Remember your first time at the front of the room?
Regardless of how long you have been facilitating, you would probably remember the first time you ever facilitated. Can you still remember what you felt on that day?
Sweaty palms, tunnel vision, and heart pounding?
Standing at the front of the room, with participants looking at you expectantly, you would probably have found it difficult to demonstrate presence.
Presence is one of the six INIFAC competencies for process facilitation.
INIFAC defines presence as:
the ability of a person to project a sense of ease, poise, or self before a group of people.
They break down the competency of presence into five subcomponents, including:
- Projecting confidence
- Demonstrating warmth and caring
- Understanding one’s impact on the group and facilitating appropriately
- Making adjustments in the style and language used with the group
- Being aware of one’s weaknesses and strengths
According to INIFAC’s March 2020 survey of 150 facilitators, presence was ranked as the second most important competency.
But why is it important? And how do you even demonstrate presence?
More importantly, how do you demonstrate presence whilst keeping to the process you’ve prepared?
We’ve all known the times when we’ve been so caught up with remembering the process steps and keeping to time (and tea breaks!) that led participants feeling rushed from step to step.
As process facilitator Douglas O’Loughlin asks in his book ‘Facilitating Transformation’,
How can we dance to the tune of the group, yet deliver content in a way that serves the group’s highest learning?
Before we look at how to balance presence and process, why is presence even important?
Why does presence matter?
Therapists love to say, use the self.
Similarly, in process facilitation, you are the instrument.
You are the instrument through which change is mediated.
Without you being present, change cannot be mediated.
But presence does not only refer to you being physically present in the room, but also you being emotionally present. You have probably experienced a time when you’ve felt yourself unable to connect to the group after a difficult situation at home or work.
As much as you may hope that others cannot see that, it can be sensed.
Participants may feel an inability to connect to what you are saying, or that what you’re saying is not resonating with them. That may be because whilst you’re facilitating through your mouth, you are not facilitating through your heart, allowing change to work deeper in others.
Knowing why presence matters, let’s now look at how you can be present.
How to be present?
Know what you are leaving at the door
As counterintuitive as this sounds, before appearing in the room, you need to know what you’re leaving outside the room. This relates to the fifth sub competency of engaging one’s self-awareness.
As Otto Sharmer, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, said in his video
Presencing requires us to let go of the old and open ourselves completely to something that we can sense but that we cannot fully know before we see it emerging. And to fully listen with our minds and hearts wide open.
He shared the story of “passing through the eye of the needle”, where the only way the camel can go through the “eye of the needle” (gate of ancient Jerusalem) is for the traveller to unload everything in order for the camel to pass through.
Some ways you can do this is by having a ‘morning pages’ exercise, recommended by acclaimed director Julia Cameron. This can help you to ‘unload’ everything you’re concerned about, so that you’re fully present in the room.
And when you’re in the room, you can sometimes find yourself drawn to the things outside the room. Like suddenly remembering a bill you forgot to pay. Or even the parking coupon you didn’t place!
All these can draw us away from being present. Douglas finds it helpful to regularly check in with himself in the room, such as by taking deep breaths. This can keep you grounded and centred on what’s happening in the room.
A call to courage
How does one start a facilitation, with presence?
Part of this can be related to the first sub competency of ‘projecting confidence’. Projecting confidence is about being clear to the group about what the 3Os (objective, output, and outcome) and having the plan on how to get there.
As the guide, telling and showing people the plan can help them to trust you for the rest of the day.
Balancing confidence, with the second sub competency of warmth and caring also builds a safe environment for your participants to share.
Christine Whitney-Sanchez, a former counsellor turned facilitator, remembers the first project she did as an organisational consultant. Bringing the meditation bells she used to bring at the start of each therapy session, she tried the same for the group.
She rang the bell, and sat in silence for two minutes.
She offered to be the first to model what she meant by a ‘check-in’. This was the moment of truth. Would she be honest, or would she present a calm and collected self that looked like she had it all together?
She chose to be vulnerable.
That was the hardest two minutes I can remember.
I’m so grateful that you’re all still sitting here.
Often, as facilitators, we may think that being present only means being confident. It is about demonstrating an assertive and strong self who is ready to guide the group through some difficult conversations.
But sometimes, being present is also being warm and accepting of the ‘negative’ emotions belonging to others and yourself.
Even if it means being uncertain of what will happen. You may have faced ‘difficult’ participants that ask seemingly impossible questions or give responses that are off tangent. Would you discard them, or treat them with warmth?
Facilitation also means bringing all of oneself, even one’s insecurities. You, as the facilitator, would not have all the answers. And you’re not expected to!
Rather, you are there to facilitate the group through finding some of these difficult answers, or even to have the courage to start the journey.
Being courageous yourself, admitting to some of your vulnerabilities and insecurities, can sometimes help to break down barriers in the group, bringing greater psychological safety to the group.
Feeling the Pulse and Pace
To be constantly attuned to how the group is feeling, Sabarudin Hashim, a process facilitator, recommends that facilitators do pulse checks and pace checks regularly.
At critical junctures, facilitators can do a pulse-check by checking in with the group and ask, “Is this session going the way you would like it to?” Another way is during the coffee break, where facilitators can approach participants and ask them privately. Aiming this at quieter participants can help you better understand how to engage more of the quieter members of the group.
The pace check is done to ensure that the session is going at a comfortable pace for the participants. Simple questions such as “How is this session progressing for you? On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being too slow, 3 being just right, and 5 being too fast, let me see what you think.” This can quickly gauge the participants’ reception to your pacing of the session.
This constant checking and readjustment along the way can serve to make your session more effective.
Mind your language
“Ah, tio boh? (Hokkien for “is this right?”)
Try guessing where that process facilitator said that.
You would be surprised. It was a focus group, run by a university. You may have expected posh English. But it was on elderly issues.
Language can distance us, or draw us closer. Being mindful that you are not only understanding what people, but that you’re understood can play a big difference.
Mind the exit
Often, after the transformative experience they have had with you, your participants emerge from the cocoon of the facilitative environment you have created, returning to the real world.
Planning for this exit can ensure that we do not only bring our facilitative presence when we are there, but that we also leave it with our participants.
Too often, the end of our sessions is filled with requests for feedback forms, a hasty goodbye, and promises to keep in touch.
What can perhaps work better is an intentional planning of how our participants exit the session, so that your facilitative impact still stays with them, after the session.
For example, psychologist Martin Seligman, who introduced the world to the idea of positive psychology, suggests that people learn how to see what can be done when they do not fully implement something. Or if they successfully implement one of their plans, they can brainstorm options on how to celebrate!
This builds a culture of possibility, rather than problems, whenever they face challenges in implementation.
This can also ensure that even when you, the facilitator, are no longer with them, that a culture of positivity and possibility, remains with them.
It is all about the balance
Facilitation can sometimes be like steering a ship through a storm. That can mean that you are scared, unsure about whether you’re doing the right thing, or leading the ship to crash.
But perhaps therein lies the balance required in facilitation.
To know that as you lead participants through stormy change, that you’re there fully present., you accept and embrace the storm, sailing with them through it.
John is excited about helping young people to brave challenges of the 21st century and writes about how young people can flourish in work at liveyoungandwell.com.
If you desire to be hone your skills as a process facilitator, check out our SPOT on Facilitation™ and Virtual Facilitation Workshop™ by contacting us at email@example.com for more information.