Who is afraid of a facilitator?

A tweet by Joyce Matthews, reminded me of our check list in our compilation of 24 cases of facilitation.

A facilitator getting results in a situation with big cultural differences

We adapted a questionnaire by Sandy Schumann, compiler of the IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation. It’s in our book Diverging Conversations through Facilitation.

The list is based on objective aspects of your situation. Here you can find the list Do I need an external facilitator (pdf).

And no, you don’t need to be afraid of hiring a facilitator.

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Facilitating with the brain in mind

This is a first post of facilitating with the brain in mind. I’m writing this series while developing work shops, master classes and training course about applying knowledge about “the mind at work”. On another page, I’ll give a list of the literature I’ve used.

To Design Thinking or not to Design?

Taylor and Marieua (2016) clearly state: “the brain has not been designed to think“. The brain serves the body in surviving through guiding its motions. Brains facilitate – make easy -, survival. Survival implies firstly and foremost moving away from danger, dark, predators, rotten food, bad people. And secondly, moving towards good stuff, like light, puppies, good food and fellowship.

Learning these things provides the keys for survival. Learning, as an adult, wasn’t necessary. Until a few decades ago, when our self-induced changes caught up with us.

Only creatures that move – swim, walk, fly – developed brains. Plants didn’t need brain, as they didn’t move. AND also the other way around: moving induces brain development, learning.

Moving helps to explain why our neurons cross-over. The left part of a brain controlling the right part of the body and vice versa, seems a design error. It’s not. Evolving nature works practically.

If there’s danger or food on the left side, you move you right side. Forwards or backwards. Like in a canoe: peddling to the back on the right side, moves the vessel to the left; peddling to the front on the right side, moves you to the right. As the first is easier then the latter, we tend to call doing the things to the right right (and “left” is associated with “dark” or “sinister” in Latin)

Most cultures use a “relative” direction of motion. We point and move relative to our body. Up and right is “good”, down and left is “bad”.

When I said, “I thought, …. ” to explain my behaviour, my father used to say: “let a horse do the thinking, their heads are bigger”.

Thinking is a very late addition to the repertoire of brain. That’s why it takes years of training. And we’re still very poor at it.

We cannot work and think at the same time. We derived the word school from the Greek “leisure time. It consumes a lot of energy. Better to practice sport and moving.

Lessons for facilitating

Always give with your “right” hand.

Consider your position. When moving or pointing to something “right”, point to your left side with your right hand. The participants, sitting in front of you, see you pointing towards their right side. With the left (right!) part of their brain.

Paradoxical intervention: moving away from a group, will be sensed as “flight” from something “bad”. So always move towards what feels “bad”: resistance, an interrupt, a problem, a situation. Move away, when all seems “right”.

When feeling stuck: move. Most meetings are conducted sitting down behind tables and afterwards, “nothing happened”.

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Hersenen niet ontworpen om te denken

Denk niet aan denken

“Je moet niet denken”, zei mijn vader vroeger, “laat dat aan paarden over, die hebben een groter hoofd”. Je hersenen zijn niet ontworpen om te denken. Dat maakt denken ook zo vermoeiend.

Hersenen komen voort uit bewegen. Lichamen bewegen. Planten bewegen niet. Ze hebben daarom geen noodzaak voor zenuwen en hersenen. De Eerste Beweger moest beslissen welke richting in te slaan. Naar het licht! En maakte zich zenuwen – je begrijpt nu waarom – en hersenen.

Bewogen beweging

We bewegen in twee richtingen: weg van gevaar, opgegeten worden, kou, donker. En in de richting van veilig, eten, warmte, licht. Dat eerste voorkomen heeft prioriteit over het bereiken van het tweede.

Vandaar dat we bij faciliteren altijd eerst veiligheid bieden. Heet ze welkom. Beweeg bij het begin naar de deelnemers toe. Bied ze een warme ontvangst – koffie, hete thee. Hou het licht aan en serveer iets te eten.

