Infantile disorders and the ethics of back-seat facilitation

Right, this has to be obliquer than I normally do;

Wtf is it with people and their needs for affirmation/affiliation/attention in meetings?  They just blurt out stuff randomly that takes the collective (sic) process (sic) nowhere.  And ignore that other people have had their hands up etc

Didn’t they learn “turn-taking” in kindergarten?  I mean, I nailed that by secondary school.  Ok, during my BA.  Oh, alright, did remedial work in my BSc. Flunked it. It’s a learning objective in my profe… well, you know what I mean.

Can’t they park their chest-beating needs until a group has actually followed through on the important short-term goal that everyone has agreed?   That’s a rhetorical question, btw.

So, I walked. Not because I was less angry (see previous post), but because I now know (again – I’ll forget again) that my anger Doesn’t Help Matters.

Which brings me to the second half of the title.

Twice in three days I’ve tried to “back-seat facilitate” when a process was going seriously awry (and no, that’s not purely subjective – there are some reasonable metrics of poor process, imho).

And both times I failed (where previously I’ve had some success).

But, success or failure is only one angle – another is “dare I disturb [someone else’s] universe?”

Personally, if a meeting I was facilitating was going badly wrong and someone made implementable and concrete suggestions, I like to believe (and I have some evidence)  that I’d leap at it.  But I understand not everyone is so minded.
What experience do readers have of back-seat facilitation, as givers or takers?  What do people think are the ethical dimensions?  It’s easy to be a bull in a china shop, I know.  Is it best to invoke the law of two feet, as I did?  Or is that just a flounce and a cowardly cop-out?

PS The first half of the title is a conscious echo of this.


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3 Responses to Infantile disorders and the ethics of back-seat facilitation

  1. rhizome says:

    Firstly I don’t see it as back-seat facilitation. It’s just facilitation and it’s vital. When it’s done well, I know I’m very grateful for it and I don;t see any ethical problems. It’s pretty clear to me that “The Facilitator” can’t reasonably be expected (by themselves or the group) to do all of the possible facilitation tasks and roles an effective meeting requires: time, participation, equality, listening and reflecting, taking notes, making tea, emotional and intellectual content, summarising, and so on.

    In fact that’s a really dangerous and disempowering culture to create. It’s partly why some facilitators may not take kindly to facilitation support from the group – because they see it as implied criticism that they are ‘failing’ to do all roles and all tasks, having bought into the false premise that they should be able to do just that.

    Best we can hope for is that they can in some way create a space for all of the above to happen by way of shared facilitation of the meeting. And all participants do add something to the facilitation at some point, even if it’s as simple as asking that clarifying question, or pulling that confused face that leads others to offer clarification, or through body language that says “time for a break”…

    But when folk step up and try to catch one of the balls “The Facilitator” is in danger of dropping? Ethics thereof? What works and what doesn’t?

    I’d say what work is:
    *just doing it – making small contributions directly to the group – eg: “I’d really appreciate a summary of where we’re up to”…. “can I just clarify that last point…?”…. “I just wanted to flag up that we said we’d move on from this agenda item after 10 more minutes. We’ve had 15…”. These kind of co-facilitation contributions are easy to work with. They are either plain useful, or prompt us to explain our thinking more carefully and thus be accountable eg: “You’re right, we did say we’d move on after 10 minutes, but it felt like the group was still engaged with the conversation and I’m happy we can cover the next item in less time than we’ve allowed for it. But let’s check – should we move on, or continue?”

    *asking if help is required – “Would it help if I took some notes?” – allows room for a “no” if the facilitator is so minded….

    What works less well in my experience is:

    *urgent and earnest approaches to the facilitator in breaks that take the tone “It’s all going really badly and here’s what you need to do to rescue the situation”. Especially if accompanied by an implied or actual threat (““or I’ll leave”). As if the facilitator isn’t aware that it’s not going well, if that’s the case, and isn’t already thinking through possibilities. As if it’s all their responsibility anyway. As if the added pressure helps….

    *offering entire alternative processes at the first sign of trouble. There seems to be a number of underlying assumptions, none of which work for me: (1) that any trouble is intolerable, whereas some of us have quite high tolerance of conflict because we understand it’s a necessary part of group process. (2) that the facilitator has done no preparation and is making it up as they go along and therefore my offer of a new process is the most well-thought out thing available… give them time!

    Some times the facilitator may seem to be unreceptive to any support and thus becomes a block to effective process (and therefore no longer a facilitator – what is the word for someone who makes things harder?) Before we engineer the coup d’etat (or use the law of 2 feet?), it might be worth reflecting that they may be struggling and be a little out of their depth. Some thinking/breathing time probably wouldn’t go amiss (“is it possible to take a short break? I know I could really use one…”). But if they plough on…..

    I have been asked to depose a facilitator in a tense and stuck meeting, by meeting participants. Definitely an ethical no, unless the request comes from the facilitator themselves, and even then, some sharing of ideas, some support to allow them to continue to the end….

  2. dwighttowers says:

    That’s a bloody brilliant set of observations and thoughts (and you know I am not easily impressed!!)

    Thank you!!!

  3. leavergirl says:

    Seems you have three choices (at least). First, keep notes on who are lousy facilitators among the groups of whose meetings you attend, and don’t go. After all, if they mis-facilitated 10 times in the past, chances are they will not be different THIS time.

    Or. Change the patterns of feedback, from the bottom up. One idea is the colored hats: green for good, yellow for watch out for the down ward trend, red for this sucks. This also has the advantage of seeing if the other people feel the way you do.

    Three, vote with your feet.

    Oh. Another thought: keeping down the size of the base group under 12. If a larger event is being organized, several such small groups can pool efforts, those who you know are pretty savvy to group process. That way the newcomers have a sane culture to walk into. It’s a lot easier to begin right, than having to reform down the line.

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