“Be grateful when the comfort comes… To make a difference, I need composure. To make a difference, to make it.”
Lapsed Catholics (song), Travels With Myself And Another (Album), Future of the Left (Artist), 2009.
What a shame such an horribly derivative band hijacked the word ‘oasis’. Prior to 1994, you would hear the word and an image of distant date palms in a shimmering heat haze would be summoned. Real or not, an oasis symbolised hope, a space of potential safety and nourishment.
Last Tuesday it is the old-fashioned version of an oasis that I experienced. A pre-conference session held before the IAF Oceania Facilitation conference, it was run by Dr George Wills and Rhonda Tranks. Like my conference organising committee colleagues, I’d been working double-time, and so this was a day of pattern-interrupt tranquillity. A dozen of us – all facilitators to varying degrees – sat in a chair circle to delve into intuition and group dynamics, through a lens of existential philosophy.
I went in to that room with a term’s worth of studying Friedrich Nietzsche conducted when I was 18. Philosophical study is – in a way – wasted on the young. I got confused by it, dropped out of my Arts degree and got a job. Twenty years later, I was back. Still the youngest in that room, and for sure the least well read on the topic at hand. What I did have was 8 years of facilitation behind me, time spent as a keen observer of, and reflector upon, the human condition. More importantly, I was there to learn.
We briefly explored Yalom’s 4 elements of existential psychology, which (combined with some of Tuesday’s group’s narrative) are:
- Death can’t be ignored, it is lurking. Do you pay attention to it or not?
- Your isolation in the world starts from the inevitable experience of being thrown, and growing up where you land
- Feelings of meaninglessness make sense when you realise that you can’t depend on others for validation, and the meaning you make must be self-generated
- Realisation of your own freedom to choose, and taking on of responsibility for your choices, can flow from your quest for meaning
This is sombre stuff that goes down a different path to organised religion. My catholicism has lapsed somewhat substantially since the heady days of my altar-boy piety, so I held few barriers to existentialism as a thing. Also, currently working in the professional development part of L & D, I’m in the solutions business for people looking to grow themselves. Accordingly it is nice to visit my conceptual source suppliers every now and again.
The concepts stimulated everyone else in the room too. On re-reading my crib-notes today, I felt it disingenuous to gather these and label them my own. So, I honour everyone in that room – with appropriate anonymity – by listing what they said, followed by my reflections in bold italic. I sincerely hope it brings you somewhat into what was a mesmerising day.
“When my courage steps up, so does my ego.” Me too. When I become emboldened, I get carried away with myself. It makes for a constant oscillation: ego yo-yo.
“Working with groups there is always an existential thing going on. I’m always torn between the stated outcomes and what the group needs in the moment. What happens if I call it? Sometimes people hide behind the outcomes to avoid what is really going on.” As facilitators, this is where we need courage and consulting skills in the planning conversations with the leader commissioning the session. This helps ensure the session objective is as aligned to reality as possible, and also gives us more permission to ‘call it’ in the session if we need to.
“I think not being overly attached to an observation, a ‘wondering’, is best practice.” I felt this related to facilitator neutrality as much as facilitator self-care. I still hold wonderings pretty close sometimes though.
“Using props like photo cards with groups gives permission for people to open up. Telling stories – their own – within a team story, leads everyone to meaning.” A brilliantly simple, simply brillant, comment. Elegant words to justify to a group the use of those photo cards.
“Brigid Nossal would say it is impossible to work on a system by yourself.” I think I will also say that. This blog post, dear reader, will allow a fourth-hand use of this quote too. Actually, let’s all say it when articulating the business benefit of facilitation.
“Therapy is in the past, present and future. A counsellor needs to guide someone through all those stages successfully. There isn’t as big a gap as you might fear between facilitator and counsellor. It is generally safer though for a facilitator to stay in the present and move people into the future. This is mainly because of available time.” Regarding my own facilitation, I have anxiety about opening up a bottle and not being able to put the genie back in. I’m not a counsellor. This has solidified my intention to do more formal study in psychology. I need to know – not just intuitively feel – the limits I can safely push a group to.
“You want to be in as real an exchange as possible. Normal human ways of communicating.” The two things from George and Rhonda’s session that really emphasised that were the swearing and the physical touching. I feel such a bond with people I work with when they swear. I felt trusted when the F-bomb flew around the room on Tuesday. We also opened the session with a prolonged, meditative touching of shoulders in a standing circle. It was disarming and centring; we shared personal things thereafter with each other. On reflection, it makes me as (uselessly) angry at all the wowsers, as I am at all the pervy weirdos who touch other people on crowded public transport. Why, oh-why, do people have to mis-handle something as special as physical touch?
“There is so much of a collective feeling of meaninglessness in organisations now. Our role as facilitators is to not leave alone the people struggling with that.” A beautiful call to arms for my profession, and probably the most instructive thing I heard during the whole week. A dip into existential philosophy elicited that calls to arms; this makes it worth a head-under-the-waves immersion.
“The moment you look backwards, you point fingers. Set up a space for people to simply acknowledge, and then look forward.” I don’t know if I really have the intellectual reserves to argue with this one, and certainly no-one in the room on Tuesday did. It brings me closer to a fibre-of-my-being understanding of what my role as a facilitator is.