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“I’m not black” – inventing identity

In “Us and Them — The Science of Identity”, David Berreby makes the point that it is incorrect to talk about race at all. “We should talk”, he writes, “ about the way conduct and cognition (my italics) are racialized.” (p321).

The word behaving  — “to conduct” and “to know”— is a verb. You identify somebody through identifying. And not: identification. I’ll show that identity (gender, race, class, nation, …) is not a fact, but an act, a way of acting. There is no such thing as “identity”, only processes of “identifying”. 

Identifying makes sense. And this is why Berreby calls “us and them” a sense. It’s very hard to survive, when you cannot “make sense”. 

In making sense — thinking —  we have to use categories to distinguish “things” (I would have like to write “thinks”). As the Daodejing says: “Once the whole is divided, the parts need names”. So first dividing, naming second. 

And then we’re stuck because we cannot go back to “in-divided”. Naming implies being divided. 

You can only be “black” when you’ve called something “white” (and vice versa). You have to mention another category — I propose “human being” -, to get around this. But then, it doesn’t “solve” a problem any more, because there is none. Or, well, another one: mammals versus human beings. 

You make up categories in your mind. You invent categories. They’re not absolutes, like black and white, but relatives, like you and me. 

Words have no meaning. If I had written this in Greek, Chinese or Arabic, these words would not carry any meaning. Except for a Greek studying Arab with a Chinese parent (interpunction intentionally ambiguous) . 

Human beings assign (attribute) attributes to things they sense and act as if these are absolutes. This makes sense in emergency situations. Watch it. 

Using words as absolutes makes sense in simple situations. “I see a lion” — or “here are berries”. From those situations, we have learned that “words carry meaning”. It’s called the “conduit metaphor of communication”. (yep, there are metaphor on metaphors). 

Words don’t speak, humans speak.When a word refers to a thing, somebody refers to a think (couldn’t resist). 

Referring nouns to a process, verbs, creates problems. There exists no such “thing” as communication (only communicating), no such thing as “hope” (only expecting, or “hoping”) … . Words have no meaning, only a human being has — or should I say “is” — meaning. 

A trick, we currently massively employ, is using your position of power to determine the meaning of words, meaning your meaning. Using the conduit metaphor people create a “sender → channel → receiver” situation in which the sender (I) determines the meaning of the message encoded in words. The receiver (you) has to follow as instructed. 

Please ignore this message. 

We fall in the same trap, when we use the conduit metaphor in answering. You cannot say: “you should use another word for race (or black and white)”. Or, “you should not use these words (on me)”. As this reinforces the situation that created the situation. We end up in power games, discussing about who is right over what is true. (Nothing is always true, and not even that). 

What we’re learning to apply is sometimes called “toolmaker metaphor”. I like to call it “inventing metaphor”. We invent words, sentences, — metaphor — while conversing. So in one conversation, I can say “black”, in another “human” and in a third “I don’t know” about the same “thing”.  

My dear (very) dark-skinned friend Mary startled me, the first time she proclaimed: “I’m not black”. And she couldn’t be more clear. 

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mind@work VOF

mind@work has become a “Vennootschap Onder Firma” again. There’s again a partnership between me, Jan Lelie and Godard van Randwijck. Godard and I have been business partners since 1996, until about 2006, when he decided to move to Italy.

Since July 1st, we’ve been cooperating again and just today – August 21st 2019 – the Dutch Chamber of Commerce verified and accepted our documentation and contract.

The (new) registration number is Kvk-nummer: 75628252

Godard will work mainly from Italy and I’ll work from The Netherlands. We’re again serving individuals and companies with facilitation and software.

If you want a copy of our partnership contract: you can find it here:

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Facilitating brains at work

Change requires changing your mind, mental models. How do you make up your mind? And how to facilitate this in a group. I developed this story in response to a question in Quora: Does the brain take steps to react in a linear fashion?

