a weekend course in how change happens
So this week i’m getting ready for a weekend course in how change happens. There’ll be 100 participants, a facilitation team of 8, and about 12 others (speakers and organisers) supporting the event in various ways.
While I’ll be part of a team, some of the session time with participants I will be on my own as a facilitator. I will miss having a co-facilitator. Someone to support me, listening out for points I miss, someone else’s opinion on how the group is doing, someone to comment and pull me back when I have misguided ideas. Someone who is different from me, and brings other qualities to the group.
I will be OK. I do work alone sometimes, but I find my own learning richer, and the group’s probably too when I work with someone else. Collectively and through our differences, co-facilitators (when working well together) are better able to address a group’s diverse needs because we too have different ways of processing and presenting information or qualities and charateristics that will attract some, while putting others off.
a tool to help me when I work alone
One tool I have to help me when I work alone (and with others in fact) is something I first heard called the four fingers, which means pausing to ponder, rather than assume authority or control and point the finger and say ‘oh why is so and so doing that?’ Or judging (without really knowing what’s going on) that some behaviour wrong or bad.
This niggling feeling (or annoyance) we have inside, is a siren alerting the group-learning facilitator (and in our ordinary interactions) to be careful with our thoughts or judgements – there’s also 4 other fingers point back at you. One, two, three starting with your pinky and upwards to your reluctant yet definitely pointing backwards thumb.
In courses like those I do, this might look like this –
I’ve introduced and we’ve discussed ‘what is active listening’, and what that behaviour looks like.
- minimise distractions
- put your attention on the speaker
- quiet your own thoughts
- listen with an open heart, mind, ears and eyes – observe body language, including your own
- listen for meaning
- allow silences, breathe
- goal is mutual understanding not necessarily agreement
Then I invite people to discuss, in pairs, what do you care about (within the context of the workshop theme), and to use active listening in their conversation. We usually do one question, and then pause to talk about ‘how it feels to be listened to that way, and how it feels to listen
actively.’ And then we carry on building the conversation and our way into the topic.
If you’ve never tried active listening in a conversation, you’d be surprised at the power and feelings it brings to listen and be listened to this way. Try it!
Really trying to understand another person’s perspective, to walk in their shoes so to speak, is a radical and simple, yet very difficult task.
Why aren’t you talking?
I remember very well the workshop, 8 years ago when I first began to facilitate
learning here in Britain and was internalising active listening in my facilitation practice and daily life, how I stumbled and inappropriately intervened in a pair holding a conversation. When four fingers were pointing back at me.
The workshop was about finding your place in a campaigning or community group addressing a concern which you share (much like the theme to this up-coming weekend). People were interested in nuclear weapons, climate change, women’s rights, well-being and mental health, and a few other topics. It was a workshop open to the general pubic.
We had done the first question (what do you care about?) and had de-briefed how it felt to use active listening and what skills were required. Things mentioned were like ‘holding myself back, and not talking about my own experience, or giving my opinion or advice.’ And the challenge of really listening and supporting the other person’s feelings, which sometimes means opening yourself up to pain.
Then we moved onto the next question, still using active listening and in the same pairs – ‘why do you care about xxx?’ There were 12 participants, they’d pulled their chairs together and a pair in one corner of the room were sitting quietly, after what I had observed to be an animated and lively exchange around the first question – what do you care about?
I wondered ‘What was wrong? Why weren’t they talking? Had they understood the question? Certainly something was wrong, they weren’t talking!’ So I approached to ask – ‘Do they understand the question? Do they need help?’ One of them quietly responded, ‘we’re just doing what you asked. We’re answering the question, but nothing articulate is coming to mind, so we’re allowing silence … and breathing.’
hey ho, yes of course you are!
This clumsy and inappropriate intervention taught me to approach any situation (group or one-to-one) that I find confusing or even straightforward with as much curiousity and openness as I can. Whatever I think might be going on, may not be. It’s more effective to notice and describe in nonjudgemental terms ‘what is going on?’ In this story, I could have said — I notice you were lively in the first question, and now you’re sitting quietly. Do you have any questions, is everything OK, or is it something else? Or I could have decided not to approach at all. To allow silence. Breathe.
I backed off, silently acknowledging my blunder and respecting their space to carry on the conversation. And I will forever more carried that experience with me. In group-learning situations where the participants take an activity off in a direction different than I expect, I try not to think ‘oh they did it wrong’ – the four fingers approach, but rather try to notice and understand a pattern to what is happening? Are they all doing it different than I thought I’d explained or … ?
In intervening years, I’ve worked with another co-facilitator who taught me to trust and believe ‘whatever happens in the group is meant to happen, not to worry if an exercises goes down a different path than I expected.’ Facilitators can’t anticipate how everyone’s life experiences will show up and combine, and the art and skill of a group-learning facilitator is being about to detect patterns and trends in a group’s thinking and behaviour, all of it is content for our learning.
… … …
So this weekend, i’ll have the support of a team in the wider learning programme, I’ll
have a buddy (a one-to-one support person), the whole conference team to fill in the gaps and do their part. Plus blessedly, the whole group of course participants who will, paradoxically, support and teach me the most.
And that’s the basic formula for collective informal adult education for nonviolent social change!
- Nurture a healthy level of self-awareness, openness and curiosity to what’s going on
- Acknowledge and set aside judgements and evaluations of ‘good/bad’ or ‘right/wrong’
- Be willing to step into the unknown and embrace uncertainty and fear
- Develop skills to discern in the moment trends and patterns in a group and work them to maximise the group’s working-together.