What Example Does Your Facilitation Provide?
We are all facilitation role models. What do participants learn from how you facilitate?
Approximate reading time: five minutes
If everyone followed the example you set as a leader, would their performance—and the results of their organizations—improve?
A mentor posed this question to me early in my career as a university student affairs professional advising student leaders and their organizations.
I recall nodding earnestly at the relevance of his question while also feeling both stupefied and terrified at its implications for my efforts. I was just one guy, fresh out of grad school, brimming with ideas but lacking in experience.
Eventually I let go of my misguided interpretation that I needed to be perfect in everything I did and came to embrace the importance of bringing great care and intention my work and the example I provided.
I think of my mentor’s counsel often when I prepare to design and facilitate a workshop, meeting, or conference.
What example will my efforts set for others?
What might they learn or infer from what I do and how I do it?
In what situations—or with what types of participants—am I most likely to get out of alignment? How can I prevent that?
How can I better ensure my actions, both in preparation and in real-time, are aligned with my values and intentions?
We all provide an example
Whether we like it or not, we are all role models. Every time we engage in the act of facilitation, someone may look at our efforts and draw lessons about what effective (or ineffective) facilitation looks like in action.
I know I cringe every time I experience a facilitator misusing (in my opinion of course) an icebreaker activity, a facilitation tool or technique, or a critical model or concept. Here’s a simple example:
A facilitator uses a “parking lot” to park off-topic ideas or issues that arise during a meeting, but then fails to have the group review and address them, essentially permanently parking them into oblivion. The next time those participants see a facilitator use a parking lot, they likely will recall this previous experience and potentially infer the same outcome will result.
On some level, all facilitators’ efforts are loosely interconnected. Participants develop expectations, both good and bad, based on meetings and workshops they’ve attended. They carry them into subsequent gatherings. I don’t want my facilitation efforts to set up someone else for a challenging facilitation experience because I failed to do a good job.
Modeling the way
In the seminal research and book The Leadership Challenge, leadership scholars James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner identified Modeling the Way as one of the five practices of extraordinary leadership.
Corresponding to this practice are two specific commitments: 1. Clarify values by finding your voice and affirming shared values; and 2. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. Have you done this for your facilitation efforts?
If not, think about the type of facilitator you want to be. Identify 3-5 core values and/or qualities you want others to associate with your facilitation and that you will draw on to inform all of your facilitation choices.
While what you observe in others’ facilitation efforts might inspire your choices, make sure your selections reflect your voice and that you can apply them authentically. Don’t simply mimic what you see in others.
For each value or quality you select, brainstorm how to align your facilitation efforts with it and how it will “show up” to others when you do so. Let’s say one of your choices is community. How will community be present in:
your communications to meeting or workshop participants?
the room set or online platform and how people are welcomed to it?
what you do as people arrive and how you formally open the session?
any icebreaker or priming activity you use to initially connect participants to each other?
when breaks and meals are scheduled and how the space for them is set?
any closing reflection and/or application exercise?
Initially, you may want to “proof” each element of your meeting or workshop designs for how well they align with your intended values or qualities. Over time, with sustained attention, the aligned actions you tend to take likely will become defaults that are just part of “how you do what you do.”
However, when you facilitate a new type of gathering, you may want to return to your values and qualities and consider how they can inform this new experience you will help lead. New experiences often require new choices or behaviors.
Alignment requires self-evaluation and feedback
At year’s end, I do an annual audit, a self-evaluation reflecting on my values and qualities and considering possible refinements for my future efforts. To inform this audit and to receive ongoing feedback about how well I model the way with my facilitation—how well my actions align with my intended facilitation values and qualities—I turn to participant evaluations and one simple question I include:
What are three adjectives you would use to describe the session led by Jeffrey Cufaude?
I tally the responses religiously and compare them against the core values and attributes I hope people associate with my work. The five most common adjectives (not in any particular order) associated with my 2022 efforts were:
Happily these align with my own intentions. For a few of my efforts though, the percentage of responses for one or more values fell a bit short of my ideal. That let me know I need to identify what more I can do to bring integrity to that specific value or quality in comparable sessions in the future.
Every time we facilitate, we model the way for others. If people only learn about facilitation or how to facilitate from the example you provide, would their subsequent facilitation or facilitative contributions to their teams, organizations, and relationships be better?
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2023. All rights reserved.
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As I read this, I smiled. Before you, there were two facilitators I experienced in the '80s who showed me what I wanted to model. From them, I the ways I wanted to facilitate. I don't know that I was ever fully always quite as good, or maybe just different because my style was different. From experiences with you, I've learned more and that it is a good reflection of you and of them.
About alignment: is there research that discusses how a facilitator's alignment with the values of the group or the company or association or the mission of the work matters in the way a facilitator interacts? provides better engagement? outcomes?