Being Your Own Best Intervention

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Being Your Own Best Intervention

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This informal, participative session explores the ways in which who you are impacts your effectiveness as a facilitator. It combines an overview of basic material with participative discussions and experiential exercises to provide you with an opportunity to look at the impact you have on the groups you work with.


This informal, participative session explores the ways in which who you are impacts your effectiveness as a facilitator. It combines an overview of basic material with participative discussions and experiential exercises to provide you with an opportunity to look at the impact you have on the groups you work with. Of the three things that we bring to facilitation, knowledge, skills, and Self, the Self is probably the most under-examined. While the content of the session will depend on the knowledge, skills, and Self that the participants bring with them, this paper covers the cognitive material that will be presented, along with some background research and references to provide some possible guideposts for further work by the participants.

Target Audience

This session will introduce beginning facilitators to an important part of their learning journey and provide an opportunity for experienced and master facilitators to reexamine, restart, or continue theirs. Pre-Requisites: Ability to spell "facilitation" a must. Previous experience as a human being considered a plus.

Learning Objectives

By the end of the session participants should

* Have a basic vocabulary for talking about the tools they bring to facilitation and the parts of the process where those tools are applied;
* Understand the role the Self plays in effective facilitation; and
* Have explored ways to improve their facilitation through knowing, compensating for, and working on their Self.

Session Content

People who apply for jobs with the US Federal Government are confronted with a section of the job posting called "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities." The people who write these job postings usually assume these three words are essentially synonymous and that some lawyer designed the form and used three words to be complete, comprehensive, and all-inclusive in their language. They just drop in a list of things the potential applicant should have studied or done to be successful in the job.

However, knowledge, skills, and abilities are really fundamentally different things, especially when it comes to facilitation. Chuck Phillips has written that, as facilitators, there are three things we bring to our work:

Theory is a grounding in and working familiarity with the body of knowledge, research, concepts, and models pertaining to the field of group facilitation. This is the knowledge we gain from books, journals, conversations, dialogues, seminars, and other forms of study and learning.

Skills are the practiced ability to act on, carry out, and support the actions and interventions prescribed by the theory that is in our knowledge base. This involves things like listening, presenting, observing, sensing, supporting, challenging, and diagnosing. Skills are developed through experiential learning; apprenticeships; and practice, practice, practice.

The Self is everything we are -- our beliefs, values, and life experiences as they become manifest in our attitudes, needs, and motives. In all of life, and especially in group facilitation, our Self determines our ability to use our knowledge and skills.

Of these three, the Self is the most important. No matter how much we know or how hard we practice, if we are blocked in applying the knowledge and skills we have developed it will adversely impact our performance as facilitators. Conversely, there are people who, because of who they are, have a seemingly natural talent for helping a group achieve results even without the theory, even the first time they get in front of a group.

A friend showed me a book called Body Work, which deals with the fields of massage therapy, physical therapy, and chiropractic. It talks about the fact that there are some people who lay hands on others and just naturally know what to do to help. In my experience, facilitation can be the same.

And yet the Self is the area that we are most reluctant to spend time, energy, and money to work on. We take courses where we learn the theory and practice the skills, but how many of us work on our Self?

Of particular concern are the blocks our self can create to our facilitation. There are two factors that Tannenbaum has pointed out as important to the development of the self in facilitation. [Note that both Phillips and Tannenbaum are dealing with the facilitators of sensitivity training groups, or T-groups, who are referred to in T-group-speak as "trainers."] The first is social sensitivity. This is the ability of the trainer to see what is going on. This relates to the facilitation activity of diagnosis. No matter how many models of group dynamics we have studied, no matter how many diagnosis skills we have mastered, if there is something in our past experience that makes it difficult for us to even admit the possibility of a certain situation existing, we will fail in their diagnosis. For example:

Our own tendency to move quickly to higher levels of inference may keep us from noticing that one or more participants are making unfounded assumptions to the detriment of group work;

The ascendance in our culture of positions over interests may keep us from seeing that participants are arguing over positions when they actually share interests;

An unspoken, unacknowledged taboo against "rocking the boat" in our family of origin may keep us from recognizing that conflict is not being handled constructively -- or even that it exists.

The second factor is behavioral flexibility. A facilitator may have great knowledge, have developed wonderful skills, have made a perfect diagnosis of what is going on in the group, have formulated a flawless intervention, and still feel "blocked" from intervening. Again, something in our experience or upbringing or culture may prevent us from carrying out the intervention. For example:

We may not feel comfortable explaining the theory of levels of inference or the difference between positions and interests: we may feel like we're "showing off" or "putting on airs" or just feel like we'd lose the group.

We may be "swept along" by group enthusiasm and be reluctant to confront the group with the fact that they are not following the process they contracted for with one another.

One of the most prevalent blocks in our behavioral flexibility is communications apprehension: we don't want to bring up what we have noticed because we're not comfortable with confronting people with evidence that their behavior is holding the group back, or maybe we're just not good at interrupting the conversation to bring them back to task.

