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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

The art of facilitation: How to navigate your group’s interpsychic storms

Group learning is a powerful phenomenon. Yet to fully tap the knowledge that resides in a group, someone has to guide the learning process, which is why facilitation is such a valuable skill. A lot of things can get in a facilitator’s way, ranging from unenthusiastic participants to unclear objectives. The greatest challenges, however, stem from what I call the “interpsychic storm” — the unconscious feelings and thoughts people have that affect their behavior.

In “Experiential Learning in Organizations,” a book from the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, one chapter by Mark Stein looks at some of the psychological factors that can stifle a group’s ability to learn:

  • High-anxiety environment, such as the workplaces of financial traders, medical professionals and air traffic controllers.
  • Feelings of envy. Participants may unconsciously want to be in the facilitator’s position.
  • Sense of dependency. Learning from someone else can be uncomfortable for adults and trigger resentment for the facilitator. This especially true for individuals who feel they are already fully informed and don’t need to learn more.
  • Projection. Instead of dealing with uncomfortable negative emotions, people subconsciously cast those feelings onto someone else. For example, a depressed employee tells his boss that everyone else in the organization is depressed.

So what do you do?

The first step to maximize group learning is for facilitators to be aware of these barriers. Granted, the same phenomena can happen if you’re working with only one person. But when multiple minds — and emotions — are in the room, things can quickly spiral out of control.

High-anxiety environments — Here, the solution is pretty simple because angst is the nature of the workplace. You can’t change it. Instead, move the group to a more relaxing, neutral setting where learning can be productive.

Feeling of envy — One of the first things I try to do as a facilitator is set the tone that I’m there to assist the group, and I often lead off by saying something like: “With your permission, I’m going to serve as your facilitator.” I also acknowledge that learning is difficult, how important their job is as participants, and my goal is to help the group be more effective.

Sense of dependency — To defuse any resentment participants may be feeling, try to rebalance status. One technique is to ask a lot of questions — questions that, as Edgar Schein says “you don’t already know the answers to.” By doing so facilitators make themselves temporarily vulnerable and empower participants. In addition to using inquiry, I like point out that although the content I’m presenting might not be new to the group, it can validate what they already know, challenge them and give new ideas.

Projection — When it comes to projection, things get trickier. Projection is a distortion of reality and often difficult to detect in the moment. What’s more, facilitators can get caught up in their own anxiety about what’s happening in the room and begin projecting onto others. To avoid this, I closely watch the reactions of participants as I guide them through new information, and ask if their feelings or observations are similar to mine. Suppose I feel tension between sticking to the agenda and the need to dig deeper into an issue. Then I would say something like: “I feel that we should be further along by now, but want to ask if we need to speed up or slow down a bit?”

Be the barometer

As a facilitator, you’re not only there to present content, but to detect emotional pressure in the room. You need to step above the conversation, identify what’s really going on — and make appropriate interventions. For example, if you sense the group is defensive, stop them and say something like, “I’m feeling anxious, how about you?” Another technique that can help your ability to see what’s going on: Imagine that you are looking at the group from a different perspective — from the upper right hand corner of the room or as if you are behind a one-way mirror.

Some other suggestions for dealing with the interpsychic storm:

Discuss expectations — Empower the group to learn what they want. You can try to forcefit your content onto the group and get your butt kicked. Discussing expectations allows the learners to create outcomes that are best for themselves. As a facilitator, I remain mindful of what my client wants the group to achieve or improve upon. Yet my allegiance is to the group, not anyone in particular — including the CEO. My role is to enable the group to be more effective.

Be adaptive — It’s important for facilitators to be comfortable when the group goes off agenda. Learning is not linear. As a facilitator you want to pay attention to what the group needs — not just what you’re trying to get across. If your facilitation style is “my way or the highway,” you’re not going to be effective. Similarly, you don’t want to be too laissez-faire. Otherwise, you’re giving up control of the group and things will implode when the interpsychic storm hits.

Reflect on what happened — Make time to reflect on your performance after each session. Think about what worked and what didn’t work, and identify the underlying reasons. Was it you, the group, something about the environment? Step back and think about what you observed and heard during the session.  Where there any strange accusations that seemed out of place or any odd statements directed at you during the session?

For less seasoned facilitators, it’s best to do this kind of analysis after the group session. Writing it down on paper will increase your insights (this is particularly true for projection). As you become more experienced, you’ll be able to reflect on the fly and recognize psychological barriers that may be preventing your group from learning.

On a final note, I want to point out that while this blog targets professional facilitators, the techniques are equally relevant for business leaders. This is especially true for second-stagers, who are transitioning from being entrepreneurs to leaders. Whether you’re meeting with employees, investors or consultants, strong facilitation skills will help you create the right environment for the group to be successful.

(Published July 31, 2018)