Revisioning Facilitation

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Re-visioning Facilitation from an Evolutionary Perspective

By Rosa Zubizarreta, at rosa at diapraxis dot com

"Sometimes one hears professional group facilitators bemoaning the fact that the word "facilitation" has grown to have such a widespread usage. As you may already know, the word "facilitation" comes from the Latin "facilitare", to make easier… and in popular usage, we find people using the word to describe a wide variety of things that they can "make easier for you", from closing a business deal to finding a romantic partner.

From my own perspective, I have no problem with how anyone wants to use the word: however, it does highlight the importance of being clear and explicit about WHAT it is, that we are seeking to facilitate or "make easier". These days, even the more explicit term "group facilitation" has a big shadow side, since what people have often sought "to make easier" has been employees' acquiescence or "buy-in" to management's plans, often by means of creating a façade of "participation". It takes very few of these kinds of experiences for people to become very cynical about the subject of "group facilitation", and rightly so.

Yet the fact remains, we are at heart relational creatures. Yes, relationships -- even ones that are "supposed" to help us -- CAN in fact be harmful and damaging: anywhere from simply intrusive and unwelcome to extremely exploitative and enslaving. However, we also know that relationships CAN be facilitative -- they can support and "make easier" our growth, healing, and creativity. In fact, it is only through some degree of healthy loving relationship that we are able to grow and develop into mature human beings in the first place, human beings who are able to maintain their own integrity while freely collaborating with others.


Facilitating Human Growth and Development

The kind of facilitation I am interested in, then, has to do with a relationship that "makes it easier" for life grow and unfold, in a free and optimal manner, according to its own "inner strivings". What kinds of "helping relationships" truly "make it easier" for life to flourish, whether we are at home, at school, at work, or at play? By exploring this question in a number of different arenas, we can discover some common threads that are applicable in different contexts, such as the life of a child, the life of an adult human being, the life of a work group, or the life of an organization.

One of the first things that it can be helpful to note is that there is some confusion with regard to the term "self-organization". Some people will even tell you that the phrase "supporting self-organization" is a contradiction in terms, since according to them, "self-organization does not need any support!" However, anyone who has raised children, is likely to know first-hand that the only choices are NOT "authoritarian control" versus "permissive neglect". In fact, the process of respectfully supporting a child's self-development is a THIRD WAY, and one that requires a great deal of a different kind of work: the work of attending, the work of listening, the work of empathizing, the work of entering in dialogue, as well as that of setting limits.

(Note: Two people who come to mind who have explored in depth the intricacy that can be involved in this kind of work, are Milton Meyeroff (On Caring) and Nel Noddings, philosopher at Stanford. See also the recent work on attachment theory, and the relational context that furthers the development of self-regulation in an infant. Note also that "self-regulation" is often used as a short-hand for the ability of an organism to self-regulate WHLE establishing relationships with others AND engaging in a growing exploration of the environment, so "self-regulation" or "self-organization" occurs WITHIN a relational and interactive context.)

Just as an acorn needs water and sunlight in order to grow into an oak tree, we might say that human seedlings require loving attention from other human beings in order to grow into healthy, self-organizing humans, able to cooperate freely with others while effectively resisting any efforts at manipulation, control, and enslavement. Similarly, we find that there are certain kinds of support and attention that enable a nascent group to mature into a highly effective and well-functioning team -- a higher-level organism which thrives on the individual contributions and divergent perspectives of each of its members. But first, we shall look more at the power of human attention within peer-to-peer interactions.


Facilitating Personal Healing and Individual Creativity

Even when an organism has NOT had the optimal conditions for its growth and development, part of the nature of Life is its ever-present ability to heal and regenerate itself. In the realm of emotional and psychological healing, we are currently growing beyond the conventional medical model that seeks to diagnose conditions and treat symptoms. Instead, we are witnessing an evolutionary movement toward working with the self-healing energies of the organism by creating the conditions where those energies can emerge and become activated. There are more and more modalities where the "facilitative presence" of another human being can serve to catalyzes the person's own self-healing potential. This is what I am calling a "facilitative stance", if we understand "facilitation" as short-hand for "making it easier for the life-force in an organism to flow more freely / grow / heal in a self-directed, life-enhancing way".

