Meta-practice makes perfect

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. – A. Einstein.

In most cases, a difference between theory and practice is being ignored. Sometimes the facts are blamed. “We need more research”. Or we could revise the theory and run into another Einstein quote:

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius (and a lot of courage) to move in the opposite direction.

In facilitation we do have theories. They are also called methods or techniques. They lead to results. In practice, however, an actual situation may require another theory-in-use. As we do not seem to reach the intended result. You may blame it on resistance, unwillingness, defensive routines, whatever. You may try to apply more energy, more of the same. Won’t work.

We need a practice and to practice the practice. A community of practice on facilitation makes perfect sense.

In communicating about this, I call this a meta-praxis. The “meta-practice” I espouse, looks like a theory, feels like a theory, but isn’t a theory. It is about being aware of your practice while practicing. Facilitate yourself, while facilitating. How does this work? Only in practice!

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The meaning of facilitation – and it definition

Cover book Conversations on FacilitationIn my opinion, there is no definitive definition of facilitation. Its definition depends on context: situation, group and requirements. This is true for every concept, but because facilitation is about the creation of meaning – once you know the meaning of you situation, you can decide to act (or not) -, it is double so. On the other hand, here is what I’ve written in our book:

Facilitation Processes or skills by which a (independent outside) party supports → meeting(s) of participants to move toward improvement or resolution of a → problem. Usually more than two parties are involved.
Facilitation can operate at many levels, from providing → meeting space to active intervention as a → mediator, → moderator, → chair, → coach, counselor, → MC, manager, teacher or → trainer.
Supporting parties to set ground rules and designing agendas for meetings, promoting better communication between parties, and analysis of the situation and possible outcomes—in general, helping the participants keep on track and working toward their mutual goals. It may also mean helping them set those goals.
It is procedural assistance provided to enable → participants to → communicate more effectively and move towards agreement.

If you want to know more, please buy our book or download the Glossary of terms on facilitation.

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Relating relationships

Nicholas C. Westbury posted a question in Systems Thinking Network. What is your perspective on ‘relationships’ ?

As a facilitative facilitator, I was drawn to this question. Here is my reply (with some comments between { [and even highlights] }):

300px-DrawingHandsAre you familiar with the drawing by Escher of the hands drawing each other?

{Of course, the picture illustrates a paradox, an illusion. These are not “drawing hands”, but a picture of “drawing hands”. And hands cannot draw each other. Or do they? Furthermore it is a picture within a picture.}

That’s my perspective on relationships: I’m in the process of both drawing something which is drawing me. When I/you relate to something, I/you create (“shape”, or ship) in the same movement, a relationship with my/yourself. So I’m also “drawn” and “drawing” and “being drawn” in the process of drawing. And in doing so, there emerges a (fourth) “thing” I can call “meaning”. In Dutch, the word “drawing” (tekenen) is the same word as “meaning” (betekenis).

{You see [ (:-) ] , I’m drawing – with words – a picture here of both “I” and “U”. Of course, it is a picture of “U” and not you (dear reader). Yet, as you’re reading this – you are relating, creating relationships – you create a picture of “U 2”, and “I” and “U and I”. So you’re both hands too. For practical purposes, we’re not aware of this double interact – off course.

Yet, this “unawareness” is – in my opinion – the source of our (systemic) problems. For instance, the situation with the refugees at the “border” of U-rope has its roots in our “unawareness” of the fact [a word that also means “to create”] that I (relate to) am drawing U and U are drawing (relate to) I. “there are no others, only human beings“. Drawings within drawings, pictures within pictures.}

Meaning, in my opinion, is an emergent quality of relationships. Or, to put it differently, what is being created (“shaped”) emerges from the relationship it-self. So a relationship is also self-referring. Please note the use of “to make” (the Latin facere) and again (“re”) {yes, fact again}. Relationships also recreate “me” {or should this have been “I”?}. We have been trained to ignore, that every relation contains a creator. And this “creator” has to be both “U” and “universal”.

