Style.

The ancient, tiny, frail man looked up at me and extended his hand. I took it, gingerly; then – completely unaware of my trepidation about harming him – Frank Hyde proceeded to crush my fingers in the handshake.

In 2006 the North Sydney Bears rugby league club were 98 years old, and after 92 years in the top-flight competition had been relegated to park football. Still, every season I tried to get to a game or two to follow the club that my family had always followed. At half-time of one game that year, in the shadows of the Molly Dive stand at the historic North Sydney Oval, I saw Frank Hyde – captain/coach of the last Bears team to make a grand final (in 1943) – approaching me. I took the chance to have a chat. Nursing sore fingers, I asked Frank whether he thought the Bears could get back into the national competition.

His answers were sharp, laced with pragmatism and delivered with a quiet intensity I’ve rarely come across. These ingredients formed a gravitas that simply made me listen. After a few minutes, Frank stopped talking, looked at me askew and said: “Keep the faith, son.” And off he went. Frank Hyde passed away the next year, aged 91. The year after that, I started my facilitation career, secretly wanting to burn with that same intensity that commanded attention.

**********

A few weeks ago the Victorian Chapter of the IAF held its major PD event for the year. With the topic being ‘facilitating through change’, the guest facilitator was Bob Dick, a facilitator for 4 decades. Like every facilitator, Bob had started in another field and discovered – in his middle age – the facilitation profession before it was even properly defined as such. As everyone filtered in to the room, Bob stood quietly in the corner and watched as people took their spots in the circle of chairs.

“Let’s all get to know each other first, shall we?” he asked before anything else had really happened. For 45 minutes, 20 people shared hopes, joys and fears as Bob sat there, zen-like. Then, after pausing and smiling for a good 10 seconds, Bob shared a story which set up the theme for the day. Bob continued on a loose path of story, theory, discussion – following the group – until lunchtime. At lunch, I pointedly approached Bob and observed he was one of the few facilitators I’ve seen with enough balls to share a story, leave a silence and let it speak for itself. Bob smiled back and said ‘thankyou’.

I went outside for some air. Another man from the group in his late fifties was indulging in a cigarette, and struck up a conversation with me. “I’m starting my own facilitation business”, he confided. “Makes sense at my stage of things.” I nodded and went back inside. The session, and Bob, proceeded unabated for the rest of the afternoon.

In the days following I reflected on that PD as a learning event and as a benchmark for facilitation.  For instance, I found out that someone left at lunchtime and didn’t come back, which I was too absorbed in the day to notice.  Would I have been insulted if I was Bob Dick? No, because 19 others stayed and demonstrated a growth mindset.  Should there be enmity with that person? No, because it was a value judgement, just like deciding to stay. Did it seem to affect Bob? No, because he facilitated with the calmness brought by knowing that you simply can’t influence everyone in the room sometimes.

In the afternoon Bob told a story of how he championed social learning principles and learner-led session design back in the early 80’s in his days as a university lecturer. Consistent with his approach all day, the story made its own point: if adults are equipped with choice then most will use it along selfish lines. If people are selfish about their own learning, they are motivated in some way. The rest is that we are social animals so we will also usually naturally share in a group. Simple! His story explained his assurance.

Incidentally, the person who walked out at lunchtime wasn’t the only one taking the responsibility of their choice in how to act and learn that day. I sat next to an exercise physiologist who, in the introductions, explained in advance that she would be standing up a lot during the day to maintain her physical alertness. A few other people nodded and took that option through the day too; pure social learning in action. I explained in the introductions that I would backchannel the day (you can find the outcomes by searching twitter for #IAFVicPD). For me, this is principally a means of note-taking that helps me retain information and make meaning within the session. Some people approached me in the breaks for advice on using twitter; learning happens in the cracks.