Historically, one major breakthrough in the arena of emotional and psychological healing was the creation of person-centered therapy by Carl Rogers in the 50's and 60's. Rogers' work was not limited to therapy; he also wrote a great deal about "facilitating learning" and student-centered (as distinct from teacher-centered) education. Eugene Gendlin, a student and colleague of Rogers, went on to develop Focusing, a way of listening inside to the unfolding edge of one's experience. The combination of Rogerian Listening and Focusing eventually led to the growth of the lay Focusing Partnership movement, a world-wide peer-to-peer network of people who have learned how to take turns "holding space" effectively for one another's self-healing and creative growth.

The Co-counseling movement is another peer-to-peer lay network of people skilled in exchanging listening attention with one another for the purpose of personal growth and creative expression. Having developed quite independently of the Focusing movement, it has its own interesting history, along with significant differences and similarities to Focusing. Both of these movements (along with a third, the 12-step movement) are specific and particular instances of peer-to-peer movements in the arena of personal growth and healing, based on the "facilitative stance" of respectful relationship and supportive attention. (The Non-Violent Communication movement is yet another peer-to-peer lay network, with its own particular purpose and set of distinctive features.) The existence of these networks, along with the experiences of their members, attest to the value that can be derived from this kind of organization.

One key lesson that can be learned from these peer-to-peer experiences, is that the process of facilitating the flow of life can be equally valuable whether one is (temporarily) in the position of receiving the attention and supportive presence of another person, OR, whether one is (temporarily) in the position of "holding space" and offering attention to another. The experience of supporting and witnessing another person's authentic process, is often a numinous one, that carries much joy and beauty. It is often experienced as healing, not only by the person who is receiving the attentive presence but also by the person who is "facilitating" the experience. This is not to say that both experiences are the same, only that they are both powerful in their own way.


Peer Facilitation and Facilitative Mentoring

A second significant lesson that can be gained from the existence of these peer-to-peer movements has to do with the value of BOTH "peer-to-peer�? AND what I will be calling “coaching�? or mentoring relationships . On the one hand, it is clear that facilitating (or creating a supportive context for) another person's growth and creative expression is a powerful lay practice that each of us can learn to do, and can practice with one another in a peer-to-peer context. This kind of lay, peer-based practice has many benefits on a personal level, including accessibility, as well as the value of being able to offer and contribute, rather than just receiving help. At the same time, there is another kind of benefit to lay peer-based practice. Each of these peer-to-peer communities is engaged in an on-going, collaborative process of learning and development with regard to their models, theoretical understandings, and refinements of their practice. This process is greatly stimulated by the experience of repeatedly being on "both ends" of the process, the offering and receiving of human attention within a given format.

AT THE SAME TIME, it is clear that the great value of these peer-to-peer communities does NOT replace nor do away with the need for a different kind of relationships, which, for want of a better word, I will call a facilitative "mentoring" or "coaching" relationship. I am using the word "mentoring" or "coaching" here to refer to something that is NOT presently a 'relationship between peers', but rather, is designed to support a future peer-to-peer relationship. Think, for example, of a facilitative parent, or a facilitative teacher, or a facilitative therapist. Their goal is for the child, or student, or client, to grow into maturity and peerness with the parent or teacher or therapist. Yet for some kinds of growth to happen, a certain continuity, depth of relationship, and dedication are necessary, that are not easily available if we limit ourselves solely to "peer-to-peer" kinds of interactions.

In this regard, 12-step movements are clear that they seek to complement, rather than replace, individual therapy. Similarly, Focusing Partnership is a valuable experience in its own right, and might easily serve as an adjunct to therapy, but it is not envisioned as a "replacement" for therapy. I don't know what the current position of the Co-counseling communities is in this respect, but I do know there are therapists who offer co-counseling to their clients. This means that a co-counselor who wanted to experience the practice within the framework of a "mentoring" or "coaching" relationship would be able to do so.

The relationship between "peer facilitation" and "facilitative mentoring" is not just complementary, however, but also synergistic. For example, members of peer-to-peer communities in the emotional healing/personal growth field are much more self-confident, knowledgeable and empowered when seeking any kind of "mentoring" or "coaching" assistance from a therapist. We become naturally resistant to any kind of prescriptive, manipulative, or controlling therapy, and more discerning about finding a therapist who has a truly facilitative stance.