A brain doesn’t react, nor does a brain take steps; a living being does. To react doesn’t require a brain. I can refer to Newton’s Third law of Motion: action = -/- (minus) reaction. Any body exerting a force on anybody, exerts an equal force in opposite direction. Mass is the natural way a body resist change; that’s why we call a large group “a mass”: they resist change in equal force.

A body reacts to external triggers. Our body works also by (re)acting without bothering the brain, sometimes called reflexes or instincts. You may notice this while walking or riding a bike. These patterns of behaviour have been tuned to the perceived environment.

I once fell standing in a bus at the bus stop, because a bus next to us in the bus station started to drive. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, the windows of our bus were foggy, and my body “thought”, we moved, so reacted to the perceived motion. I fell in a standing bus. The other way around: you’ll get carsick, when driving and trying to read, as your body and brain process conflicting information.

Brain. An apparatus with which we think what we think. (Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Dictionary (1906); republished as The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)). And we think in metaphors and not in language. For instance “a brain taking steps” is a metaphor. We speak metaphor. I’ll use your metaphor of taking steps, to illustrate how a brain works in a non-linear way.

Human beings mastered the art of translating metaphor into language. The funny thing is, that the word “trans-late” literally means “to carry over” as does the word “meta-phor”, over (meta) to carry (phora). They combine in a nice cycle of steps: ….–> metaphor –> translate –> metaphor –> …

Step 1: remember to recycle

Step 1. A brain also works in cycles, recycles, step by step. A brain reacts on reactions by “remembering” the action-reaction cycles of the body. Please notice the use of “member”, a synonym of “limb”.

Every part or member of your body is represented (or recreated) in your brain and these parts “remember” the motions (that’s why we use the metaphor “emotion” when the feeling has been translated into “motion”). This works through feedback cycles of neuronic activity. In a way, they emulate the cycles in the body. The brain/nerve system structurally couples to the body system. You cannot separate the two.

Step 2: invent a future

Step 2. And now the tricky part: based on past experiences, a brain (re-)creates the future of a next step. As she – I assume a brain is female – “knows” or remembers the cycles, a brain can induce next steps. – Automatically, as a response. In a way, the brain projects the next steps or frames of a cyclical movie on the situation. Using past experiences, you “know” what to expect.

A brain “invents” or “feeds forward” the future. Freeman, in “How Brains Make Up Their Minds”, (I’ve got a signed copy of the book!) calls this an intention. We are intentional beings. The intentions seem to come from our brain, but they’re just repeated or remembered actual “steps”.

Step 3: check the future against reality

Step 3. The next step (sic), the body/brain system checks the intentions with the actual situation. If they match, no problem. Back to step 1, the neuronal cycles are reinforced. They grow into “habits”, patterns.

If they don’t match, “Houston, we’ve got a problem”. Then the body/brain both reacts to it and learns.

Step 4: adapt the cycles

Step 4. The body reacts by trying to find balance. These reactions triggers (I don’t want to use “informs”, as there is no actual exchange of information) the brain cycles and creates, based on the perceived gap, changes in the brain cycles. So, as I told, I fell over in a still standing bus. Much to the amusement of others.

The differences between intentions and actuality “make” the cycles adapt, or “learn”. Please be aware, that I’m using metaphor. As intentional beings, we tend to read intentionality in every situation. I consider this a by-product of our thinking and not an attribute of reality. The universe, as I like to say, doesn’t care. It makes sense to assume there is a goal, purpose or meaning, because sense-making frames a situation. On the level of neurons and brain, they’re just cycling through action-reactions. As Step 5 shows.

Step 5: re-sume cycles

Step 5. Also, very strange at first, after some time, the adaptation in the brain cycles disappears. Freeman has shown this in very interesting experiments. The “old” or “previous” cycles reappear, and now generate “the same pattern” as before. The patterns do not stay “changed”, which we assume. They revert back to the original patterns.