{so from this, it is easy to see how a universal creating [a being I can call creator or g’d or the great drawing drawer [yes, Spinoza’s God. As this being coincides with the meaning and therefor the meaning of life, it explains why it has been written “in the beginning there was logos” (words)”]} is being (re)created from every relationship AND that this creating creates both “I” and “U”. There exists nothing outside creative relationships [facilitating facilitators, pun intended]. I’ve also hinted at a fact [created by me and “I”], that this universe should always be fourfold and that the fourth element – meaning, or fire – cannot exist without the other three [“I”,”U” and US (U and I)], both destroying and recreating “this” full stop.}

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Meta-meeting, being in a meeting implies having a meeting.

cartoon figure of speachCommenting on a Pulse by Ruben van der Laan, it occurred to me, there is a distinction between being in a meeting and having a meeting. In every meeting you attend, you’re having both: you’re having a meeting and are in a meeting. The distinction is subtle and the enigmatic part of “a successful meeting”. It requires a participant (sic) to move between one “part” (having) to another “part” (being). Becoming a facilitator.

People both meet to make sense of their situation and to make sense of the meeting. As a meeting is “a situation” also, the latter classifies the first. You could call the sense making part the “content” (what and how?) and the meeting making part (who and why?) the process. You cannot resolve – to quote Einstein – a problem on the process level through the content. Nor vice versa. A meeting is therefore also a meta-meeting (a meeting about meeting). The latter part often goes unnoticed, AND is the source of difficulties in having a successful meeting. As you do not notice this source, you’re bound to try to “improve” meetings through the what and how, the content. For instance by SMART-goals and better agreements. And reinforcing the stale-mate.

So every meeting also constitutes a pragmatic paradox: there is a social difference between “who is having the meeting”, owning, chairing and “who is in the meeting”, attending, sharing (pun intended). At some point of time, the content part can only be “solved” through the process part. The process part of the meeting (context) becomes the content of the meeting (text). The chair might not notice this and continues pushing the content. Then participants can only “solve” their situation by resisting (escalating), “leaving” the meeting mentally (stagnating) or both. The body is there, but the mind has gone or You check out any time you want, but never leave.

Facilitators have developed a kind of sixth sense to move through these two interlocked parts. They – we – operate at the limes, the border, the edge, moving seamlessness between content and process, to balance between stagnation (“converging”) and escalation (“diverging”), translating the literal into the figures of speak and the figurative into text.

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Complex adapts to complexity

This is part of discussion in Linked-In group Systems Thinking about the definition of complexity

sjabloonfilterComplex as a response to complexity

Over a year ago, I was in a session with a very good friend of my, who introduced us to “Complex Adaptive Systems”. The session ended in total confusion, you might well say: it had become “complex”. I suddenly realized that the psychologist Carl Jung uses the term “complex” for the compensatory mechanism in the human psyche or soul. The complex arises from our need to adapt to our “context” (we generally use the term “environment”, but you could also call it “family”) So “complex” is the manifestation of a “complex adaptive system”: complex is recursive and as such, just another word for “system”, something we also find hard to define.

Another aspect is our tendency to try to get a grip on our context, environment, situation. We have a need to survive and have developed this idea of having to be “in control”. And when we’re not in control, there should be something that “is”. In my opinion, this is a condition for tool making. In order to make and to use a tool, you must control the tool. If you do not control the hammer, or a broom ….

So tool making – as a way to adapt to our environment – lead to the belief (or assumption) that either we should be in control or we’re being controlled. In my opinion, it is both, but not at the same time (i.e. a paradox). You make the choice yourself, but have to stay responsible for the consequences of you choices. A bit like the sorcerer apprentice: when you let the broom fill the well, you cannot fall asleep.

Tool as language as tool as …

Language – according to Rik Smits, Hoe Taal de Mens maakt, – is a by-product of tool making. I agree with him, the signs of this are all over in our language. Language is a meta-tool: you need to have a concept of a hammer to invent a hammer. Use of “invent” intentionally, as I adhere to the notion of an “invented reality”. When we invented hammer, we also invented a (new) reality, a.k.a. environment or “complex”. Recursion again.