In turn, I believe that the existence of peer-to-peer models in field of emotional healing and personal growth has contributed (even if indirectly) to the creation of new therapeutic models that are deeply facilitative at their core. One example in this regard are the Internal Family Systems model created by Dick Schwartz, where the therapist works as a partner with the client, assisting the client in learning to listen deeply and offer supportive presence to the various aspects of their own inner experience. Another example is the "accelerated experiential-dynamic psychotherapy" model of Diana Fosha, where the therapist's intention is to create a space where the client can naturally connect with their own deeply felt experience, while the therapist primarily follows the client's lead, accompanying them closely and authentically throughout the process.


Human Attention and the Creation of Meaning

Many years ago, theologian Nelle Morton wrote of the great power of women’s circles for "listening one another into Being." While the power of listening has been begun to be explored within the realm of emotional healing, as a culture we still tend to be largely ignorant of the power of attentive listening to support the creation of meaning. The conventional view regards listening as a passive act, assuming that people already know what it is they want to say and listeners are just “receiving�? a packet of pre-existing meaning, instead of considering that a supportive listening context might actually help us to access and discover our own deeper truths.

The third key learning we can derive from the experience of peer-to-peer networks designed for facilitating personal growth, has to do with the ability of human attention to support and enhance the thinking process. While both Focusing and Co-counseling originally grew as practices for helping people work through difficult feelings, neither practice is limited to the realm of feelings. Instead, both practices have discovered inherent connections and interactions between the world of emotion and the world of meaning. Furthermore, each of these communities has developed their own ways of offering human attention to facilitate the process of creative expression and meaning-making.

In the Co-counseling world, there is a tradition of "think and listen" circles where the power of shared attention is used to create a supportive context for creative thinking. Within the Focusing community, Gene Gendlin, Mary Hendricks, and others have developed a process called Thinking at the Edge, where people work in listening partnerships to facilitate the creation of meaning. The partnerships offer each person the opportunity for accessing their own embodied and implicit knowledge, and finding creative expression for it, within the supportive context of another person's attentive presence.


Facilitating Practical Creativity in a Group Setting

Now we are ready to turn to the question of facilitating the “unfolding of life" within a work group. The first thing I would like to say in this regard, is that despite all of the advances I have described above the arena of facilitating personal growth and the individual creative thinking-and-meaning-making process (an arena in which peer-to-peer networks have made a substantial contribution,) as a culture we are still in the early stages of learning how to facilitate the "unfolding of life" in a group, especially when it comes to a work group. (We do have some well-known processes that help self-organization happen in larger groups, but I will say more about that later.)

This may I'd like to use an analogy from another field to illustrate my point. For many years, people who taught "foreign languages" believed that the only way to do so, was to require students to memorize the rules of grammar, study vocabulary lists, and practice conjugating verbs. Of course, this is not how children learn to speak their native tongue, but for a long time few people paid much attention to that. Similarly, we have currently have many ways of working with groups that attempt to “teach" people how to solve problems effectively, or how to communicate effectively, or any number of other skills. We also have other approaches where the facilitator works hard to diagnose, and prescribe, and help people create rules, and help people “stay on task", and to “intervenes" in any number of ways when the rules are broken, and so on and so forth. Yet it may be clear by now, that this is not likely to be the same thing at all, as supporting a natural life process.

When developing a facilitative approach to helping people learn, it helps to recognize the difference between how people actually learn, and how we think we need to teach (which is often very similar to how we ourselves were taught.) We need to do something similar when developing a more facilitative approach to working with groups. We need to recognize the difference between the actual creative learning process that takes place in a group, and the forced "step-by-step process" which is often imposed by our conventional "group facilitation" models (and which often appears to us as the inevitable "way things are supposed to be".)

This is in fact one of the key insights of Dialogue Mapping, one of the few current approaches to working with task groups that is designed to support the naturally non-linear flow of the creative process. At the same time, supporting a non-linear process of growth does NOT equate to permissiveness or neglect, as we saw earlier in the discussion of how self-organization does in fact require supportive conditions. (In the case of acorns, the "conditions" include sun and water; in the case of individual human seedlings, the conditions include the supportive, attentive, and responsive presence of other humans.)

