What Is Facilitation?

    Written by Calvino Rabeni for Play As Being.  (Draft 5)

    I wrote these notes for a theme session in Play As Being on the topic of Facilitation. (It includes some empty links).  The purpose is to collect concepts and questions related facilitation, especially in the context of a group like Play As Being that emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and contemplative modes of understanding. I make liberal use of the Play As Being Chat Logs, which are a rich source demonstrating these ideas in discussion and application.

    The following were "theme sessions" or related to facilitation:

    Starting Points

    Facilitation means "to make easy" - but for who, and how, and with what purposes?

    In the first theme meeting on this, Eos made the poetic formulation that:

    Facilitator = Midwife

    I liked that image of the facilitator as someone who helps something be born, assisting the mother to bring something new forth, something that has been growing in a hidden place.  It also reminds me that the process may be long and not necessarily easy.  A traditional idea is that the midwife befriends the new soul and helps it make the transition across the undefined place, between being in the womb and being in the world.

    There is of course a level on which facilitation deals with tactical issues - the specifics of a particular purpose, message, and audience. For facilitating a Play As Being session, for instance, the facilitator probably has a few web links, note cards, and an elevator speech or two handy. But assuming that is covered, how about the big picture?

    Let me propose the following as big picture assumptions. Try them on :)

    • Facilitation is what everybody knows how to do already.
    • Facilitation merits ongoing, reflective study.
    • Facilitation is the practice of how to be fully intelligent together.
    Facilitation is boundless as a subject area. The art and practice of facilitation are worth long-term attention: teachers, counselors, coaches and other helpers have it as a primary concern. Facilitation is interdisciplinary and holistic, drawing on all one's prior experience.

    Beyond the question of "How can we facilitate PAB sessions?" I am interested in a couple of broader perspectives:
    1. Behind Play As Being and its meetings there is a bigger theme - "Life As A Laboratory" - which I think of as the application of contemplative skills and awareness to understanding and living one's own life and, by extension, "looking at Reality". A natural extension of this idea is to consider "Play As Being a Laboratory for Facilitation". That is, how do the contemplative perspectives of PAB open up the topic of facilitation?
    2. I have been gathering ideas about a larger context I call Co-Facilitation. I believe there growing social movement, enabled by many factors, that is about people developing the skills and structures to help one another be more effective in what they do. I think there is a general "paradigm shift" happening on the level of social intelligence (Cointelligence).


    I reviewed the PAB session logs and it is clear there is a lot of interest in facilitation and related issues.

    Some have to do with defining the topic - what facilitation "is" and consists of. "Facilitation" could be a term referring to the process of people systematically helping one another be more intelligent. There are many types of helping relationships, including:
    • Facilitation - The art of helping a person (or group) with some process (which could be open-ended or not well defined). The client "owns" the project, not the facilitator.
    • Coaching - A type of facilitation, that is often focused on learning particular skills or goals.
    • Mentoring - Facilitation that involves an ongoing, one-on-one relationship in which the facilitator (mentor) is more experienced.
    • Co-Facilitation - A symmetric facilitation relationship between peers.
    • Communication - A fundamental skill of facilitation.
    • Dialogue - Another fundamental skill of facilitation.
    • Therapy and Counseling - These overlap with facilitation, but have a more specific focus.

    Other themes are about the subjective perspective of the facilitator. I think it is a fundamental notion that the art of facilitation happens in the context of the awareness of the facilitator, and that subjective factors - attitudes and perspectives - really matter.
    • Service - A service orientation means that the facilitator's motivation and attention is on assisting and benefiting others.
    • Intention and Focus are hard to define, but imply keeping "on purpose" or mindful of a particular direction, objective, aim, quality, and so forth, rather than drifting or being distracted.
    • Presence is a state of awareness that people may enter into individually or as a group. This is another quality that can't / shouldn't be defined, but can be experienced. The PAB group often reflects on this theme - for example, see this session log.
    • Beginner's Mind is a state of mind in which things are open and full of possibilities. It can coexist with experience and with being systematic and skilled, but this might be a challenge for an expert. See these session logs.

