to be addressed, trumping them with a pre-conceived mould of their emotional experience can be a devastating way to render them invisible.
The truth, of course, is that this stuff is HARD, and some of the conversations and gatherings that we all do will have anger, irrational behaviour, sadness, stress, anxiety, trauma and grief. The work of a facilitator, especially in complexity, is always to create the conditions for the work and not to do the work. In the words of Viv Read, writing in her excellent chapter on complex facilitation in the book Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world, “the intent of complex facilitation…is to sustain an environment for a group of people that enables a socially constructed shared understanding of complex issues to emerge with sufficient agreement to take action.” That means making a thousand little decisions beforehand and during a meeting that ensures that people can struggle together in the service of whatever the work is or needs to become.
So do that. Don’t tell people what they will experience. Don’t pre-determine their outcomes or their emotional journey on the day. Let go of that control and enable the environment.
A great reminder, and very timely for me as I’m about to cofacilitate a multi-day session that will almost certainly bring up “stuff”. Thanks. Chris!
Ooof! “…last piece of performative facilitation…” Thx for that one Chris. Nice hair by the way.
Much deep wisdom here… thank you!
Yup … this is great! In the major faith traditions, there is also the expectation that Spirit/Chi/Breath will show up and surprise us all. (I like that part!)
Then, there are the incursions of chaos and the swirl of other systems impinging on those with which we show up to play.
Increasingly, I (as a white male) am called on to facilitate in multi-cultural settings and, every time I do, I am surprised at the gifts I receive when I show up open-heartedly and expecting to be changed.
Thank you for your perennial thoughtfulness, Chris! This reflection you offer here is a gift!
Yup. I’m always hoping Spirit will out in a visit when I am at work!
One might say the same thing about smaller-scale interactions, right down to one-to-one communication. People want so very intensely to control outcomes, to ensure particular responses, to fend off unforeseen results, that it can be extremely difficult to persuade them that we just don’t have that capacity. Sometimes I would unguardedly go so far as to say that the desire for certain outcomes constitutes a sort of cognitive blind spot, such that people can’t even tell that they’re longing for an impossibility.
‘But if we…’
‘It’s necessary that there be a way of…’
‘You’re saying that we have no influence over…’
No, I’m saying that the complexity of the environment we inhabit exceeds (by orders of magnitude?) human capacities to imagine and realise responses to that complexity. Get used to it. Do your best. ‘Be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.’
I think that is something of what the Dalai Lama was pointing too as well. Perhaps, with what you and Bhav are both saying, it is how we find ourselves in relationship with what is that matters. Sometimes I think this facilitation job is as simple as sitting and witnessing and watching reality unfold. And indeed that is usually the most helpful stance to take.
I think our design choices do constraint people towards certain types of action and emotional directions that we are consciously choosing… so there is always a manipulation towards a certain direction of action and emotion…
Another one for “the book” Chris. Occurs to me you might, from time to time, include some of the comments. So it becomes a bit of a conversation. I appreciate what Akma says and how this also goes for smaller-scale interactions.
Comments are closed.