“When you facilitate, you can’t not see something.” Yep, and that is why being totally present with a group is the noble, but more difficult, road to take. In those moments, you carry the ethical and moral burden of the people in the room. Do what is right by questioning what needs to be questioned, and you positively influence. Facilitator neutrality on content and outcomes is good. Facilitator neutrality on the process and ethics at play is bad. Dualistic, I know, but I need absolute clarity on this to be able to effectively help people through ambiguity. My action will be to articulate this before every session I ever run in the future.
“Intuition is the totality of my experience crystallised into something particular. Therefore I have huge faith in my intuition.” I mean, seriously… wow. I re-read this and feel so privileged to be in the room when someone said that. Such was the safe space created, I guess. My shambolic life – fumbles, bumbles, stumbles, tumbles, grumbles, mumbles – it all counts for something. Intuition is a meaning super-conductor. I will hug that closely.
“Our work as facilitators isn’t one-on-one, and we can’t follow-up individually in the group sessions we run. We have to trust the group to roll on.” As someone with periodic bouts of depression in my life, I remember how being a part of a facilitated group (even as the facilitator) led at times to mental scabs being picked. Those scabs were waiting to be picked, so I could deal with them properly at some stage. Plenty of other events in the uncontrolled life outside a facilitated session picked those scabs too. I now understand a bit more how a properly facilitated session is a pretty safe space after all to confront things within the self; it also affords some contextual understanding about the impacts on others, and sometimes – blessedly – brings an affinity with others in the same struggle.
“Get yourself into that balance where you matter, where you are everything. I treat myself as an instrument.” The advice of a six-months pregnant facilitator. Wisdom on self-care the group collectively accepted, I can tell you. The power of unbalanced balance.
“There are two voices in your head. The judgemental critic is one; that voice unchecked becomes a mantra… a shadow that reaches out and grabs you. The non-attached observer is the other; that voice just acknowledges. Go with the observer: it is more immediate in its dealings than the critical judge. Disinterested observation is normative if your own language has changed too. Say ‘I’ve just observed…’.” I’ve struggled with mental replays of car-crash moments in my facilitation. It is being in a dark cave with no contact with solid shape. It is a maudlin self-limiting action. My mindset – in all my life – must change to disinterested observation. The link to speaking the language I see as a mechanism to both solidifying this mindset shift in myself (is there anything harder in life to tackle?) and enacting this freedom from judgement in groups I run. There is no reason this mindset shift can’t work directly alongside trusting my intuition, either.
“The power of inhibition of structure in space… the agitation that everything was constrained by the inclusiveness… thus the need for more intimate groups…”. This was an open rebellion by a participant against a continuation of conversation in the fuller, large group; he wanted groups of three. It was the gentlest rebellion I’ve ever witnessed, and it was equally as softly negated by our primary facilitator George. Everyone was cool with that. I record it here because I found the argument put forward the only one that has ever actually made sense to me for why we would alternate between big and small groups when we run a session. It has always been intuition that has led me, probably research textbooks have led others in their session designs. This was something different, and the above snatches are all that I managed to jot down. It kind of survives on like the Rosetta Stone. I hazard a guess that the gaps will allow you to make your own sense of it anyway.
“The comfort of someone else being there… I have to remind my disembodied self – with a good proprioceptive sense – to be a neutral observer…”. This was uttered by someone sitting in the room, after having (at her request) another member of the group stand immediately behind her and a little to her left. I picked up that it had to do with sides of the brain and a longing to have the wisdom of the standing person on tap in times of need. I was compelled, I got the concept and I knew it would (and should) never happen without a psychologist counsellor running the session. Luckily we had one.
“Why does isolation come up all the time, and not partnership? As a facilitator I always feel responsible for the group…”. A counter-point from a reflector-thinker in the room, about 6 hours after we were discussing isolation. I felt like it could have been me saying it. I’ve reflected even more on that since, and here is my theory: Yalom’s four existential widgets are ground zero. They are the starting line. In the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population, ‘the only is up baby’. If I think of where my development of self is, it isn’t too bad. I use words like “What we’ll work on together today is…” and in the process convince myself that it is a partnership. A colleague once told me she learnt from her Guru that we are all pebbles. I’m good with that concept, for everything. If meaning then has to come from within, then my job is to help people build their meaning within. Simple.
“Why do we feel we have to deny our emotions surfacing?” A great answer to that was shared. It is below:
“It is hard to be vulnerable if we don’t show up authentically, and we create a dependency instead. This makes for situations where the group acts like someone has to save them, or they mentally check out. Why do we burden ourselves with that? Our perfectionism is holding us back from being embodied”. I told you it was great answer, huh! For starters, if we were robots, our profession as facilitators wouldn’t exist. And how bloody tough on ourselves are we as a collective. We can whinge about that and that no-one would understand. Well, I know my wife doesn’t understand when I bash myself up over facilitation faux-pas. She is the most sensible person I know. Perfectionism is a fool’s errand.
George ended the session with something he called the compassion mantra, a poetic version of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. It goes like this:
“Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering;
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream.
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher;
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.”
The collective moments last Tuesday grew me.