I recently attended a workshop at which one of two facilitators introduced themselves as anti-facilitation. “Because intelligent people don’t like being facilitated,” was their exact reasoning. At that moment I had the odd sensation of feeling compelled to distrust a belief I knew very well why I held, largely because I was sitting and listening while someone else was standing and talking. Put another way, an individual in a position of relative power delivered a message fundamentally critical of my own experience, and I, as recipient, was left (attention fully diverted from task) to mull over my own exclusion from the ranks of the smart. I describe the sensation as odd because it rarely happens to me as an adult. It is however one I remember well from childhood through my mid twenties, the period in my life before I solidified a sense of personal identity and basic confidence in my own capabilities. The dynamic in question was (and is) one in which greater authority compels lesser authority toward self-doubt by revealing knowledge that is inherently correct and/or obvious. An insecure experience to be sure, usually followed by the lesser authority side-eyeing others for a herd signal of appropriate reaction. This scenario is common in communities and situations in which explicit or implicit hierarchies exist, which is to say all communities and situations. Despite the anti-facilitation facilitator’s unfortunate opening, they were actually quite skilled at facilitation. They led an active experience, inviting a range of participant voices and raising productive questions for the group to consider. What they lacked, however momentarily, was a sensitivity that resulted in alienation and mistrust. Upon reflection, I think what this individual intended to convey is that most intelligent people (whatever that means) don’t like being patronized, herded, ignored, and/or silenced by people running meetings, and that intended not to do any of these things to us over the next few hours. Unfortunately and however briefly, their introduction was both patronizing and silencing. At the time, I found myself looking around, gauging reactions, confirming that I no longer want to be facilitated because I am indeed intelligent. Moral + rule one of facilitation: don’t tell people (why) they’re stupid and/or wrong. I am as frequent a meeting, workshop, etc. casualty as the rest of us who work in organizations. Luckily I have general confidence in my own intelligence, and while I don’t love being facilitated poorly, I do love being facilitated skillfully. Which is to say, I relish witnessing the respectful wrangling of a group gathered for a common purpose to a productive end. I appreciate it more for what it prevents than what it represents: facilitation at its most basic is the line between function and dysfunction, productivity and frustration, self-doubt and self-confidence. The conscious attempt to reduce exclusionary tactics can moderate the likelihood of silencing and uncertainty-induction, and it is eminently possible to urge people to reconsider assumptions without simultaneously disbelieving their own aptitudes. I increasingly find myself in the position of facilitator, be it in meetings, workshops, or projects (which have similar but by no means identical demands). No matter the context it is a challenge, particularly for those of us who have issues with organizational and interpersonal hierarchies and/or varying degrees of impostor syndrome. As I work on my own skillset, I try to actively observe others in this position and glean the effective (and not so) strategies they apply. The more I witness and engage, the more I am convinced that facilitation is not about privileging one opinion over another simply because it is convincing or moves things forward, it is about creating an equilibrium of voices and ideas and discouraging implicit and explicit structures that can so easily thwart consensus. It’s about clarifying the tasks at hand and cultivating positive working dynamics among individuals gathered for whatever reason, be they strangers or long-time collaborators. The greatest challenge of “running” meetings and other group interactions is that there are subtle communication and power dynamics underlying them all. Once you realize this, you begin to see that whether you like it or not agency is distributed well beyond the facilitator, and that participants have the ability to run in their own directions – over and away and everything in between. One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I was recently responsible for a meeting that veered toward negativity, and I failed to do as much as I could have to create a less venting-oriented dynamic. A participant withdrew engagement out of a need to protect their own positivity, and not only did I neglect to adequately see this in the moment, I added to the scenario with my own less-than-awesome contributions. Moral + rule two of facilitation: it is very easy to shut people down (or keep them from starting up in the first place). Once I realized my error I went about the process of acknowledging that the situation had not been ideal and that I would work to correct it – a bit of residue will remain, however, as it does in my own memory of the anti-facilitation facilitator. Moral + rule three of facilitation: if things trend negative, do your best to recenter the