But it gets worse (more complex): as language is also a tool: we want to use it “to get a grip” on its meaning, its use and the definition of terms. We are lead to believe, that when we have the correct definition, we know how to use the tool. It is a bit like Alice in the Forest of “no names”: when the deer doesn’t know your name, it cannot be afraid of a human being.

However, when we define a word, we also make choices and what we didn’t choose hasn’t gone away. So when we choose “hammer” for a hammer, we’re also stuck with “not a hammer”. We use our ability to choose “not a hammer”, when we use a shoe or a screw driver to hammer a nail. My mother would say: “that’s not a hammer”. In making the choice, “not a hammer” has become part of “complex”. In order to adapt, we create a “complex adaptive system”.

To add insult to injury (that’s what happens, when you use hammers in philosophy 🙂 ): “… referring to something being non-integrable” (note: quoting from the discussion) IS the very essence of complexity. You cannot control “complex” by defining it; you cannot control complex by definition.

Pay attention please
Here is my most quoted quote from Alice:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

…. and ….

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

So just pay extra (with attention), when a word like “complex” is being coined (!). There probably is a hidden meaning about the context, or somebody is playing hide-and-seek.

Dealing with complexity yourself

The real problem is the conception of reality inside our selves: we’re in the business of inventing reality. This, I’m a bit like “nobody expects Spanish Inquisition”, and realizing that shared understanding is the result of working together and not a kind of precondition (again, I’m referring to the discussion: ).

At the moment, I’m developing the idea of the Lelie cycle, as a compensatory mechanism for the Deming cycle. The rational approach to complexity is PDCA, Plan –> Do –> Check –> Act –> …; the irrational approach works like this ACDP:

Act: do something, based on instinct, intuition or feeling ->
Check: check yourself: is this what I really want? Is this bringing us closer to what we intuited or felt or need? –>
Do: go on, or change and do something else (–> Act) —>
Plan: write a plan, create a history, tell others —->

I developed this approach and a friend and colleague pointed out, that this is how the cynefin (which means “Heimat” or “home-as-in-upbringing”) model approaches complexity: just “probe” (in Dutch, the word “proberen” means “to try out”).

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Techniques for engagement

On Linked-In Meeting Architects, I replied to a question on “What techniques do you use to boost participant engagement?”

Achieving results by using the diversity of the group.

Achieving results by using the diversity of the group.

This is NOT a technical issue, it is relational. Engagement is a paradox too: most participants feel a reluctance to participate.
Engaging is about

  • disclosure – What do you want to share about yourself? What do the others share?
  • trust – How safe is it to share? What does the other really share?
  • intimacy – How meaningful will this relationship be? Will the other be honest to me?
  • regression – How I feel overwhelmed and small by the group.

(See Smith and Berg, Paradoxes of Group Life for more)

Need to participate
Participants “want” to contribute, to play (= regress) and at the same time need to know what they’ll get for. They want to speak out AND want to be heard. So, they (all) wait for each other, concluding – as a self-fulfilling prophecy – better not engage truly. They’ll “go through the motions”, but in the end, everybody will feel dissatisfied AND will not admit it (disclosure, remember). The facilitator will be blamed.

Energy boost?
In most cases, as a chair person or facilitator, we tend to put more energy into the meeting: “boosting participation”, creating an event, presenting things more clearly, using pictures, charts and video’s. Its not wrong, but it may back fire. People may become even more overpowered (more regressed: as a child listening to parents). They’ll feel less intimacy, because of the light, the pictures and the sounds. They’ll have more distrust, because, why do you need so much power? What is NOT being said and they’ll feel less heard themselves. Finally, almost every time, the obvious will be communicated, the clear, what must or shall be done. There’ll be no space for doubts, insecurities, real feelings. It will seem to be engaging, but in the end, nothing will change, no “happening”.

