Why we need you to care about the craft of facilitation

Last week I reached out to Tom Watkins, a facilitator who happens to live just around the corner from me in Mapua.

I asked for 30 to 40 minutes of Tom’s time to share his story about how he's made a career out of facilitation. I thought it would be self-affirming to hear that - yes - it is possible to make a life from being a facilitator.

I was trying to be polite in not asking for too much of his time. Just 30 minutes please to cover your career journey, what you've found to be the best learning experiences for facilitation and how you’ve developed a business around facilitation. No biggie.

Tom laughed at the 30 minute timeframe. Over a few hours (rather than minutes), he generously shared his story with me.

And then he turned the questions toward me. The most important was:


Why are you interested in facilitation?


I didn’t have a ready answer. So I promised Tom I would explain with the written word.

We need to work together and it’s not easy

As humans, we need human interaction. We crave society. Unfortunately, human interaction is hard. And it’s getting harder.

How do you cut through the noise of technology? How do you bring people together around complex social challenges? How do you make a difference in a world focussed on personal gain?

The skills of facilitation apply across different disciplines, industries and cultures. Building consensus and improving how people work together is key to a better society. It’s crucial to doing better business. It’s a key part of creating organisations that uplift and motivate people.

I’ve experienced the best and worst of facilitation

A couple of experiences last year opened my eyes to the best and worst of facilitation. In doing so, I realised the power of facilitation to build purposeful and more effective groups of people.

The good, with Lifehack

The Flourishing Fellowship, a programme run by LifehackHQ, was probably the biggest turning point in my career last year. It was billed as a three month programme for 20 people from around New Zealand to help improve personal wellbeing and increase the impact of participants’ social ventures. For me, it ended up being so much more than that.

It opened my eyes to the craft of facilitation.

It showed me how caring and deliberate facilitation could build a meaningful, lasting community of people. How it could bring honesty and openness into working environments in ways I hadn’t experienced anywhere else.

I was introduced to processes like meeting in a circle, using silliness as a tool to build meaningful relationships, the concept of ako (mutual learning, rather than learning just from the teacher/leader/manager/expert), the importance of spending time building relationships, and so much more.

The not so good

A few weeks after the Fellowship ended, the managers at my work facilitated our quarterly Away Day - a three hour meeting for the 90 people in our group.

It wasn’t long after our workplace engagement survey results had been released and our results weren’t good.

In the main session of the afternoon, the managers’ hosted a space for us all to identify how we could improve in the three worst areas of workplace engagement.

It was a big ask. And they had allocated just 30 minutes for this.

I was sitting at a table of about 10 people: one was a senior manager, so that instantly coloured the conversation a certain hue. Another was one of those pushy, argumentative types who don't seem to listen, but only wait for their turn to talk. The result? Two people talked, eight people felt awkward.

The facilitators then gathered up the ideas, and at the end of the Away Day presented back what we had supposedly all agreed on. Sadly, my opinion was not reflected in there.  (I later learned a name for this: "facipulation" - manipulative facilitation.

I left the session feeling like I hadn’t been heard.

But what was worse was that the managers seemed to leave the session feeling like they had successfully canvassed everybody's opinion and created a clear and codesigned set of next steps to solve the underlying cultural challenges of our group.

A comment from an older colleague defeated me even further:

“It’s always like this," he said. "All this talk after the engagement survey, once a year. Then we all go straight back to our desks and nothing changes, except the list of action points pasted up on the wall around the corner.”

I wanted to do something about it. But I realised I didn’t have the skills - or the invitation - to facilitate the conversation that needed to be had.

Facilitation is a narcotic

Actors are just as much adrenalin junkies as people who throw themselves out of planes or down mountain-sides. The thrill of a performance is the actor's drug. Sweaty palms, fast beating heart, dry mouth.

But as soon as the performance begins, you realise: I’ve been preparing for this for weeks, and I’m going to nail it. Even if my lines aren’t quite right, or the mic drops out, or I slip over, or my pants fall down... I’ve got the skills to deal with it.

Facilitation has that same element of thrill. You never quite know how a session is going to go down. You never really know what’s going to happen in 10 minutes time. You can only prepare so much and then you have to trust yourself and trust the process.

So what am I doing about it?

Real learning occurs by doing. So as well as reading about facilitation and talking to experienced facilitators, I’m creating work for myself as a facilitator.

I began by proposing an event to Lifehack to give myself a chance to step into a facilitation role in a safe community of people.

Since then, I’ve started working as an online facilitator for Enspiral. I’m experimenting with ways to facilitate conversations on Loomio, Enspiral’s online decision-making tool. You can read more about this experiment here.

And I’m working with Tom Watkins from Encourage Mentors to create a two day workshop for people who are thinking of building a tiny house on wheels. Tom has offered his knowledge of facilitation frameworks and techniques to help me create an awesome workshop.

I also want to build a small learning group of facilitators around New Zealand. If you’re interested, please get in touch at pmcgregor@gmail.com.