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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

Going to Extremes

I'm a liminal person. That just means I'm one of those "edge" or "outlier" people. I've never felt truly at home in any group, so I wander around and look for patterns within and among them. I build relationships where I can with a few close colleagues, and I partner whenever possible across disciplines.

My facilitation life is no different. I try to stay connected with practitioners across fields like Technology of Participation, Liberating Structures, Art of Hosting, and Human Systems Dynamics. But, wow, are these cultures different.

I'm not gonna bash anyone, but let's just say that different facilitation cultures have had varying degrees of what I'd call healthy behavior around this COVID crisis. Our hearts are definitely in the right place. We all want to help people have important conversations. But the way we facilitators personally handle the crisis is often informed by the roots of our practice, and it always reveals itself to groups we work with...whether we know this or not.

I once reflected with a friend and facilitation colleague that many of us become facilitators out of disgust or personal pain--myself included. We see that without appropriate structure, groups can be ineffective, taken over by damaging decisions and groupthink, prone to exclusionary behaviors, or even cruel. (See The Good Place Committee for examples of all of these.)

Those who come to facilitation out of disgust or pain can do a lot of damage. We can either provide too many constraints or vague, loose constraints that we hope will create good feelings. The former focuses on outcomes; the latter, on relationships. I've been hurt by both extremes, and I've caused pain with both, too. I have come to cheekily refer to these extreme archetypes as Control Freaks and Love Doctors.

Of course, no person is fully either, but we often are drawn to one or the other. This is particularly true in a time like this, when all of us are under deep stress and constant, invisible trauma. We go to what we know: If we're prone to outcomes, we control more; if prone to focus on relationships, we loosen more. Some examples of what I mean here:

The Control Freak

  • Neglecting participants’ bodily needs—food, drink, bathroom or mental breaks

  • Forgetting to acknowledge feelings, even when asking an emotion-related question

  • Creating and following rigid facilitation plans

  • An obsession with methods—particularly flashy ones or those with a center-stage facilitator

  • Repeated taking over from co-facilitators

  • Repeated adjusting of visuals placed, drawn, or scribed by co-facilitators

  • Repeated restating words/questions of co-facilitators

The Love Doctor

  • On-the-spot creation of group agreements with vague, abstract, idiomatic phrasing

  • Unclear directions that feel like a game of “figure out what the facilitator wants”

  • Overreliance on circle processes

  • Employing heuristics of collectivist cultures within an individualistic culture without appropriate scaffolding

  • Emphasis on indirect communication

  • Unclear direction and neglecting to identify next steps

  • Inner-circle relationship with co-facilitator(s) that can feel exclusive

It gets more complicated: There's only messy correlation between the tightness of constraints and good outcomes. It just depends on what you mean by "good." Further, there's messier correlation between the looseness of "feel good" constraints and better relationships. Again, it depends on what you mean by "better." I'll talk more about that next week.

But in the meantime, notice what you're embodying as you host, especially during COVID-19. Do you flock to structure or looseness? And what have you associated with that tendency? Under stress, it's my hope we'll all pay a little more attention to people and their needs, and to be aware of how our facilitation habits impact our ability to do that.

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