Chuck Phillips is just one of many authors who has written on the role of the self in our work. An article in the October 1998 issue of the Harvard Management Update Newsletter talks about the personality that people bring to their jobs as being a greater determiner of success than education or experience. Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence makes the case that our learned and automatic behaviors in balancing our rational and emotional parts has a great deal to do with our success. He further specifies in an article in the Harvard Business Review that there are five components of emotional intelligence that show up in "star" leaders. Geoffrey Bellman says, "Our perception of clients emanates from ourselves." Judith Katz and Bob Marshak talk about the role that our Self plays in deciding what gets surfaced in a meeting or conversation, equating it to a prism that bends some things down to remain "under the table" like the dead moose no one will talk about, bends some things up "in the clouds" as aspirations too lofty to bring to this no-nonsense meeting, and passes some things straight through to the table.

To improve our facilitation, we have to determine how to better leverage the strengths our Self brings to facilitation and how to overcome its blocks to effectiveness. The first step in this process is to find out where you are on the social sensitivity and behavioral flexibility continua. You must identify where you are blocked and where you have natural strengths. There are many ways to do this. The first is to ask yourself: to be honest in creating a self description. This will include asking your friends, co-workers, and colleagues. Take what they say with a grain of salt: their own social sensitivity and behavioral flexibility will affect what they are able to tell you. But if you ask enough people, you'll start to get a pretty accurate picture. Bellman gives an outline for creating a self description and testing it on others. Kaleel Jamison talks about identifying your kernel of power: the strengths that make you unique, as opposed to the skills that you have learned or developed. She provides a deceptively simple process for telling the difference: you can read it in a few minutes, and then take several years completing it. Journalling and meditation can also help you in examining your Self.

For many of us, more formal methods of self learning are needed. T-groups are still one of the best forums for self learning. Based on the JoHari window model of self knowledge and using rules of feedback, T-groups provide an opportunity to open the area of free activity by finding out what about our Self is known to others and unknown to ourselves.

The second step is to work with the Self information. There are at least three strategies. One is to adjust your work to match your Self. Some kinds of facilitation, some objectives, some groups and group expectations you may find to be a better fit with your strengths and blocks. The second is to compensate for your blocks. You can work with another facilitator that complements you, having strengths where you have blocks and vice versa. Or you can look for secondary clues that help you diagnose things in groups that your blocks won't let you see directly -- looks or tones of voice or awkward silences that tell you, "Something's going on here, what am I missing?"

Part of compensating for your blocks may be learning to value them. In any given meeting, there are millions of times and ways to intervene. Only a few of these reach our consciousness: our unconscious blocks narrow these down to a manageable number that we can choose from based on more conscious, rational diagnosis. Before we try to overcome a block in our behavioral flexibility, we should check out with others whether maybe it's a good block.

Another, tougher approach is to work directly on the Self to improve your own best intervention. Once issues and blocks have been identified, books, learning labs, and personal-growth courses are available. Many facilitators do a level of "maintenance" counseling or therapy or seek help with specific issues when they arise. The Tavistock Institute in England after World War II required all members to complete psychoanalysis.

The facilitator has to bring what they are to facilitation. And sometimes what they are is not a facilitator: then someone else needs to facilitate and the facilitator wannabee needs to be something else. In fact, I think the most important, most nearly universally needed facilitation competency (nothing works in every case) is the ability to model authenticity -- to bring your Self to the work and challenge all the participants to do the same.

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Phillips, Chuck, "The Trainer as Person: On the Importance of Developing Your Best Intervention," Training Theory and Practice, Reddy and Henderson, eds. The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences and University Associates, 1987
Tannenbaum, R. and Schmidt, W.A., "How to Choose a Leadership," Harvard Business Review, May-June 1973, pp. 95-101 (originally published in 1958)
Prewitt, Edward, "Personality Tests in Hiring: How to Do It Right," Harvard Management Update Newsletter, October 1998
Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, New York: Bantam Books, 1995
Goleman, Daniel, "What Makes a Leader?" Harvard Business Review, November 1998
Bellman, Geoffrey M., The Consultant's Calling, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990
Katz, Judith and Robert Marshak, "The Covert Process Model," part of the NTL workshop "Dealing with Covert Processes."
Bellman, op.cit.
Jamison, Kaleel, The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power, New York: Paulist Press, 1984
T-groups are available through the NTL Institute of Applied Behavioral Science, which invented them, as well as through other agencies. Contact NTL at www.ntl.org
Luft, Joseph, "The JoHari Window: A Graphic Model of Awareness in Personal Relations," Reading Book for Human Relations Training, Porter and Mohr, eds., Arlington, VA: NTL Institute, 1982

This Article is authored / contributed by ▸ Edward R. who travels from Waterford, United States. Edward is available for Professional Consulting Work both Virtually and In-Person. ▸ Enquire Now.

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