How can I address my nerves about facilitating?
Part of the Facilitate Better "How To" series
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 1014 words.
Can you guess the primary underlying reason why people get nervous about facilitating meetings or leading workshops in a more facilitative manner?
If you just want what I often find is the answer, skip to here.
Guesses often include:
Participant profile: They have something to prove or at least don’t want to let down the people who will attend.
Event outcomes: What the meeting or workshop is intended to achieve is challenging and they’re unsure if it is possible.
Content concerns: They are anxious about leading new content and/or content that can be difficult to present.
Format familiarity: They’re using some new conversation formats or small group activities and don’t fully know what hiccups might surface.
Collaboration considerations: It’s their first time co-presenting or co-facilitating with someone and they are unsure how well they complement each other.
Packed agenda: A lot is planned and if anything runs too long, completing the agenda could become difficult.
Is your guess among these? If so, you’re in good company.
Many indeed are a tangible source of nerves for facilitators. Simple solutions to address them are abundant. But we would be remiss if we didn’t also explore whether or not doing so gets to the root of our nervousness.
Digging deeper into nerves and nervousness
Decades of cramming my too-tall body into too-small plane seats has left me needing periodic physical and massage therapy to correct muscular imbalances that have developed.
As a result, one of the physical concepts I’ve learned about is referred pain.
“Referred pain is when the pain you feel in one part of your body is actually caused by pain or injury in another part of your body … Sometimes, because of how nerves are wired in your body, your brain will send a pain signal to a different part of your body than the area where the pain stems from” (Healthline.com).
When participants in my facilitation workshops inquire about managing nerves, they often are asking about what we might call “referred nervousness.” They identify the “pain” as any of the guesses noted previously, but upon digging deeper, a different source for their nervousness often surfaces.
The potential root source of nervousness
What I have discovered often is the true source for people’s anxiety or nervousness is the mindset they bring to their facilitation efforts: They assume a disproportionate sense of ownership and responsibility for the success of a meeting or workshop.
Doing so naturally raises the stakes of their contributions and increases the pressure they feel and the nervousness they experience. Some facilitators’ identity and sense of self also are deeply intertwined with how well their facilitation engagements go, further adding to their potential nerves.
In The Responsibility Virus, Roger Martin describes what can happen when leaders take on too much responsibility:
“When leaders assume ‘heroic’ responsibility for making critical choices facing their organizations, when their reaction to problems is to go it alone, work harder, do more, to be more heroic still, with no collaboration and sharing of the leadership burden, their ‘heroism’ is often their undoing” p. 3).
I think a similar case can be made if facilitators assume too much accountability for the results of a meeting or workshop or let session participants abdicate shared ownership for a session’s success. Ironically, the more facilitators try to singlehandedly make a meeting or workshop go well, the less participants may feel any need to do the same.
This is why I am such a strong believer in facilitators providing leadership with restraint. We must not create meetings or workshops in which participants engage in a sort of “learned helplessness,” failing to contribute in a facilitative manner that helps support the session’s outcomes … or even understand that it is both an opportunity and responsibility for them to do so.
Shifting the responsibility mindset
In my facilitation skills workshops, I often challenge the hero or savior mindset by guiding people through the following reflection and discussion questions:
Describe how you see the distribution of responsibility and accountability among participants and the facilitator(s) for the success of a meeting or workshop.
How have you comes to this understanding? What underlying beliefs are in play?
What does this look like in action? What helpful or unhelpful messages does your envisioned distribution potentially send to participants about your respective contributions to a session’s success?
What are the potential positive consequences of the distribution you specified? What are the potential shortcomings or challenges of it?
Such exploration can help facilitators modify their mental model about their responsibility and accountability for the success of a meeting and workshop. In turn, this often reduces some of their facilitation anxiety or nervousness.
It often is very beneficial to have a similar discussion with those whom you will facilitate, particularly if they comprise an ongoing group that will convene multiple times. We can’t expect to help participants hold each other accountable for making facilitative contributions if we don’t first clarify roles and responsibilities with them.
While it is helpful to address the apparent sources of one’s nerves about facilitation, digging deeper often reveals that they are just the referred symptoms of the underlying mindset that needs attention. Understanding that successful meeting or workshop facilitation does not ask us to be heroines or saviors is the first step to recalibrating our relationship with participants. By exercising restrained leadership we help them embrace ownership for learning in a workshop or the success of a meeting’s discussions or decisions.
Related Reading: Should I Do Something?
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