    There are also themes about process:
    • Group Dynamics - Things get very complex in a group, and this process is like water to the fish. I am an observer of group dynamics but defer to the more experienced when it comes to defining what skills are appropriate for a group facilitator. There are some basic conceptual tools that are useful for understanding what goes on in a group.
    • Leadership - roles and responsibilities. A facilitator exercises leadership skills and assumes some roles and responsibilities with respect to what happens. A facilitator does not impose or control the agenda, or define goals.
    • Purpose is an understanding of the ultimate aims of the facilitated process. I think it is valuable formulate  purpose statements and review them from time to time. For the Play As Being group, for example, there is a discussion of what PAB is, and is not: Keeping Purpose in mind and Guidelines for Meetings
    • The Container - This is a metaphor for the holistic sense of the bounds of the process and practice. It defines the experienced context and limits for the activity. The Play As Being sessions are a container. A meeting with a facilitation is a container. The notion of Life as a Laboratory is a bigger kind of container.

    Orienting Questions and Themes

    I asked around, perused the chat logs, and collected a few orienting questions:

    • What is most important (or most needed) right now?
    • How do you support people to think larger and deeper about things?
    • What is communication?
    • How "directive" should a facilitator be?
    • How does facilitation differ from or relate to "leadership?"
    • Ponder your own questions here!

     and guiding themes:

    • Relating to that inner place from which awareness and action come: personal PaB practice.
    • Going from personal to group, community, societal practice: so as a group coming to and from a shared inner place.
    • A facilitator as holding a container for the group, and as helping call forth the group's own sense of itself as a container, a productive space.
    • That interplay of personal practice, being open yet precise, being willing to lean into the sharp points while also being gentle (that's part of how I see PaB, it's a kind of personal warriorship), with group activity, where all that is done in a shared, societal manner, is a key motivator of my interest in PaB and similar explorations.


    I'd like also consider questions about effectiveness in facilitation.

    The following log entry is mostly about communication (and difficulties with it) in relationships outside the PAB context, but many of the same issues and skills apply to facilitation: Speaking Plainly

    There seem also to be lots of experience related to how things break down or "go wrong" - although I would like to refer to the idea that "going wrong" is simply another invitation for learning. What are some familiar patterns where things seem to be "not working"?  What gets in the way?  Everyone has some favorites, and learns to recognize / handle / work with them.

    The concept of wu-wei is a code word for skill in action.  The opposite, of course, takes 10,000 forms. Communication Breakdown? Intellectualizing? Recognizing the "right use" of the mind is a subtle, but I think we can notice when it is helpful and when it isn't.  Stereotyped rules of thumb like "don't be conceptual, be experiential" are, of course, right some of the time!  For instance, I think everyone has experienced dialogue that goes astray with:
    • Too much (many?) semantics; urge for "clarity", philosophy, theorizing.
    • Ungrounded or off-purpose speculation

    There are also many discussions on a linguistic level, about the power of language, how it can get in the way, how words limit thinking, and so forth. This can be fascinating in itself, but I think it can also be a fly-trap, as in "let's define our terms before we can proceed". This is so familiar and ingrained that it is useful to entertain perspectives outside that box. For example:
    • Communicating Beyond Language - a PAB session log on the idea that communication need not be intrinsically limited by language.
    • Thinking Beyond Patterns - a reference to work by the philosopher Eugene Gendlin, liberating intelligence from language and fixed patterns. 

    What about "subtext" in communication?  Understanding the context of communication is one of the most important things for a communicator or facilitator. The "subtext" will not go away, and in fact that is where the meaning lies. A rationalist might wish for language to be unambiguous, but actually, content is not King, and context is infinite, so it's best to proceed from that understanding.

    Staying With Basics

    Are there general or overarching "perspectives" or assumptions - principles - of facilitation? I think that depends on what is useful to each particular person doing facilitation - what it might help them to keep in mind.  Many of these have the character, not of technique, but of "obvious" basics.

    A quote (attributed to Anais Nin) states the basic fact that:

    We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. 

    This is not an esoteric statement of philosophy, or a warning about intellectual hubris, but rather, a reminder to remember oneself in the act of seeing the world.

