Facilitating is a challenge

Today was good but tough. It was hot. I have a lot of admin and housework since the trip I’m still to catch up on. And a big conversation happened in the DI Open Group on facebook, where I’m the sole facilitator (not by choice!). I’m lying on the grass in the dark at the moment, down the local park with Zoe. It’s beautiful. There’s a cool breeze on my skin, stars overhead. So many things are running through my mind.

I think one of the hardest parts of being a facilitator is that people can very quickly lose faith in you. We’re so used to being lied to, being subject to marketing campaigns, advertising, slick company spin. It’s really difficult to be a genuine, human voice in the role. People quickly start to hear insincerity and feel you’re lying to them, bull shitting, setting them up. Once that trust has been compromised, real conversation is hard. People start looking for ulterior motives. Everyone is desperate to feel people are hearing then, agreeing with them, on their side. It’s a challenge to inspire everyone to also want to hear each other. People struggle not to become defensive or disengage. Conversations, real conversations not just fights, are hard for everyone, ask so much courage, empathy, vulnerability of everyone involved.

As a facilitator I struggle because being in the middle of difficult conversations and trying to hold a safe space can quickly feel like I’m alienating everyone despite my best efforts. I can find myself feeling raw, beaten up, and distrusted by people I care about, whose opinions I respect.

We have an idea on our culture that you can be impartial. I don’t think it’s possible. You can be less invested perhaps… which sometimes means too far away from the topic to have any idea about it, easy to confuse or manipulate. You can be highly invested, such as when someone makes a complaint about a resource I have built, or about my behaviour as a peer worker. Man, is that hard! I’ve worked so hard to try and engage complaints in a non defensive way, to use them as an opportunity to learn and connect and build more genuine relationships. I don’t always succeed, although sometimes this works spectacularly well, and I count among my friends and colleagues some wonderful people who’s first real conversations with me were complaints. It’s still such a challenge to try and genuinely listen, especially if the other person is enraged, or making horrible assumptions about my motives. Sometimes I feel profoundly trapped and silenced by my own role, by the weird double standard work in the sector can bring, where a client can tear you to shreds, but you must keep your mouth shut about your feeling, needs, fears, or concerns. (in front of them at least) On the other hand I’ve also been the client so often, completely ignored, silenced, dis empowered, humiliated, minimised, dismissed, interrogated, asked to account for experiences, needs,  and reactions I can’t even put into words, by people I am deeply intimidated by.

This process sucks. This framework sucks. How do we just sit down as people, and talk? How do we create safe and fair spaces to discuss deeply complex, painful, urgent issues? How do we not burn out the facilitator who needs hugs at the end?

My ideas about the facilitator role have been informed by my experiences in hearing voices groups. I’m not there to privilege one opinion or idea above others. I’m not there to decide the ‘truth’ of why voices happen or what people ‘should’ do. I’m there to make the space a safe one for people to have their own opinions, share their experiences, change their minds, disagree with each other, and still have a space where mutual respect and care can flourish. This is kind a diplomat role – I’m there to try and hear and help everyone feel heard, and to try and support and encourage even people with completely different frameworks to engage each other respectfully. I’m trying to model a way of both having a voice, and listening. Of course, the nature of this role is that it’s depressingly easy to fail. It’s easy as all hell for everyone involved to feel that I’m against them because I’m trying to give space to opinions they disagree with. That I may also disagree with them, but see my role as one of making space for all voices doesn’t necessarily come into things! We’re not used to this model, most of us have never had a genuinely respectful conversation with someone who completely disagreed with us, or whose experiences were totally different from ours. If the topic is really crucial, if people’s lives or sanity hang in the balance, the chances of anyone listening to anyone else decrease, because everyone involved is so stressed, has such a real need to be heard and believed that it drives us. It’s so bloody hard to be patient and hear opinions that we believe are so deeply wrong they sicken us.

Some days I’m so, so tired of being the diplomat, the facilitator in the middle. I’d love to have some one else facilitate these conversations so I can just have my own point of view and argue that.

Some days I wonder if the facilitator role is a bit stupid. Why is it primarily one person’s responsibility for making sure a space stays safe, respectful, and caring? What would it be like to have a difficult conversation in a room full of facilitators, were everyone was working hard to make sure all voices get heard? Wow, I’d like to sign up to that conversation.

I’m so proud of the folks in the Open Group, they did a fantastic job of engaging even though it was really hard. No one has slung any insults, space is being made for different opinions. I keep thinking about the idea that complaints are a chance to become closer, more real, more authentic with each other. I keep thinking about tribal cultures where the whole group sit down together and talk things through, tell stories, sing, dance, talk into the night, for as long as it takes to find some kind of peace with each other. I keep thinking that roles are useful but limiting, even a facilitator role that I value and believe in I also experience at times as very dehumanising. I’ve got some ideas, some experience, some bits of wisdom gleaned from life or other cultures. But wow, it’s a tough gig some days. Thank god it’s not my whole life. I keep thinking that spaces where someone like me holds the space, holds the expectation that we can disagree and still be respectful, holds hope that community and diversity and honesty can all enhance each other instead of being at war, are rare and precious. So, it’s important not to burn out the facilitator. I still have to step out of that role, shed the skin, run naked under stars, laugh from that deep place in my gut where joy lives.

And so do all of us. xx

2 thoughts on “Facilitating is a challenge

  1. Hi Sarah
    Dunno what’s going off but here’s some stuff I learned – am still learning 27 years after I first facilitated a group.

    To facilitate means “to make easy”, I find it very powerful to continually ask myself: “what is it that you are trying to make easy?”
    and to focus on that and do it as best I can in every moment.

    The rest I leave to the group – that’s their job.

    It’s made difficult when I’m interested and want to get stuck into the conversation – there are ways of doing it and staying true to group, myself and my role, but none are infallible and they all rely on me being as open as I can and making it as clear as I can when I’m switching roles. get it right and people love it , get it wrong is a powerful way to learn.

    The most valuable things I learned [and am still learning ] are these…

    1) Its not about me, its about the group – think “group” always. d’oh ! The group works with me, it works without me too.

    2) I don’t need to answer or respond to everything. It works best when I don’t – sometimes its best when I just stay out of the way.

    3) I can’t possibly facilitate the group – I can only hope to facilitate the group’s process[es].

    4) It is not possible to “facilitate” a group’s process if don’t have the group’s consent or permission – it’s a permissive role, every time, always.

    5) The most complex, critical, difficult and the most important part of a facilitator’s role is facilitating what’s going on within me and how that impacts how I am with the group.

    6) I will mess up and I will get overwhelmed sometimes. It’s ok.



    • Ha haa, I love them Kevin, great pointers! Especially number 2, I fell over that one myself and have found it surprisingly powerful (and one of the easiest to forget). Really good food for thought, thanks!


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