Free to participate
First of all, I assume that everybody wants to engage, and has to become engaged out of their own. As a host or facilitator, I’m not an entertainer, wanting you to be engage. And if you do not want to be engaged: fine with me. I value your presence. The fact that you honor us with your presence, energy, attention and time, is good enough. So, I do you use the techniques – ice breaker, splitting up as soon as possible, polling and presenting (and some more) -, and at the same time with the intentions to stimulate what the participant needs: trusting the situation to be safe enough to regress, share, feel close together.

Show it; fake it, if you must
The best way to this, in my opinion, is to show this behavior yourself, preferably together with your client. You share your own feelings and thoughts, are not afraid to make errors or mistakes, talk about your doubts and insecurities.For instance, play on stage, have an interview, let the participants ask questions. Then you spit them up in mixed groups, let them talk about what they’ve just experienced, have them create how they “see” the problem. Then – after a break – let them build their solution(s), share and formulate actions they themselves can do.

Most client try to shift the burden of engagement to the event organizer. I don’t fall into that trap: the client remains responsible for the engagement of the participants. We’re there to support.

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Surely, a certificate is not a paradox

Faciliteren van dialoog

Faciliteren van dialoog

I’m a bit old-skool. I do think certification is important, for every profession. I took a certification for myself and my Community of Practitioners, the IAF. It is a kind of peer review. There are no objective standards, although I know we try as best as we can.

More and more certification is being used as a marketing tool. A certificate is something which makes us stand out in the crowd. It tends to become a kind of insurance policy for clients, (human resource) managers and (lazy) buyers. A certificate is being asked for each and every action. It makes sense in the aviation and safety industry, but not in our profession. But, in the foreseeable future, there’ll be barrage of certificates (also on facilitation), creating a kind of inflation of certificates. And then there’ll be a super certification process. In essence, it will mean that you’ve paid your dues.

I would recommend a very big disclaimer:
Although we take great care in establishing a sound and reliable certification program, it does not warrant that our certification process certifies a candidate’s facilitative competence or abilities in any specific circumstances. The certificate is not intended as a means of selection between parties offering facilitation services and should not be used as an alternative for an interview.

Paradox of Authority
And, off course, it is a paradox, the paradox of Authority. Authority is a derivative of an authorizing process. The problem in our case – facilitators – being, that authority is closely linked to empowerment. Facilitation is about self-empowerment, being able to act autonomously. For instance, can we still claim to be independent as a facilitator while we’ve been certified as a CPF, binding us to a code of ethics? I have said earlier, that facilitation is a kind of Milgram experiment.

The question becomes: “who certifies the certification and its assessors?”. It will come as no surprise, that they’re self-assessed, creating a strange loop, or infinite regress, the hall-mark of a paradox.

Resistance in hiring a CPF facilitator
This – in my view – is also the biggest resistance against hiring a facilitators, as it does seem to imply that a group (and perhaps mostly it management) feels inadequately empowered to solve its own problems. It is always painful to have to ask for guidance, support or help. When your facilitator comes with a lot of certificates, it may be depressing for you. our kind client.

Again, I’m not against CPF or any certification, there is only a caveat emptor (buyer be aware).

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Leadership and facilitation

Six leadership typesJeppe Lajer asked me: “What do you think a leader or facilitator can do to raise his/her capacity to love working with groups while being conscious of his/her inadequacies?“. The answer is: “I don’t know”. But of course, i do think.

Leadership and facilitator draw from the same source. “li” or “lea“, is from the Sanskrit “yui“, meaning connection. Ship means to create, to make, as does “facere“. So both mean “making connections”. The main difference, is the location and attitude. Facilitation means making connections between people within a group, while leadership means make connection between inside and outside. Both have to work with the paradoxical tensions from the paradoxes of Belonging: Identity, individuality, Involvement and Boundaries (please note that the latter word implies bond or connection again). See Paradoxes of Group Life by Smith and Berg.