Here we have to distinguish between the working of a brain and that of a computer. An image or experience is not stored in the brain. There is not “an illustration” or “a picture” of a computer in your brain, nor are their neurons labelled “computer type”. A networked network “remembers” through shifting patterns. As I wrote somewhere else, a brain works like a symphony orchestra. In a way, the violins (and cello’s, and flutes,…) just start repeating a previous theme. This is why we like music so much. Off course, the neurons involved don’t “know” this. But we’re back at step 1.

Side step: giving birth to unlearning

Side step: Interestingly, we need the pains of a mistake, error or loss, to induce producing neurotransmitters to “unlearn” previous cycles of behaviour, in order to remember (learn) new ones. Training, by the way, also makes use of “unlearning” neurotransmitters: exhaustion produces a “high” not unlike some drugs.

Freeman shows how all these processes produce oxytocin, a neurotransmitter which enables neurons to make new connections through – paradoxically – destroying existing ones. As a metaphor, oxytocin gives birth to new cycles and stories. As we’ll see …

The purpose of language is to remember the future

Now in most animals – living creature with a brain -, the experiences of the “mistake” are forgotten. They may have scars, but they cannot remember their causes. Only that they sometimes stop or wait, based on the situation. They’ve learned or adapted.

As we’ve invented language (I think it’s more because of inventing tools, but that’s another story. In a way, tools to throw improve the ability to project into the future. I do seem to remember written about it on this website), human beings are able to “remember” their past.

who do you think you are?

Our brains duly recycles the cycles of experience through stories. You may notice, that your brain seems to produce a stream of consciousness, never ending stories (or dreams). So we tell stories, histories, over and over again, because else we forget who we are and don’t know where to go.

Off course, another metaphor: a body “knows” who (s)he is. You are who you are, like it’s what it is. A body is always in the Here and Now. The brain may mediate between past and future. You may just get confused through the meta-cycles of neurons: brain activities somehow “aware” of brain activity. Planning for the future induces self-awareness. Get a mind and get a self for free.

As I wrote earlier: a brain produces the future, using “models”. What happens in reality encodes neural activities, these activities tune-in on each other and decode into actions, also called “realising”. (Based on Robert Rosen – Life Itself – I’ll delve deeper into this later). The brainy models-in-use adapt through the body – also a model – to real reality.

Long story short: inventing and using (throwing) tools induced developing metaphors, which in turn enables developing languages, digital communication and a sense of self.

Step 6: Change metaphor

Step 6. We’re re-remembering the future from our past. We both adapt to new situations and – unlike other animals -, remember the conditions and can condition others not to make the same mistake. As we’ve invented language, writing, printing, computers and now – voilà – internet.

By using our brain and language, we can exchange metaphors. With written language, we can exchange metaphorical messages without being present. My bet is, that many people were against inventing writing, because it would spell the end of story telling and remembering. With a printing press, we can start sharing on a wide scale. And nowadays, well, look around. But this didn’t change the way our brain works. We just shifted thinking about how she works.

A brain doesn’t work linearly, but cyclical, a bit like spirals, arabesques. The cycles are interlocked: there is no beginning and no ending. They develop themselves, in response to triggers from the outside. The cycles “behave” inside their own environment, closed off from the outside. They create and maintain a model of their environments – it can be proven -, to which they’re structurally coupled.

A brain differs from a computer as a fish differs from a ship. The latter we shaped (that’s why I used the very word “ship”), while the first created itself. A brain is not a machine, nowhere near.

Human beings can now go back to Step 1 and (after some thousands years of recycling) “step on the moon”. The next steps may be of interest to facilitators.

Step 7: interfering with change

Step 7. Now here comes the role of a facilitator or catalyst: in educating a group of human beings into new behaviour – or “change” -, telling someone what to do or not to do, will not be enough. Nor having the same intentions or a common vision of the future. Change means action, interaction.

