In life, I’ve always enjoyed the role of enabler – helping others to achieve exceptional results. I’ve done it many ways: as a teacher, a leader, a mentor, even in sales roles. But the place I’ve found the most joy is in my work as a facilitator of complex collaborative efforts.
In my opinion, facilitating done effectively is a vocation. It’s not something you can do part time, and it’s not something you put on with the morning coffee and take off with the evening meal. I will write at greater length about my ideas of an effective facilitator at a later point, but I’ll state my position thus: the necessary and sufficient conditions for being an effective facilitator are but two: open curiosity and a good heart.
With both of these traits, I have watched inexperienced facilitators get flustered, yes, but enable marvellous results in the human system they were serving. With either lacking, I have watched human systems lie, cheat, struggle needlessly, and often check out mentally; ensuring the results of the collaborative session wouldn’t last any longer than it took for the last chair to cool.
Open curiosity is two things:
- Curious. It is an insatiable curiosity, a fascination with every thing, every one, every where and when and how and why. As a facilitator of human systems – a truly useful facilitator – you must bring a challenge function into the room. You must ask hard questions, awkward questions, sideways-backward-upside down questions – whatever it takes to enable the participants to see new possibilities. You must be able to create more openness in the system.
- Open. That’s the second part – the curiosity is open. It’s not directional. It’s not prescriptive. It just is. Many people in the system you are serving may walk into the room with the “answer” already in their minds. You cannot show up with an answer in your mind. You also cannot accept that anyone else will walk in with the comprehensive answer already fully formed. If they already knew the answer, and it was the best answer, they wouldn’t have engaged you.
Thus, a useful facilitator is curious – but always openly curious, in service of the human system and the outcomes they are seeking to achieve. If you are curious, and able to challenge the room with tough questions, you will be of real service to the room.
A good heart
What’s that? In part, it speaks to not walking in believing you “know better”. It’s not presuming that you are the silver bullet, the magic potion, the source of all wisdom that will “save” the room.
Having a good heart is knowing that you are there to serve. That the wisdom lies within the room. That, if you frame the event correctly, human beings will do their best, and do good work – sometimes exceptionally good work.
It’s also knowing that sometimes the room will fail – that it will even choose to fail. Or to achieve sub-optimal results. A good heart is having empathy, understanding that human systems are inherently human – in all of their quirkiness, foibles, emotions and unexpressed dreams and wishes.
A facilitator working with a good heart builds the strongest framework possible, and then walks into the event knowing that whatever happens is truly the only thing that could have happened – and that’s okay.
Facilitating engagements that are grounded in complexity is definitely not for everyone. It is mentally and physically exhausting (if it’s not, that’s a pointer to the fact that you aren’t sufficiently engaged). It requires the ability to synthesize huge quantities of information instantly, the ability to ride the wave of two-thirds chaos and one-third structure – knowing full well that it will be an uncomfortable ride (for everyone) at times.
Facilitating requires empathy – towards human systems, towards individual human beings, and towards yourself. It is a life-long challenge of continuous learning and improvement, because there is always more grace, more insight, more utility, that can be offered.
It’s possibly the greatest job in the world. And it only asks two things of you.
Open curiosity, and a good heart.