I was fortunate to attend an EDG-funded Advanced Facilitation Skills workshop in Brisbane a month ago – there’s already a general report of this workshop on qaeco.com and I think Anna Renwick might have more to contribute in an upcoming issue of Decision Point. It’s given me a lot to think about.
An increasing number of QAEcologists have become accidental (and occasionally intentional) facilitators. If my path is at all representative, it seems as if we’ve burst from our scientific training with its structure and solutions, ready to solve the world’s environmental problems. But there’s rarely the precise kind of data we want to hand, or useful information is stored primarily in the heads of various ‘experts’. Politics and preferences come into play. Pure science isn’t even half the problem.
Even when we our scientific skill can contribute to the solution, we can’t expect to be seen and heard unless we’re willing to look and listen. Understanding the context helps compose a feasible solution, building trust can open access to data and other resources, developing relationships and networks can connect us to those with power over the problem. It all takes interpersonal skills, not something us scientists (least of all a maths graduate like me!) are known for.
It’s reassuring to know, then, that theory exists around some of these very issues. Adopting a technique such as active listening could enhance informal conversations, small meetings and large workshops alike. Reflecting initially on the four Ps (purpose-participants-process-product) would probably help focus and direct almost any gathering. Moreover, our trainer Mary Maher believes that all personality types are equipped to take on the role of facilitator!
That doesn’t mean that facilitation is insensitive to our personality type. Each of us can and should develop our own style, recognising our strengths and weaknesses. For example, many of have have an instinctive, nonconstructive response to stress. Facilitators will frequently be exposed to stress, conflict and low energy – in fact, they’re often necessary precursors to open discussion and creative solutions. Thus facilitators need to be ready to override that instinct, allow the difficult moments to happen and help their group move on to a more constructive, common understanding.
I learned a bit about my own style while participating in a facilitation role-play. Observers praised my encouraging demeanor and active listening. Yet, even in a role-play where I had no stake in the solution, I held my own perception of the problem structure and allowed it to interfere with an even-handed record of the discussion. When a role-playing participant voiced an idea that didn’t fit my implicit structure, I avoided it. After this was pointed out to me, I remembered a moment in a real workshop that I’d done the same thing and saw it from this new perspective. ‘Performing’ in front of others was nerve-wracking but it was incredibly effective in revealing one of my persistent weak spots, allowing me to reflect on it and (hopefully) address it.
We engaged in a broader discussion of impartiality in facilitation. Most of us find ourselves playing facilitator on projects where we are also an expert in some sense, perhaps as an ecologist or modeller. Often we don’t see ourselves as advocates pushing a specific solution but we might still have less obvious stakes in the direction a discussion takes (e.g. would that interpretation fit easily into my mathematical model?).
I have a hunch that the facilitators here at QAEco will revisit this issue often. And now we have a forum for such debates, as we’ve just set up a facilitation discussion group to continue sharing what we practise and learn. I was delighted to attract more than a dozen people to our first meeting last Thursday, where Stefano, José and I outlined our purposes and plans for upcoming workshops. At our next meeting (at 3:30pm on May 2 in G27 – all welcome!), Jos will debrief on a workshop she recently led. I’m hoping we might use other sessions to explore the theory of facilitation further, too.
Facilitation is an exciting and intimidating new role to take on, and at QAEco I think we’re better resourced and more motivated than ever to master it.