Stories don’t work like programs, nor like algorithms. Stories do not resemble software. Stories work as heuristics, invented inventions. They’re lengthy metaphors, modelling real life situations. Stories “change” and we change, as we change our stories. And this involves recognizing “loss”.

As intelligent animals, we still need to experience experiences, the physical, “exercise”. We have to “work-through” emotions. So we call our meetings a “work-shop”.

Our body produces oxytocin, to change the cycles of thoughts in our brains. Brains “resist” producing oxytocin, as if she “knows” it will change her. So in facilitating we have to mix body work with brain work and thinking and feeling with (inter)acting.

Sometimes, this works through emotions, letting people express resistances. Sometimes through hard work, exhaustion. Sometimes through playing, role-play, simulating or constellations. Strang as it may sound, we have to forget our remembering, step over our losses, accept “defeat”.

Here is another good way to produce oxytocin: laughing. Having fun, playing, eating together. Irrationality, playing the fool actually enables change by promoting the bonding hormone. Off course, this is not yet an acceptable way in rational organisations. We’ll have to frame it as “serious play”.

Implementing other behaviour, other cycles of remembering, has to happen immediately after the release of tensions. A facilitator accepts the “negative” emotional feelings, expressing resistance, letting go, channels these into realizing – re-enacting -, other intentions.

So, I structure a session like a story. Starting with a prologue, individual work. Then looking for support, mentors, creating some first results. Then we dive into the deep: uncertainty, doubts, ambiguity, let’s say VUCA. As we reach the “counter point”, the dark, the unknown, tensions grows. A facilitator supports the development of tension. Big changes require big tensions. Then we get to turning point, the point of “letting go”. Here we usually meet the dark aspects of change: anger, fear, jealousy, sadness.

Then we pass through, somehow finding what somebody called “the goat path”. Or not. That’s all right too. Some times it takes more time, then we expected, fooled by our brain. In the end, I try to establish a new framing of the old patterns.

Change works best in small steps in the right direction

At the end of a session, I ask participants to write down what they intend to do differently tomorrow. Better to take a small step in the right direction, then a big one in the wrong.

Then I ask them: “if you don’t do that, or if it doesn’t work, what could you do then?”. In this I way, I prompt them to pre-evaluate their tensions between intentions and failing, defeat. I’m using the ability of the brain to predict their future. In doing so, I might prevent snapping back to previous, inadequate behaviour with changing actual behaving.

Just a loose remark: the price we pay for being able to put a man on the moon (‘a small step for man, …’) is remembering our losses.

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Musical metaphor of the brain

Your brain works like an orchestra, composing tunes attuning to your environment. This is a musical offering as an alternative to a brain like a computer.

The metaphors you use, frame your thinking. Using the machine or computer metaphor to describe the working of your brain, makes you wonder why neurons work with synapses and not with direct connections. here is my answer to the question posed on Quora.

The architecture of a brain differs radically from the architecture of a computer. You better not compare a brain and brain cells to a computer with components transmitting signals; for one thing, because a brain came before a computer. The metaphors will never match.

I hear music

I prefer a metaphor based on music: the brain takes part as an organ (pun intended) in an ensemble of “playing instruments”. The individual parts – the cells – play their own tunes – like cello’s (!) – and attune to other cells. They make up an orchestration which is in tune with their counter parts and subsequently their environment.

I think it is important to note (!), that they not only play their own composition (!) but also compose their own works (a.k.a. “opera”). The different patterns of interactions, one could call melodies or moods (!). Like in any musical offering: molto con vivace, allegro, andante, largo, … all in tune with “the audience” or environment. A program now consists of several musical parts, like a musical, opera. This is why human being like musicals and The Sound of Music.

Also neurons work rhythmically: they have a certain “firing frequency”, which shifts depending on their mood. When exited (!) they fire rapidly OR more slowly then their basic rate. And some do it vice versa: more rapid when at rest and more slowly when exited. Using the synaptic gaps, which can be inhibitory (slowing down) or increasing. they invite other cells to join in more, of to become more silent.