A facilitator works at the border, inside the group, looking towards the group. She or he is usually invited to support a group in solving a problem, reaching a desired goal or clarify a situation. The attitude is to support, to look inside, towards the center of the group. A facilitator tends to use images, metaphors, representations, role play, methods to evoke new meaning. A facilitator can use the different leadership styles (see image) as tools for making connections. From feelings (green) to ideas (yellow), for instance, this is “brain storming”. From structured priorities (blue) to actions, this is called “action planning”. Overall, he or she will use the energy from inside, from within the group (green) to establish results. Facilitators make themselves dependent of the group.

A leader also works at the border of the group – sometimes in a session, I take over the leadership position -, also at the edge of the group, but more-often looking to the outside. That’s why a leader also represents a group. He or she can be seen as “the group”, giving rise to problems of dependency. A facilitator will never represent a group to the outside world. A leader usually uses structure, time, money (blue) to develop and implement a vision (yellow). A leader will find it hard “to come down” and sit with the group. He or she will not be recognized as an equal, which complicates leadership. For instance, the information received cannot be trusted.

Tension between leader and facilitator
It will be evident, that there exists tensions between leaders and facilitators. Engaging a facilitator feels somehow tricky. Here we have the tensions from the Paradoxes of Engaging. Can the leader trust the facilitator and vice versa? A facilitator must trust the leader in, for instance, the freedom of participation. How much distance between the leader and the facilitator? Too close, and they’ll be seen as conspiring. Too far apart and there is no real exchange of information. The leader must be open, willing to share, to disclose to the facilitator what he or she fears or loves most. The other way around: a facilitator cannot say everything he or she hears while working with the group. And sometimes, the group will share insights no leader wants to hear. How to communicate this? Finally, a leader feels regressed when he seems to need an outside facilitator. Like in the following metaphor.

I would label the tension as playing between king and magician*) (archetypes, not real cabbages and kings). Both are male archetypes, taking in strong positions and enabling change. Magician, wise (wo)man, teaches and supports young king. He charms the group with his tricks and fire works. Once established as king, king may feel threatened by the powers of sage, his engagement with the common people, the ease of his traveling up and down. And even have him banned. King will find it hard to employ sage. Sage will stay independent. And also, it gives the impression of king needing help, being weak or even vulnerable. That’s why a facilitator may become fool, jester, joker.

Implication for facilitators
How to deal with this? What to do? As we’re dealing with the paradoxes of Engaging, the most important part is the intake. When we’re meeting a client for the first time, we can only make mistakes. So, Go Slow, keep room to maneuver. Remember, you’re a pilot on a ship.

  1. Always start with sharing a personal problem or situation. For instance: “I’m afraid of becoming bald (or gray, or having dandruff,… )”. Or “i feel both exited and impressed by …”. Or even: “I do not know where to sit”. This is an instance of “disclosure”
  2. Always talk with the client about the resistance towards the facilitator (or consultant, or project manager). This can be done directly, “how do you feel hiring a facilitator?” or indirectly: “how does the group feel about hiring a facilitator?”.
  3. Try to sit next to the client, his right hand side. Mirror his or her behavior, maintaining eye-level contact. Don’t look up and don’t be looked upon.
  4. If present: use the white board to summarize point or support the conversation. Invite the client to stand up too. This will also speed up the conversatio.
  5. Go Slow: test your assumptions. When the client asks you to support his views, create space. Don’t agree and don’t disagree. Say something like: “Based on what you’ve told me, I can see where you’re going”, or “I can follow your reasoning” and add: “.. lets wait and see how it develops” or “I cannot conclude this right now, I’ll make a note..”.
  6. Be acutely aware of the first few sentences of the client. Write them down immediately, word by word. The client needs to disclose what is bothering him or her. It cannot be done directly, because, well of the differences, the trust-issue etc. It will always be stated symbolically. (the interesting thing is, the theme will re-emerge later in the conversation. So it is not a very big deal, when you’ve missed it.)
  7. Summarize in the words of the client. Just repeat what is being said. Do not try to make an interpretation.
  8. When you do not understand something, just ask. Start with a TLA, Three Letter Abbreviation. If there are too many, just ask one in three things.
  9. Regression is the hardest part. Stay away from Parent – Child communication, like criticizing, or being instructed. Do not ask “why (do you think)?-questions” and re-frame “why?”-questions from the client before looking for an answer. Share your feelings, without attributing them to the behaviour of the other.

