John Heron's Introduction to Facilitation

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John Heron on Facilitation

A short extract from Chapter 1 "Dimensions and Modes of Facilitation" of John's book The Complete Facilitator's Handbook, London, Kogan Page, 1999. The dimensions introduced below are discussed in detail in later chapters.

The six dimensions of facilitation

1. The planning dimension. This is the goal-oriented, ends and means, aspect of facilitation. It is to do with the aims of the group, and what programme it should undertake to fulfil them. The facilitative question here is: how shall the group acquire its objectives and its programme?

2. The meaning dimension. This is the cognitive aspect of facilitation. It is to do with participants' understanding of what is going on, with their making sense of experience, and with their reasons for doing things and reacting to things. The facilitative question is: how shall meaning be given to and found in the experiences and actions of group members?

3. The confronting dimension. This is the challenge aspect of facilitation. It is to do with raising consciousness about the group's resistances to and avoidances of things it needs to face and deal with. The facilitative question is: how shall the group's consciousness be raised about these matters?

4. The feeling dimension. This is the sensitive aspect of facilitation. It is to do with the management of feeling and emotion within the group. The facilitative question is: how shall the life of feeling and emotion within the group be handled? The vital distinction between feeling and emotion is discussed in Chapter 3.

5. The structuring dimension. This is the formal aspect of facilitation. It is to do with methods of learning, with what sort of form is given to learning within the group, with how is it to be shaped. The facilitative question is: how can the group's learning be structured?

6. The valuing dimension. This is the integrity aspect of facilitation. It is to do with creating a supportive climate which honours and celebrates the personhood of group members; a climate in which they can be genuine, empowered, disclosing their reality as it is, keeping in touch with their true needs and interests. The facilitative question is: how can such a climate of personal value, integrity and respect be created?

Now these six dimensions interweave and overlap, being mutually supportive of each other. Nevertheless, I hold that each one has in practice an independent identity which will claim the facilitator's attention. They need to be distinguished from each other in thought and action to achieve effective facilitation. Yet they also need to be interrelated continuously in their application: they are to be distinguished only in order to be woven into an integrated mastery of the learning process. The challenge is to keep an eye on each dimension, and organize them all, over time, into a well-balanced whole.

What characterizes them, and the specific interventions that fall under each of them, is that they are pitched at the level of human intention. They are about the facilitator's purposes, about what he or she is seeking to achieve, with regard to various kinds of learning in the group. The full form of the facilitative question is: given that my purpose is to elicit and empower learning through an effect on this or that dimension, how can I go about it? Each intervention intends to achieve a certain result in a certain way.

The facilitative question

The facilitative ‘how’ question, defined under each dimension above, has a two-part answer. One part deals with who will decide about the issue raised by the question. Will it be the facilitator alone, the facilitator and the participants together, or the participants alone? And this takes us into the three political modes of facilitation, given below. The other part deals with what intervention is to be used in dealing with the issue. This, combined with the modes, is covered in the substantial inventory of facilitative interventions given in the chapters on each of the six dimensions.

The three modes of facilitation: the politics of learning

Each of the above six dimensions can be handled in three different ways. It is one of these three ways which will provide the answer as to who should make decisions on each dimension. From now on, in the description of modes and interventions, I shall refer to the facilitator in the second person, as 'you'.

1. The hierarchical mode. Here you, the facilitator, direct the learning process, exercise your power over it, and do things for the group. You lead from the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group. You decide on the objectives and the programme, interpret and give meaning, challenge resistances, manage group feeling and emotion, provide structures for learning and honour the claims of authentic behaviour in the group. You take full responsibility, in charge of all major decisions on all dimensions of the learning process.

2. The co-operative mode. Here you share your power over the learning process and manage the different dimensions with the group. You enable and guide the group to become more self-directing in the various forms of learning by conferring with them and prompting them. You work with group members to decide on the programme, to give meaning to experiences, to confront resistances, and so on. In this process, you share your own view which, though influential, is not final but one among many. Outcomes are always negotiated. You collaborate with the members of the group in devising the learning process: your facilitation is co-operative.

3. The autonomous mode. Here you respect the total autonomy of the group: you do not do things for them, or with them, but give them freedom to find their own way, exercising their own judgment without any intervention on your part. Without any reminders, guidance or assistance, they evolve their programme, give meaning to what is going on, find ways of confronting their avoidances, and so on. The bedrock of learning is unprompted, self-directed practice, and here you delegate it to the learner and give space for it. This does not mean the abdication of responsibility. It is the subtle art of creating conditions within which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning.