    • Remember yourself - every act of perception looks both ways at once. 
    One very nice statement sums up the importance of Compassion as an enabler:

    The deeper a question, the less you can say about it on a general conceptual level. You cannot pin down the nature of reality, cannot capture it in words — yet you can point to it, and if there is enough mutual resonance and understanding, you can most definitely communicate. But that kind of communication does require a type of cultivation, a readiness and openness and willingness to see. And as Dakini expressed it:

    Dakini Rhode: one of the reasons the buddhists focus so much on developing compassion….
    Dakini Rhode: so that one can understand other people and what they might need at their particular stage

    If we think we have figured things out, and try to tell others what the truth is like, we are guaranteed to miss the mark. But if we learn to see the limitations of our own concepts and conclusions, and if we at the same time cultivate compassion for others and for ourselves as well, we can begin to shed all ideas and words. We can leave them at the door, like shoes we take off. Entering the room and sitting down together on the carpet of compassion, we can open our hearts and start from scratch, fresh, with what is at hand — with was is, not what we have, not what we have brought in. The more we can leave what we have at the door, the more we can share what is.

    In the context of Play As Being, the themes of Mutual Presence, sometimes also called satsang as an extension of the idea of sharing spiritual knowledge, are often important.  To quote from the session log:

    genesis Zhangsun: sure. I think I see the role of the assembly in assimilating truth in this group as very different from the type of communities that this person is used to

    Pila Mulligan: yes, and traditional satsang usually involves assembling around a guru or teacher
    genesis Zhangsun: to sum it up simply, I see us as buddhas reminding one another that we really are buddhas, whereas I think this person sees the role of the community as working to support one another arrive at buddhahood.


    The Important Basics 

    What occurs to you, when you think about the "important basics"? Upon reflection, and reading the session logs, the following seem to emerge at the top of the list:

    • Paying attention
    • Respect
    • Mutual regard
    • Not being judgmental
    Many people express, one way or another, that appreciation is very important. Some disciplines of facilitation, such as Appreciative Inquiry promote this as the central principle.

    For those big picture ideas I like to step back from the instrumental "how to" perspective and look at background, or basis (foundational things). This is often the Elusive Obvious.

    What would I put on a list of "important basics"? 

    First on the list, perhaps most basic, is the profound, slippery fact that:

    • All knowledge (and mental activity) exists in the context of consciousness.

    It's not in representations, not in words, not in rules, not in neurons, etc. except in a secondary sense.

    Next is the fundamental importance of Context and Perspective (see logs):

    • All knowledge (and mental activity) exists relative to specific contexts and with specific perspectives.

    A skilled facilitator is adept at understanding the wide variety of contexts and their associated perspectives that people inhabit, and working with them.

    In addition to appreciating the perspectives of others, a good facilitator is able to flexibly adopt or "step into" perspectives appropriate to their facilitation or learning tasks.  This is a basic skill of facilitation - and of learning in general:

    • Perspectives confer knowledge and skill.  A facilitator facilitates her or him-self by adopting perspectives suitable to situation at hand.

    Communication (see logs): is fundamental to facilitation.  A basic idea from NLP states that:

    • The meaning of what you communicate is the effect it has on the listener.

    Then there is the dynamic tension between two opposite, true perspectives:

    • Everybody is different - People have individualized needs, desires, objectives, characters, cultures, experience, and so forth. A good facilitator is cognizant of this and can speak to people in their own frame. This is discussed in the session log A great teacher.
    • Everybody is the same -  Assume everyone is human, everyone has some universal concerns that overlap, and that there is common ground. There are also large scale commonalities at cultural levels. If common ground doesn't seem to be there, some kind of awareness is missing.

    Going With The Flow

    A facilitator follows people's "energy", keeping things compelling for the people involved, by paying attention to their positive motivations - where they seem to want to go.  This quality, in the large, may be referred to as Play or as Eros - a positive, life-affirming energy that is always present, even in seemingly "negative" things.


