Reflecting on my learning journey from school to tertiary level and into adult learning, I realize I have forgotten much of the academic and theoretical contents. Fortunately, certain valuable experiential lessons withstood the passing of time and have remained vividly etched in my mental compass. Kudos to wise teachers and trainers who have the gracious gumption to point out my weaknesses and mistakes rather than heaping praises that get me swell-headed.
It has been said that mistakes are the best teachers. While it is desirable to learn vicariously from the mistakes and failures of others, the lessons get much more firmly seared in when these mistakes are one’s own.
Indelible lessons learned from my mistakes
It’s been about few months since I completed the Advanced Facilitation Programme (AFP) conducted by Prabu and Janice. Truth be told, much of the theoretical head knowledge has faded away from my memory bank. However, what remain indelibly internalised are the key lessons I learned from the mistakes I made during our practice facilitation at the end of module 2 of the AFP. Thank God it was a practice and not a real-life facilitation for a client!
Key Lesson 1
Be flexible with the approach when facilitating the process but remain dogmatic in adhering to the cardinal rules and principles.
My team’s assigned case was to generate options for suitable buildings for the client’s new Head Office. At the divergence stage, instead of getting the participants to start with a blank slate to generate a diverse range of building options, my project partner and I started with brainstorming on Criteria for the types of building desired that would fulfill the Outcome of improved staff morale leading to better customer service. We erroneously thought that coming up with some Criteria first would “help” the participants to be more focused in generating options rather than a “scatter gun” approach in generating options all over the island.
How wrong were we! We are grateful to Janice who duly pointed out to us that what we did was tantamount to a fundamental design flaw as it would limit and bias the options at the outset.
It was a gross violation of a Cardinal Rule in facilitating brainstorming i.e., generation of options (Divergence) ALWAYS precede brainstorming for Criteria for Convergence. In other words, flexibility in the approach cannot be at the expense of limiting the generation of options or compromising the fundamental rules for brainstorming, Freewheel & Quantity.
Key Lesson 2
Never assume that the stakeholders/participants possess the necessary knowledge and information to contribute meaningfully to the output.
On the surface, our topic looked simple enough, which is to come up with recommended buildings for the client’s new Head Office. We thought it was easier than vision casting, formulating new strategies or improving teamwork and morale. But alas, the simple things are not necessarily easy to execute!
We took for granted that once the participants got into their brainstorming groups, their collective creative juices will start to flow and trigger the generation of various options. But it was not to be so. Most of the participants were unfamiliar with the office and industrial developments in existence and were hard put to come up with specific names. And when they found themselves unable to contribute, tension and frustration arose and that impeded the smooth flow of the process. The negative emotive energy also dampened the emotional Space – the “S” in SPOT – that is essential for the active and spontaneous contribution by the participants throughout the process.
Even though we omitted at the D1 stage (Determining Requirements) to ascertain if there was any participant/stakeholder information/knowledge gap that might impede meaningful Output, we could still have called time out to pause the process to leverage on domain experts to provide the necessary knowledge and information that the participants lacked. In our scenario, there was an Estate & Facilities Manager among the participants. We could have used Fish Bowl method to allow him to bring the rest up to speed with a baseline knowledge of different categories of office buildings with specific examples to enable them to contribute meaningfully in the brainstorming.
Key Lesson 3
While time management is key – the “T” in SPOT – never leave a participant who raises a query feeling that the Facilitator is more concerned with finishing on time than addressing his/her concerns.
When we were doing the Closing Circle, a participant rather passionately queried about the specific wording of the Objective statement. In fact, his unrelenting pressing on for a satisfactory answer created a tensed atmosphere. The grave mistake I made was being too fixated about the time running out and allowed my impatience to get the better of me. As a result, I failed to convincingly address the underlying concern behind his query.
There is a verse in the book of Proverbs in the bible that says:
“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Proverbs 20 verse 5.
This was where I have failed to apply empathic listening, i.e., listening beneath the verbalised question to suss out the questioner’s underlying emotion. I had to come across to him that I was not just listening but was trying to understand him. In fact, even better that I was able to feel what he was feeling – that’s the highest level termed Generative Listening.
Sure enough, he felt brushed off and was visibly displeased. Not unexpectedly, he decided to clam up thereafter and we had one less wellspring for idea generation!
Key Lesson 4
Managing the emotional-psychological Space [SPOT] well is key to building and sustaining Trust throughout the process.
Relatively speaking, the physical, static dimension of Space is easier to prepare and take care of with prior site recce, due diligence and rectifying or putting in place any augmenting features necessary for that conducive physical space.
On the other hand, the non-tangible, invisible and dynamic emotional-psychological space is far more complex and challenging both to develop and to sustain. The lesson I learn is that managing the emotional-psychological space well is key to building and sustaining Trust throughout the facilitation process.
The fatal mistake my team made was to allow the pressure of Time to jeopardise the emotional-psychological space. On at least 2 counts, we failed to address the participants’ needs and concerns. The first was failing to address their knowledge and information gap to enable them to contribute meaningfully. The other was failing to empathically and satisfactorily address the unrelenting query raised by a participant.
On hindsight, when we, the facilitators, were seen as anxious to press on, the signal we were sending to the participants was that we put our interest (to complete the process on time) above theirs. Sure enough, when that happened, we realised too late that we, the facilitators, had lost the most vital element for a successful outcome – Trust of the participants in the facilitators! That is far more detrimental than not having enough natural lighting in the room!
For avoidance of doubt, I was very much encouraged by the positive feedback of where my strengths lie and areas where I should continue to leverage to my advantage in process facilitation. But I feel that the lessons from the mistakes I made are far more valuable and worthy of sharing with the fraternity.
Truly, my experience above has taught me that process facilitation is very much a people-centric, living and dynamic craft that can only be learned and mastered through lots of practice. As a rookie, I am mindful that my skills and techniques are yet to be well honed and honest mistakes are inevitable. Hence, in a responsible way, I would not go “solo” straightaway to take on process facilitation for a client. I figured I would start off by availing myself to opportunities in assisting and co-facilitating alongside seasoned practitioners like Prabu and Janice in their projects. Even thereafter, I figured its best for me to work with a co-facilitator who can be my mirror during the process, to help me check my emotions as well as to feedback to me mistakes that I might have made.
After his retirement, Ronald continued to equip himself through various training programmes. He particularly pursues those that will enable him to help others strengthen relationships of all forms. Besides AFP, he is an accredited mediator under Singapore Mediation Centre.