This composition (or architecture) enables a living organisms to stay “tuned” to its environment. Combining bio-electrical frequency dependent signals from neurons with chemically induced excitation or inhibition of these signals AND at the same time using these as cues to grow or shrink the number of neurons and their connections (a.k.a. learning), creates and maintains the structural coupling of organisations with each other.

You should reverse the question: why don’t computers tune their frequencies and connections by learning from the programs they’re running?

The invention of a computer changed the self-image of human beings. We used to think we were intelligent animals, now we seem to think we’re just stupid, slow machines. We didn’t change, our thinking did. It’s time to change our thinking again and design systems that can think for themselves.


Now, a facilitator acts as a composer – creating a composition of sessions, parts, arranger – adapting the composition to the situation and the group, a conductor – guiding the participants to “play along”, and an instrument player – like the leader of a jazz band. You allow for the dissonant, the blue notes, the contre pointe, as they’re the “key” for resolving the situation. You switch between these positions and trust the band (probably a better name for a team) to perform.

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Weer een VOF

Hoera! (English see later)

Met ingang van 1 juli 2019 gaan Godard van Randwijck en Jan Lelie weer verder als vennootschap onder firma. Naast het faciliteren en katalyseren van groepsbesluitvormingsprocessen, gaan we weer software ontwikkeling doen voor zowel onszelf als voor specifieke bedrijfsprocessen.

Godard woont en werkt vanuit Italië, mind@work blijft zelf gevestigd in Nederland.

mind@work is in 1998 opgericht door Godard en mij. Aanvankelijk brachten we methoden en technieken voor faciliteren en software voor computer ondersteund vergaderen – mind2gather – en andere software. Indertijd als twee eenmanszaken. Na zijn verhuizing naar Italië hadden we steeds minder samen te doen en besloten we de VOF op te heffen. Nu, zo’n 10 jaar later gaan we weer samen verder.

English: after a period of about 10 years Godard van Randwijck and Jan Lelie decided to join forces again. After Godard moved to Italy we decided to our own ways. Now we feel the need to work together again.

We’ll deliver facilitation services, training in facilitation and software for improving group decision making processes and more general software,

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mind@work training op zee

mind@work biedt een unieke benadering voor het faciliteren van groepen en katalyseren van veranderingen. Ga met ons in zee! Dat kan voor de eerste keer van vrijdag 30 augustus t/m zondag 1 september. We varen op het schip Nova Cura, waarschijnlijk vanuit Harlingen.

Jan Lelie
Jan Lelie legt het nog een keer uit …

Aan boord is naast Jan Lelie ook Judith de Bruijn. Jan – Faciliteren als Tweede Beroep – weet alles van omgaan met groepen; Judith – Hooggeëerd Publiek -, biedt haar ervaring aan professionals. De twee kennen elkaar al jaren en hebben eerder met elkaar trainingen gegeven.

We stellen het programma samen op basis van de wensen van de deelnemers. Gedurende de training maken we gebruik van “wat er is”, om met elkaar tot inzicht te komen. Na afloop heb je concrete toepassingen tot je beschikking om in je eigen situatie in te grijpen.

Heb je zin? Neem contact op met janlelie@mindatwork.nl Je ontvangt dan in ieder geval het boek “Faciliteren zonder Omwegen”.

Over de kosten: we delen de kosten en daarnaast betaal je een fee afhankelijk van je draagkracht en mogelijkheden. Kan je een en ander via je organisatie laten betalen? Denk dan in de orde van 1200 euro (ex btw). We geven een “niet goed – geld terug” garantie (behalve dan van de logistieke kosten).

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Tell what you’re talking about

The biggest challenge in communicating consists of using the “tool maker metaphor” in conversations. All too easy we assume that using the right words implies knowledge of the things spoken about. In facilitating conversations ALWAYS ask people to tell about what they’re talking about. Here is a clear warning by one of the biggest geniuses the world has known, just because he didn’t know the names.

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