    States of Mind - And Their Uses

    By now it may be apparent that one of the most important things affecting skill in facilitation (or any activity) is the subjective (also called "internal") state of mind of the facilitator.  I think it is worthwhile to spend time paying attention to this, teasing out distinctions, learning descriptive language for it, and making these more definite by engaging in conversation.  (In fact, a lot of what goes on in Play As Being is exactly that).

     A basic idea, then, is that skilled facilitators can recognize their own states of mind, and perhaps to a lesser degree, adopt (step into or cultivate) states useful for a particular task or context.  It is worth considering the general idea that

    • Any state of mind is potentially a useful resource for some activity.

    Religion, philosophy, and psychology provide a rich vocabulary for qualities or states of mind. Here are some concepts I've found useful (these words adopted from Japanese Zen / martial arts):

    • Sho-shin (Beginner's Mind)  This is the fresh state of mind that sees things as if new, free of prejudices, concepts, formulas, and habits of action. 
    • Mu-shin (No Mind)  This is an empty, formless, or non-dual state of mind that makes no distinctions but creates the space for any distinction to emerge.  This is typically cultivated by meditation, but with practice, can be an aspect of attention in active, non-meditative states.  In action, it may be experienced as spaciousness, flexibility, freedom, or non-attachment.
    • Zan-shin (Abiding Mind) This is a relaxed-but-fierce, unbroken, gapless, concentrated state in which mind and attention are focused and "immovable" (not swayed or distracted by experiences).  Think of the samurai or cowboy showdown, the tightrope walker, the surgeon. 
    • Self-consciousness.  (There's a "shin" word for this that I don't recall - please send a note if you know it).  In contrast to the previous terms, this refers to a negative quality of mind - an opaque self-awareness in which a person is nervous, focuses on self-concept issues, and is distracted from seeing the rest of the world clearly. 


    The Art of Hosting

    The notion of Hosting is another organizing metaphor for facilitation.  It's basically the same idea as Container, but if that metaphor comes from cooking, or chemistry, "hosting" comes from a more social tradition.  The venerable job of the host is to create a suitable environment in which a group of people can be at ease, enjoy themselves, pursue their own agendas in a gracious manner.  This metaphor has been used by groups who train organizational facilitators.  

    The same idea in another guise is the notion of Sponsorship, which has come up in the practice of psychotherapy. According to some, the most important thing determining the effectiveness of "talk" therapy is not the specific techniques, but the relationship - the atmosphere of acceptance and trust that the client has with the therapist. The therapist "sponsors" change in the client - allowing, modeling, and maintaining positive expectations.  A wonderful and nuanced description of this process - addressed to psychotherapists but valid for facilitators - is found in the book The Courage To Love.


    What Is Most Important Right Now?

    This question is an orienting question, a wakeup reminder.  What, in the full context of being human, is the most important thing in facilitation?  Several factors are important in general, but at a given time / place one of them may emerge and need special emphasis:

    • Knowledge?
    • Problem Solving?
    • Relationship?
    • Presence?
    • Communion?
    • Feedback and reflection?

    Other things I reflect on might seem either esoteric, or completely obvious, depending on one's experience and/or stance with respect to subjective aspects of knowledge.
    • Return to Basics - you can't possibly have too much "basics", in terms of revisiting the fundamental issues of what you do.
    • Presence as a factor in communication - Presence as Communication
    • Looking at Motivation - it is important to look at why people do the things they do, even more than at what it its they are doing.
    • Finding balance between polarities and being fully dimensional. Process can be seen as a kind of alchemy of opposing tendencies. To be fully human is to be capable of a large range of experience and behavior - to encompass opposites. Sometimes this requires observing habits or tendencies and then moving against them (swimming upstream).
    • People get fixated on a specific perspective or notion, the idee fixe. A facilitator can respect these ideas but provide a greater context of possibilities around them.  A "Yes, and..." response is often a good approach.
    • Non-contextual intelligence and limits. I haven't had time to develop this notion, but both intelligence and limitations typically do not reside in a specific context of activity. It can be liberating to notice this. I hope to develop this more later.

    Some "System" Perspectives in Facilitation

    Now I want to move from the facilitator viewpoint to a brief review of more systemic perspectives on facilitation.


    As a general statement, facilitation has something to do with leadership, and something to do with power.