One key problem with much conventional "group facilitation" (especially the kind that is designed for "task groups" or "working groups") is that it is designed to "facilitate agreement". In the process, people are not deeply heard, and instead the disagreement gets papered over or driven underground as the facilitator "manages" the process of "convergence".

However, this is NOT how the life process works. The only kind of "agreement" that feels truly alive, is the creative synthesis that arises naturally through the process of self-organization at a higher level of complexity, a process which can only take place through the full participation and honoring of each conflicting "part". Too often, we feel we "do not have the time" to invest in that kind of shared understanding. As a result, we "manage convergence" or "negotiate agreement", and then end up paying the price in all the additional time and effort required to ensure "implementation" of whatever the group has apparently "agreed to".

In our earlier discussion on "facilitating personal growth and healing", we saw that a great deal of growth and creativity can take place through the simple gift of human attention. This also holds true at the level of a group. Having the facilitator serve as a “designated listener", listening deeply to each individual in an interactive way designed to welcome divergence and to draw out each person's creative contribution, is a key aspect of Dynamic Facilitation, another non-linear approach to fostering self-organization in a task group.

While there are, then, some effective approaches for facilitating practical creativity in work groups, the prevailing cultural assumption still tends to be that some degree of individuality needs to be sacrificed in order for a group to function (what Herb Shepard referred to as “primary mentality". On the whole, we are not very familiar with the kind of experience where the richness of individual diversity adds to our sense of the whole, and in turn, the whole supports and encourages the fullness of individual contributions. Without the experience of the potential synergy between group and individual, the concept of “secondary mentality" remains too often an abstraction or a fantasy, rather than a real and concrete possibility.

Or, if we have had such an experience of the synergy possible between individual and group within a particular context, we might compartmentalize it, not conceiving the possibility that the same principles might apply in another area of our lives. Unless we have experienced it, we might not imagine that it is possible for a work team could function in manner analogous to a highly-skilled jazz ensemble. On the other hand, if we HAVE had that kind of experience in a group, it is likely to make us more interested in discovering how we might create the conditions that allow that kind of flow to happen.


The potential of lay, peer-to-peer group facilitation

Just as I did not describe earlier the particulars of Focusing or Co-counseling, I will not be describing in any detail the group facilitation approaches I have mentioned above (further information along those lines is easily available elsewhere.) Without offering that level of detail, I will not be able to substantiate the next point I am about to make. Still, I would like to point out, albeit sketchily, a particular parallel. There is certainly skill, complexity, and nuance involved in the practice of Dialogue Mapping and Dynamic Facilitation, just as there is in Focusing and Co-counseling. At the same time, there is also an inherent simplicity in the role of the facilitator in these group facilitation approaches, similar in many ways to the inherent simplicity of the role of the facilitative listener in these personal growth methods. To me, this means that these group facilitation approaches also have the potential to develop as valuable lay networks, in a manner similar to the methods for facilitating personal growth.

There is another parallel that may be even more significant. I mentioned earlier that there is an inherent joy and wonder in the listening work of Focusing or Co-counseling, as we witness the natural movement of life that takes place as we "hold space" for another person. Of course, this process of "holding space" also includes offering presence to painful and distressing aspects of life. Still, we are not charged with "fixing", but only with offering presence, and when we do so, we are blessed by witnessing all of the "small miracles" and natural transformations that are part of the inherent movement of life.

This is very analogous to what happens when we are "holding a non-directive listening space" for each person in a group. What we may be "holding" will at times include the difficult feelings of frustration or overwhelm that people can experience in a group, just as it will also include the joy and magic of shared discovery. Yet there are certain kinds of "man-made" frustration that we do NOT experience: we are NOT attempting to "herd cats", we are NOT struggling to get people to stick to a predetermined agenda, we are NOT burdened with the need to "label" or "diagnose" or "prescribe" or "fix" anyone. We are doing a very different kind of work that can have its own intricacy and complexity at times, yet that offers the deep satisfaction and grounding of aligning ourselves with a naturally-unfolding life process.