At the end of the day there were a stack of paper hand-outs issued to everyone which we didn’t have the time to go through. Bob was still looking pretty happy. He created an environment where people principally learned from each other, the classic facilitated space. Yes, he was there as the main attraction, the subject matter expert, and he was able to pick his moments to add insights where they were most piquant. But his experience really showed in his highly evolved, deliberate yet authentic, facilitation style. As for the handouts, I’ve still got them, and I’ll look through them carefully in the coming weeks to learn further, because the group had a motivating effect on me. That is Bob’s success.

*******************

Gee whiz I enjoyed watching Bob facilitate, but does that mean I should be absolutely like him?

Firstly, Bob is twice my age. Should this matter? Bob may well have found his facilitation groove after a couple of years and just kept going; my feeling is that Bob displayed all 40 years of that experience though. Of course, in physical dynamism I have it over Bob, but he didn’t have to run around the room to get the job done. Maybe I sometīmes do physical things in facilitation just because I can? Bob showed how restraint creates its own space. It gives me hope that I can keep going at this for a long while yet, but it will take a further evolution of my personal style.  To know where you are going it helps to see where you have come from, too.

If I look back on my posts from a couple of years ago back, I cringe a little now reading about moments where I would provoke a group too much and I was kind of self-justifying it as bravery. Mostly they were moments of panic where I was losing the group and trying to drag them through to the outcome by sheer force of will. They got through, but only to 5pm.  The good thing is I rarely do that now, and that is an evolution in style from years 5 – 7 of my facilitation career.

When I was being first trained in facilitation, my colleagues had four archetypes as a coaching tool: ‘Professor’, ‘Counsellor’, ‘Sergeant-Major’ and ‘Motivator’. These approaches are great to understand the components that you can control about your own state. Adopting facets of these archetypes mean going outside your normal presentation style and seeing the effect that has on the state of the group. Practicing the archetypes was uncomfortable, eye-opening and the seed of self-awareness beyond body language and voice. Once you know what to control and why, and you are aware in the moment, the archetypes’ utility ceases.

A few weeks ago I posted about the recent higher value placed on being yourself at my company. What does it mean for a facilitator? For a start, the self-awareness the profession has brought me has directly led to my comfort with who I am and extending to share that online. My work doesn’t define my identity, although how I approach work helps to define it. When you are guiding a group to an outcome – particularly as an organisational facilitator – discussion will frequently traverse the subject of proper or aspirational approaches to work. People will look at you and think “is he/she role-modelling that?”. That is the pressure of being a visible conduit: you, and your style, simply must be deeply professional when it matters.

Then again, deeply professional comes in different forms. Being a bit different as a facilitator gives permission for diversity of thought, implicitly. I remember being shown Benjamin Zander’s infamous Ted Talk in a development workshop for my company’s advanced facilitators. We examined it together as a case study in technique. Zander is not an affectionately shortened version of Zoolander: in the clip he runs around wearing jeans and running shoes. His attire is deliberate, not because it is daggy and he doesn’t care, but because it delineates him from the stereotype of a stuffy orchestra conductor. Zander had 15 minutes to take that crowd somewhere and bring them back, and deliberate appearance contributed to the crowd allowing him to be outrageous. In the clip, he takes changing the physical and emotional state of the people looking at him to performance art level. There are contractions and elongations of pace. There are pauses at exactly the right time. There is humour. There is pathos. His body writhes and contorts. There is artistic brilliance. There is story, lots of it. There are emotional hooks. He is bonkers, yet retains his shape as his deeply sincere, credible self. Above all, there is a memorable, imprinted outcome achieved: the transformative power of classical music. Make no mistake, that is masterful facilitation technique in action, even if it is a monologue. The audience interaction is intense. Zander does all those things as a gift for them.

There is something to be said for a profession, art, craft, skill, vocation that is pure self-development for the greater benefit of others. One that allows you to be, and celebrate, yourself. That’s why I love coaching people in facilitation. It is for anyone. Who cares what stage of life you find it. I applaud Bob Dick and Benjamin Zander. Stylistically diverse, bringing the best of themselves, getting better outcomes for others, using their experience.

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