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On Facilitating: how to be alive to the knowledge in the room
My creative work is in the middle of ongoing transformation, and over the past year I’ve been really engaging with what I want my practice to look like moving forward. Since creating the Co-Production Oracle, the way I work, and who I work with, has unfurled into totally new territory. I’ve found myself running lots of workshops online and in person, using the card deck and some tried and tested facilitation techniques to help people figure out what their collective purpose is, or get a shared sense of how to approach a problem, or look at the key learnings of big pieces of work and how they might share those stories with others.
This month, I want to share an insight about running workshops that has stayed with me.
Behind this insight lies a building process, putting into practice lots of fantastic facilitation guidance that I’ve been absorbing like a sponge over the last 6 months: StickyDot’s Facilitation for Science and Society Dialogue training, Design Thinking methodology from Innoplay, and so much shared learning from the AJ&Smart free community of facilitators (I get a lot out of weekly zoom calls with them, and am trying to figure out a way of funding myself to do their Workshopper Master programme!)
“Effective group facilitation is an artful dance requiring rigorous discipline. The role of facilitator offers an opportunity to dance with life on the edge of a sword - to be present and aware - to be with and for people in a way that cuts through to what enhances and fulfils life.” - Dale Hunter, The Art of Facilitation
Photo from this week’s workshop with University of Exeter MSc students
The focus of most of my workshops has been Co-Production (an approach to collaboration which involves radical power-sharing). This is something that I am by no means an expert in (and actually, I would be suspicious of anyone calling themselves an expert in co-production, as there are always new things to learn or un-learn). I actually think that the notion of ‘radical power-sharing’ can be a generative idea within facilitation, and within the way we hold spaces for people (though it can also generate tensions).
Here’s one big insight I’ve taken away from recent workshops:
Open up the room, drop your defences and learn from your participants: give them the power to tell you how it’s done.
Now, when I say “open up the room” and “drop your defences”, I do not mean letting go of structure entirely, and letting participants do what they want with the time you have. Rather, it’s about building a structure that the group can thrive within; holding a boundary around a creative and imaginative space.
This requires the facilitator to loosen their ego, particularly around the possession of knowledge. How can you hold a structured space, while also letting go?
I feel like this relates clearly to one of the cards from the Co-Production Oracle: The Playground:
The workshops I run tend to focus around collective problem solving, but not arriving at a neat solution - more a process of opening up space to ask important and difficult questions.
Setting small groups a task, and getting them to learn from each other's wisdom is much more effective than the facilitator (me) telling people the “right way to do things”, or dictating to them a formula that they should abide by, to solve their problems. Instead of teaching the group the answers, a facilitator’s role is to:
Guide a group to appropriate and useful outcomes
Create and sustain a participatory environment: setting the scene for people to feel at ease; keeping that going
Model an open, reflexive attitude: constantly being open to learn how we can do things differently1
When framing the session at the beginning of two recent workshops, I named the fact that people are bringing different levels of experience, and different perspectives, into the workshop space, and that all of this knowledge is valuable. Essentially, I was trying to level the playing field, saying: “I’m not the expert here, no one is / we all are”.
In the sessions, I embodied this by setting participants activities where they would work together to find out how to approach a problem: I gave them the tools, the templates, and some questions to get the conversation going. Each group found everything they needed around their small table, and each table produced a narrative or an approach that was totally unique.
The activity involved designing an imaginary research project. I gave every group the same vague, imaginary research question, and a worksheet which asked them the following:
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and each group brought a different emphasis. Explicitly acknowledging that I don’t have the answer, and that there are no right answers, takes the pressure off me - I can focus on holding the space and doing my best to support everyone there to activate their own imaginations, insights and voices. This allows me to properly occupy the role of facilitator, rather than teacher or lecturer - I can say to participants, "well, what do you all make of this?"
The sense of ‘no wrong answers’ also takes the pressure off the participants and invites them to move into a space of play and experimentation. Working on mini imaginary projects in a workshop enlivens participants with a sense of permission, and is valuable and rich because in those small groups, more diverse knowledge and ideas are shared than there would be space for if we’d had a discussion as a large group.
Here’s what a participant had to say about their experience of working in this way:
“... different people interpreted the question with a different lens - perhaps an obvious one but it was interesting to see us using our different lenses to try and untangle the provocations. This brought out an effective response to the question too. You put people together who don't know each other and have to work together for the first time and negotiate ways of working is always fascinating to me and lessons are learned for sure."
Thanks for reading - and please send me a reply either on email or in a comment in the Substack App if any of this resonates with what you’re working on!
This list is adapted from Schuman, S. (2005): The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation: Best practices from leading the organisation in facilitation