For both of these reasons, I feel strongly that these new forms of facilitating the flow of co-intelligence in a group lend themselves particularly well to the growth of a lay network of peer-to-peer facilitators. We have found that lay people can learn to "hold space" for people in a group in much the same way that lay Co-counselors or Focusers can learn to effectively hold space for a single person. Of course, people who are already able to "hold space" for another person will find much that they can apply from that experience, to their work with groups. At the same time, there is still much "unlearning" that needs to take place in most of us. Just as we all have 'learned' what a classroom is supposed to look like, from all of our own painful experiences with traditional education, so too we have all 'learned' what an 'effective meeting' is supposed to look like, with equally limiting results.

With regard to group facilitation, these nascent peer-to-peer networks are still in a very early stage of development. Still, based on what has taken place in the personal growth and healing field, I do NOT expect that the growth of these lay networks will lead to a reduced demand for people who have the training, temperament, and inclination to work in an in-depth "coaching" or "mentoring" relationship with a group or an organization. Instead, the two forms (lay peer-to-peer, and professional "coaching" or "mentoring") are likely to be synergistic, just as they have been in the personal growth arena.

I see the development of these (or similar) lay peer-to-peer movements, whose purpose is to create wide-spread capacity for facilitating the emergence of self-organization and practical co-creativity at a group level, as a vital and necessary "next step" for our human evolution. In addition to a host of other benefits, they also have the potential to help raise the standards for the kind of facilitative coaching and mentoring that groups and organizations will seek out, whenever they choose to engage in a more intensive and in-depth growth process.


Conclusions and Next Steps

I hope to have made it abundantly clear by now that the kind of "group facilitation" I see as inherently suited for spreading through lay peer-to-peer networks is quite different from "conventional group facilitation." This is parallel to how Focusing and Co-counseling, two methods of facilitating personal growth around which significant lay peer-to-peer communities have already developed, are significantly different from conventional approaches to therapy.

At the same time I've also emphasized that what we might consider "conventional therapy" is itself changing and growing, possibly due in part to the cultural influence of these peer-to-peer personal growth movements. One instance of this is the growing number of Focusing-Oriented Therapists who, in addition to using focusing in a peer-to-peer way with their colleagues, ALSO use focusing as part of their "coaching" or "mentoring" relationship with their clients. I have also mentioned that several of the newest and most effective approaches in therapy, while not directly related to focusing or co-counseling, are nonetheless extremely compatible with these peer-to-peer approaches.

In a somewhat similar manner, while Dynamic Facilitation and Dialogue Mapping are significantly different from the forms of group facilitation that are conventionally used with task groups, they do have shared affinities with other leading-edge approaches for supporting self-organization in groups. Several of these approaches, such as Open Space Technology, World Café, and Future Search, are designed for working with larger groups. Others, such as the small-group applications of Transformative Mediation, come from another field altogether. While each of these ways of "facilitating the unfolding of life" in a group context can be seen as part of a larger "movement", they each offer their own valuable contribution toward our human evolution as a sustainable species on Earth.

At the same time, I feel strongly that we need more than the growth of leading-edge approaches within the professional facilitation community. In addition, we need strong lay communities of practice, peer-to-peer networks of people who are able to effectively hold space for the natural unfolding of life within a group, who can “make it easier" for a larger pattern to emerge naturally from the fullness of diverse perspectives. It is my hope that we can build on the experience gained from the lay peer-to-peer communities designed to support personal growth and creative expression, in order to create these new lay networks that can support group growth, co-intelligence, and co-creativity.

In closing, I want to express my gratitude to Michel Bauwens for his work on the evolutionary significance of the peer-to-peer movement that is taking place most notably within the realm of technology. I also want to thank him for the invitation to write this paper, as it has been a most welcome opportunity to organize and refocus my thinking along these lines.

My deepest gratitude to my own mentors and coaches, especially Lyn Fine, Tom Atlee, Saul Eisen, Jim Rough, and Eugene Gendlin. Also to my husband and fellow explorer Bruce Nayowith, who is the originator of the phrase "Loving Intelligence in the Service of Life", and whose many insights are by now deeply interwoven with my own work. I also want to thank all of my teachers, learning partners, and peers in my two "home" communities of Focusing and Dynamic Facilitation, as well as friends, teachers, and peers from the Co-counseling, Non-Violent Communication, and Dialogue Mapping communities. I have learned a great deal from each and every one of you.

And, there is still so much to learn, and so much to do! I look forward to continuing to meet and collaborate with fellow explorers, colleagues and co-creators who feel called to various aspects of this shared journey."