Slow & Facilitation

When I first started considering the concept of Slow, one of the reasons it resonated with me was that it is completely congruent with one of my other passions, facilitation (the art and science of serving a group to enable it to perform its best work, among other definitions). Here are a few of the congruences. 

1. Presence and intention as the facilitator’s main role

I consider presence and intention to be at the heart of the Slow conceptual framework and I am wondering if this is also true for facilitation.

One of the things that was first impressed upon as a budding facilitator, was the motto ‘first facilitate thyself.’ This means developing self-awareness and practicing staying centered because facilitating groups is an emotional and psychological journey. We must do this because the most fundamental role of the facilitator, it could be argued, is catalysing presence. Presence allows a group to connect to each other, act cohesively, be more aware of what is going on during a discussion and be in the ‘flow’ of the conversation, ensuring the purpose of the gathering receives  full attention.

To me, it feels like facilitators act as a pivot point for the group. We help keep the focus and energy grounded in the room. Just like the physical act of pivoting requires grounding and stability, acting as this pivot requires the facilitator to be connected to themselves at a deep level and present to what is going on in the room so that the energy can be orchestrated.

From the outset of a workshop, the facilitator must be centred and present (I call this being ‘Slow in space’) because how the facilitator is will greatly affect how the group enters the room. Emotions resonate and catch on. I’ve heard it said that it takes about 20 minutes for everybody in a meeting to feel the same emotion so a facilitator must be how they would like the group to be. By helping a group slip into a more present and connected state, we enable them to remain cohesive, keeping a sense of the collective. Once members start forgetting their common purpose and act as individuals with competing interests then the focus on achieving the team’s goal is lost.

How we ‘set up the space’ is crucial to how the group functions. Part of this is how we help the group connect with their collective intent. How people are invited to show up goes a long way to framing the intent. Then surfacing that intent explicitly during a workshop, ensuring that there is a common understanding of what is the intent of the group at this particular meeting.

2. Facilitators use ‘Slow’ tools

I propose that the core Slow principles can all be translated into skills and practices that we use to implement Slow in our lives. Facilitators likewise have a set a tools that put Slow principles into action in group settings.

Slow practices Tools of facilitation examples 
Presence we use being present to the group to sense what is going on with the dynamics of the groupwe use being present to ourselves to monitor our own reactions and sense our intuition so that we can be of better service for the group
Mindfulness & Slow Thinking we help groups think about problems from different angles to minimise biases influencing decisionswe use ‘noticing’ as a tool to help the group become aware of dynamics which may influence their work
Reflecting we allow silence to give the opportunity for reflection as well as building in reflective activities to encourage insight
“Connection to self”: depth, centredness we use connection to ourselves as facilitators to remain grounded and not be swept up into the emotion of the groupwe draw the group members into a state of presence, asking participants questions to invite them to slow down and look inside
“Connection to others”: presence, empathy, coherence  we use dialogue as a tool to enable empathy, a crucial factor to group being able to act as a group rather than a bunch of individuals
doing less things but doing them well avoiding ‘over-processing’ the group to keep them busy doing stuff to make it look like a productive workshop
relaxation use of playfulness to open the group to new ways of being
honouring natural rhythms and cycles taking into account how groups form and maintainworking with the cycle of problem identification and solution forming; moving through divergence with dialogue and then into convergence with deliberation 

3. Help avoid the quick fix trap

Humans err towards quick fixes; over-simplistic solutions that take action in the immediate term. Why? We are equipped with biases that help us survive. These evolved out of the need to avoid life and death situations. Now our survival issues are usually less immediate but our brains haven’t quite caught up. For example we are designed to want to eat calorie-laden food which served as a protective mechanism in the past but now is killing us with chronic disease.

Biases that steer the decisions of groups towards quick fixes include:

  • action-oriented biases – we are overly optimistic about the outcome of planned actions and overestimate our ability to influence future outcomes leading to jumping into solutions where more caution would be warranted. We think the quick fix will work
  • legacy bias – we have an emotional attachment to investments already made, leading us to prefer directions stemming from that legacy
  • current moment bias – we prefer decisions that result in pain in the future rather than in the present
  • stability biases – tendency toward inertia in the presence of uncertainty; we don’t want to see real change, just enough change to make it seem like the problem will go away

Fast culture also exacerbates a natural tendency to focus on immediate issues. We don’t want to wait for anything anymore.

Facilitators with a good knowledge of how groups make decisions can help take the bias out of decisions ensuring that a sound process is followed for example:

  • discuss biases explicitly
  • ensuring sufficient time is given to problem definition and options generation to avoid action-oriented biases
  • explicitly exploring major uncertainties to avoid over-simplification of the issues
  • drawing out a diversity of views, including those that contradict the opinion of higher ranked individuals
  • making sure that those with skill, experience and different points of views are invited to participate in decision making along with those with rank and authority
  • ensure the appropriate work gets done to assist decision making outside of meetings, for example data analysis, working groups assigned to explore different hypotheses and options
  • create an environment of trust so that people with differing opinions feel comfortable to speak up; disassociate views on the issue from personal conflicts
  • use visual aids as transitional objects to help keep the discussion objective and ensure all points are being taken into account
  • using criteria for decision making
  • get some or all of the group to play devil’s advocate (‘premortem technique’)

These are just some of my initial ideas and I know there are many more experienced facilitators out there! Would love to hear your thoughts on the above and your ideas on how Slow gets implemented through the work of facilitators. We are going to explore some of these topics at the AFN WA event on Thursday April 10. All welcome.


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