    • Much study of facilitation is in the context of organizations, their needs, and the consultants who serve organizations.
    • Facilitation is regarded as a mode or skill of leadership.
    • Coaching - Facilitation applied to the needs of individuals in the context of their normal affairs, such as life planning, professionalism. There is a growing industry in each of these areas.

    For some links, see http://delicious.com/ca1vino/facilitation.

    Inter- and Intra-Personal

    To an extent, each of these perspectives assume what I call the "cult of the expert" - the idea that facilitation is a specialist skill, like accounting or operating heavy machinery. I want to advocate for more "internal", more personal, more "peer-oriented" perspectives on facilitation:

    • Co-Facilitation - Create one-on-one relationships in which you learn to help each other in a systematic way, with personal issues and goals.
    • Self-Facilitation - Do you have internalized authoritarianism? Do you tell yourself what to do, and then feel pulls in many directions? If this doesn't work so well with groups in the real world, why should it work inside you?  There are many independent "voices" and needs/desires/objectives within an "individual". Why would it work for one stronger piece of "ego" to take control and expect the others to obey "its" commands?  There are also many people working with "voices", a kind of internal facilitation.



    I want to promote the idea of facilitation as an interdisciplinary endeavor.

    • Although specific skills are useful, facilitation is an art that involves holistic knowledge that doesn't fit neatly into categories.
    • Skills of "internal" facilitation are partly transferable to the other facilitation contexts. People who can relate skillfully and compassionately to their inner "voices" and shadow material are likely to be more capable when other people carry those same perspectives.


    Contexts and Frameworks

    Learning to_Learn is a fundamental attitude towards skill in any area. I think it is interesting to read the session logs to see various ways people think about "how they are doing" while they are doing it and after while reviewing the logs. For example, see The Guardian's Dilemma.

    Facilitation is an art, not a recipe- or rule-based procedure, but having conceptual frameworks can aid learning, and perhaps even aid in-the-moment activity. 

    You already know a lot about all the important contexts, but a framework can help as a memory aid.  The AQAL four-quadrant framework, and suggested for the PAB tagging guidelines, is as good as any.  This is designed to organize all knowledge disciplines and perspectives into a single - "integral" - descriptive model.   It makes two main distinctions, which combine to make four "quadrants":

    • Upper - Individual
    • Lower - Collective
    • Left - Subjective / Interior
    • Right - Objective / Exterior

    It's not necessary to study this in detail, or analyze its metaphysics (unless, of course, you enjoy doing so!)  For the purposes of facilitation, this framework helps one remember many basic perspectives and questions, including but not limited to:

    Upper Left - Interior/Individual (I and Thou as Subjects)

    • What is your (the faciltator's) subjective experience?  What do you see, feel, imagine about things?  How do you interpret what is going on?  What are your goals and intentions?
    • What is the subjective experience of those you are facilitating?  What is (your guess about) how they experience things?  What do (you think) they want?  What (do you think) are their goals and intentions?

    Lower Left - Interior/Collective (We as Subjects)

    • What is the subjective experience of being in relationship? 
    • What is it like "working together"?
    • How do we feel together?  What do we expect from one another?  What "values" are important?  Is there "trust"?  What is our "common ground"?  What are our differences?

    Upper Right - Exterior/Individual (Him/Her/It as Objects)

    • How does this individual behave?  What is their gender?  What is their profession?  What do they know? Where do they live?  What skills and knowledge do they have?  Where are they in their development or life cycle?    

    Lower Right - Exterior/Collective (Systems as Objects)

    • What is the nature of the social "systems" that people are a part of?  What is their cultural background?  What language do they speak?  What are their political / religious beliefs, assumptions,  customs?  What do they believe about being a member of a group, of a community?  What group norms do they subscribe to?  

    I think it's worth noticing that the lower right (interior/collective or intersubjective) quadrant is much less developed than the others, as demonstrated by the relative scarcity of language and concepts compared to the other quadrants.  Religion, spirituality, and psychology, for instance, have a rich and nuanced vocabulary for internal and  subjective states, and relatively little for describing phenomena in the "We" spaces.

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