Kung-fu Panda
So, like Po, lead your life: becoming what you destined to become. And again, this is not a destination, this is a becoming. When you do your work, love working with groups, groups will support you in becoming conscious of your inadequacies. They’ll aways do that, by the way, but when you don’t recognize your own shadow, they’ll tend to use you to block their own development. (see “how do I recognize a CPF?”

*) This is – I think – why Will McWhinney uses this metaphor in his Reality Inquiry (Creating Paths of Change, p 18 – 27).

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How to recognize a facilitator?

Off course I’m hard to follow. That’s why I’m making a mess of my blogs. For instance, this one is here, on one of my other sites: Faciliteren als Tweede Beroep. I did add a few suggestions.

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LEGO Systemic Play

facilitatorsInn2JPGLast Friday, at a meeting of facilitators called Facilitator INNovation, I introduced a new approach I’m developing for – amongst others – an intake. The approach is based on using LEGO(tm) figures in a constellation, arrangement or system, mixing it with the games or plays of change.

Systemic work
In systemic work, we usually represent a given situation by human beings who “represent” elements of the situation. These representations, take in positions relative (!) to each other. In working with the tensions between the elements and their positions, usually there emerge some possible “outcomes”, which can be explored. A solution is being offered through the system, without an explicit analysis of the situation and without trying to understand (in my opinion, “control”) the given situation. The approach is holistic, mindful, non-dual and based on working within the unknown. Solutions present themselves spontaneously, often more as an insight, a “knowing” or acceptance of “what is”, rather than a concrete action. But often it highly creative solution present themselves.

In family therapy, these are most often family members, represented by “strangers” or “others”, not family members. In organizational settings, we usually represent functions (as opposed to people) and other elements. For instance, a report, a budget, or any other relevant elements. Furthermore, most of the time, we have involved participants, who may be invited to take a stance, take up a position for an element. In complex situations, where a lot of (emotional) resistance is involved, I more than once noticed that participants have difficulties in expressing the position of an element. The emotional or systemic pressure becomes too much too bare. Mind you, this is a subconscious process, and easily denied. It is also not something to be discussed in groups. And, as with an intake, sometimes, we do not have participants present. In these cases, we can use objects, articles or even cards with words. While working with these issue, the thought occurred, that we could use small LEGO figurines, as elements in a constellation.

Using LEGO figures
The use of dolls of figures is not uncommon in situations, requiring mixed emotions, complex causes, and therapy. Even in e-mail, sms and Twitter we regularly use figures to convey emotions: :-(, :-|, 😉 etc. Our ability to project our feelings into them makes them more accessible to us and others. We can safely split off our emotion, thought or intuition, project them into the puppet, (re)search for alternatives and solutions and re-own them. Projection in communication precedes use of words, as every baby knows.

LEGO figures are available with many different bodies, faces and attributes. Although most are male based action figures – police, carpenter, pizza-boy, …., more and more female and fantasy figures are available.

Intake of a meeting
In this experiment, I asked facilitators to represent a situation of an intake for a group meeting. One facilitator brought a case and played the client. Another acted as facilitator in the in-take. I stipulated that a client usually already has an idea of a solution and an appropriate meeting. Also, the client usually feels insecure, is unalble to tell what really is playing and doesn’t want to loose face.

The play board consists of four squares or area in four colors: red, blue, yellow and green.
In the center is “the presenting situation”, represented by a white block
First, the facilitator chooses a figure to represent her or him and puts it on the board.
The the facilitator invites the client to choose figures and put them om the board:
– one element representing him as client
– one element representing his of her leader, manager or boss
– several elements representing parts of the relevant groups (this might be from the same type, to make it easier)
– element representing the environment


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