conversation. If you fail, try to make reparations. It’s not that I blame myself entirely for the outcome in question, mind you. Because organizational/group dynamics are inherently difficult, we all at times feel tired, unheard, or undervalued, or back off from a sense of engagement out of self-protective ennui. A singed or smoldering collective can easily lead to burnt-out meetings, so one of the most important tasks of the facilitator is recognizing where and how these fires are asserting themselves and re-channeling their energy toward a desirable end. The channeling process is well supported by inserting equilibrium into the ownership dynamic by creating community expectations and shared responsibility for work and outcomes. Moral + rule four of facilitation: it consists of skillful means, and they can be learned. It is essential to develop skills to simultaneously promote productive work and cultivate a positive and inclusive dynamic within the time and space container that you are allocated, as well as to avoid the unfortunately byproduct of adrenaline that so often leads to privileging the loudest voices because at least they are speaking in the first place and you can count on them to move things forward. You as facilitator owe it to those who have gathered to not waste their time or disparage their contributions, and to notice any undercurrents that threaten to divide and conquer the task(s) at hand. Meetings and workshops should not feel pointless, oppressive, or frustrating, and preventing any of the above from developing is what I consider the main job of facilitation. While I suppose facilitation prodigies exist in the wild, for the vast majority of us we improve as we go, particularly if we have values that are shared and practiced diligently. Luckily, support exists. Roan Boucher, a dear friend and fabulous artist slash activist, is part of an anti-oppression collective called AORTA that recently shared a foundational list of facilitation strategies. They are pure gold, particularly if you are committed to social justice and anti-authoritarian practices within the spaces you work and collaborate. Here’s an excerpt from their section on setting “community agendas” (aka agreed-upon conduct to keep things moving respectfully), and you can download the full publication and others here:
“ONE DIVA, ONE MIC Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave space in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable fighting for airtime in a conversation.) NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT This means we all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room. It also means we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our question, so that others may learn from us. MOVE UP, MOVE UP If you’re someone who tends to not speak a lot, please move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, please move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the on the more commonly heard “step up, step back.” The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can step. WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME As much as we’d like, we just can’t. Often people feel hesitant to participate in a workshop or meeting for fear of “messing up” or stumbling over their words. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating, even if you can’t be as articulate as you’d like. BE AWARE OF TIME This is helpful for your facilitator, and helps to respect everyone’s time and commitment. Please come back on time from breaks, and refrain from speaking in long monologues… BE CURIOUS We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. Allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking.”
Among other things, they share strategies for not letting non-inclusive practices creep into meeting spaces. Most, if not all, of this content can be directly translated to teaching spaces, wherein elevating the learner voice to the same plane as the educator’s is central to a more critical and feminist pedagogy. Similarly, I find that many strategies that enable strong public speaking can support facilitation, as in all of these it is important to remember that the focus should be on the collective, not the individual. Case in point, you’ll notice that AORTA’s list puts equal emphasis/responsibility on participants. Moral + rule five of facilitation: it’s everyone’s job. For the introverted among us, it can be easy to withdraw and over rely on the person nominally in charge (who can without exception use our support in making things run smoothly). Dissociating, working excessively on a device, basking smugly in the relief of not being on deck, and/or withdrawing into nervousness are tendencies to be challenged. Moreover, if they are an passive or active protest measure against an individual, initiative, or organization (betting we’re all guilty of this from time to time), the underlying issues behind this unproductive behavior can and should be examined and confronted with skillful and intentional means. Thanks again to AORTA for developing this toolkit, and I encourage you to avail yourself of their services as a measure of gratitude. Similarly, Roan’s beautiful artwork is available on Etsy. As always, onward and upward. — Post-script: Did you make it through this post? Claim your bitter end badge. And gratitude to Lia Friedman for her endless editorial acumen.