These three modes deal with the politics of learning, with the exercise of power in the management of the different dimensions of experience. They are about who controls and influences such management. Who makes the decisions about what people learn and how they learn it: the facilitator alone, the facilitator and group members together, or the group members alone? The three modes comprise a higher order, political dimension which runs through all the basic six. As an effective facilitator, you are someone who can use all these three modes on each of the six dimensions as and when appropriate; and are flexible in moving from mode to mode and dimension to dimension in the light of the changing situation in the group. This is no doubt a counsel of perfection, but it broadens the facilitative imagination to entertain the total 18-part grid of options in the back of the mind.

Too much hierarchical control, and participants become passive and dependent or hostile and resistant. They wane in self-direction, which is the core of all learning. Too much co-operative guidance may degenerate into a subtle kind of nurturing oppression, and may deny the group the benefits of totally autonomous learning. Too much autonomy for participants and laissez-faire on your part, and they may wallow in ignorance, misconception and chaos.

The modes can include each other. You can be basically hierarchical, but with elements of co-operation and autonomy. Thus, within hierarchically given exercises, members will always be autonomous, self-directing in active practice when taking their turn. This is the heart of learning particular skills and awarenesses. Alternatively, the group as a whole may be in an autonomous phase, and call you in to do a piece of hierarchical work, etc.

The use of the modes: stages and presumptions

Each experiential group, depending on its learning objectives, will require a different balance of the three modes. And any given group may need this balance to change at different stages in its development, each stage depending on certain presumptions. The three stages below are not a formula for any learning group. It all depends on the objectives and the prior experience of group members.

Some groups, especially those attending in-service training courses for skilled people, may start at stage 2 or stage 3. But the three stages given here are classic ones for training absolute beginners, as they are for parenting. It is important to remember they can overlap, the earlier ones running on, in reduced form, beside the later ones.

1. Hierarchy early on. At the outset a clear hierarchical framework may be needed within which early development of co-operation and autonomy can occur. The presumption here is that participants are insecure and dependent in the area of learning, with lack of knowledge and skill, and have little ability therefore to orientate themselves. They will benefit from your command of events. There is also the presumption that your use of the hierarchical mode, making decisions for the learners, is based on their consent. Within the hierarchical framework, there will of course be autonomous practice and co-operative exchanges with you.

2. Co-operation mid-term. In the middle phase, more open collaboration with group members may be appropriate in managing the learning process. You negotiate the curriculum with them and co-operatively guide their learning activities, with various forms of staff-student contracting and agreement. The presumption here is that they have acquired some confidence in the area of learning, with a foundation of knowledge and skill. In this way, they are able to orientate themselves and participate with you in decisions about how the learning should proceed.

3. Autonomy later on. In the later phase, much more delegation and scope for the group to be autonomous and self-directed may be needed, with peer learning contracts and self- and peer assessment. The presumption here is that group members have considerable confidence in the area of learning and have acquired evident competence in a sizeable body of knowledge and skill. They benefit from full self-determination in their learning.

Participation in educational decision-making: the classic dilemma

People in our society carry around a lot of unprocessed distress caused by having been the victims of oppressive educational methods from the earliest years - both at home and at school - where their needs and rights as embryonic persons have not been fully honoured or realized. One result of this oppression is that they lack certain basic human skills: skills in handling their own emotions, skills in interacting with other persons, skills in self-direction and collective decision-making. There has been a gross deficiency in the range and depth of their education and training.

This leads to the classic dilemma of all educational reform. Students have the need and the right to be released from oppressive forms of education and should be encouraged to participate in educational decision-making. But they are conditioned and disempowered by these forms, and may not have the motivation, or the personal, interpersonal and self-directing skills required, to break out of them. So they may be neither satisfied nor effective when encouraged to co-operate with you and to be participative.

The resolution of this dilemma lies in mastery of the three modes and the three classic stages outlined in the preceding section. Only give away an appropriate amount of power at a time, otherwise neither you nor the students will be able to cope. And realize the huge array of options you have in combining the three modes in different ways, with varying degrees of emphasis, in relation to so many diverse facets of the educational process. There is no need to hasten inappropriately forward by gross leaps, when you can proceeed slowly by innumerable subtle steps.