Walking the Path of a Mindful Facilitator
I had an insight the other day. It was, “It doesn’t matter what you practice, just practice!” I have more to say on this but first let me give you the context for what I’m talking about. In this blog, I share three reflections/insights as they apply to process facilitation that came to me in my personal 10 day silent meditation retreat.
Insight on Practice
Let’s go back to that insight about practice. I practice a lot of things and I think that’s why I’m pretty good at 3 or 4 key areas in my life. It also gives me a great deal of confidence when I apply the skills I’ve been practicing. It’s possible that some of us hope we can take shortcuts to practicing a skill. Certainly the media and marketing of products and services tend to reinforce the idea that we can instantly be masterful at something if we just take this one or two day course or read a book about something. My life experience does not suggest this to be true. I practice awareness meditation for example. My teacher says that when a mind becomes calm, insights about basic truths both about your life and about the whole of life arise. Sometimes the insight arises as an image or a thought and it keeps building over time. You get new pieces. So in this last retreat, the first thought I had was, “It doesn’t matter what you practice, just practice!” Then I realized there’s more to it than that. It goes like this: Practice. Study it well. Practice well. Get feedback. Practice. Study some more. Practice. Get more feedback. Keep practicing. If we were putting it into a diagram it might look like this.
It is a continuous loop of practice, feedback and study.
For example, when I first learned the Technology of Participation Focused Conversation Method 20 years ago, I used to practice on a daily basis. I would write out important conversations that I wanted to have with clients, colleagues, family members, friends and then I would ask those questions either one-on-one with people or in group situations. I had a mentor with ICA Canada (Bill Staples) and I would often write out the conversations and check them with him. I would observe how people reacted to my questions and if they were clear or not. I also reviewed my sheet of questions after I had tried it out with client groups and made notes in the margins about which questions I used and which questions I did not use. Eventually I was able to come up with a fairly beautiful sequenced set of questions in the moment, i.e. without writing them out. Nonetheless, 90% of the time I still write out my questions and test them out on other colleagues or a representative client group. Why do I go to so much effort? I have learned that a beautifully sequenced set of compelling, unusual and/or authentic questions can break open a group’s thinking. It was worth all this practice. Even after 20 years, I love seeing how other facilitators design their sets of questions. I remain in learner mode. That is a skill and important attitude of a practitioner. Practice with a beginner’s mind.
Practice Something New
Recently I have made a decision to try out new techniques and not always rely on the same old techniques that have worked well for me and that I have practiced diligently. For example, as per my last blog, we used the interview matrix technique. This is a technique that I had participated in (Practice #1), then co-facilitated it with another colleague who had more skill in it (Practice #2), used it in a smaller group setting with peer colleagues (Practice #3), and then finally last month took the lead on practicing it with a larger group. I went back to all my notes and templates and made sure I felt confident using this new technique. I am assessing its success right now. There were some things I would definitely do differently. So my next practice will likely go even better.
Advice When Practicing a Technique
- Make sure you learn a technique or a concept from the original creator as much as possible. This will ensure that you learn it properly and you learn the intent of it. What was it actually designed to do?
- Next, go out and practice it just as you were taught it. Don’t deviate the first few times. See and assess for yourself. What seems brilliant and where you might not completely agree with some aspects of it.
- When you feel very confident with the method and its original form, you can start to experiment with small pieces of it. Be careful not to alter it too much. Gardeners, for example, have a rule to not prune some species more than 20% at a time. That is a good rule as practitioners of new techniques as well. Just alter it a bit and assess to see if you have kept the original intent.
One of my meditation books says this about practice, “So just as developing any skills, you have to be observant, stick with it, be sensitive with what you’re doing, be sensitive to the results, make necessary changes or adjustments and, as a result you keep getting better and better and better at it. Sometimes the improvement is hard to see because it is so incremental. It takes such tiny, tiny steps, but you can rest assured that whatever positive energy that you put into the practice is going to produce positive results. Nothing good you do is wasted. None of your right effort is wasted.” Author Geoffrey DeGraff, also known as Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his book “Meditations – Forty Dhamma Talks”.
Two other insights I will share very briefly with you: one is about decision-making and the other is about level of effort.
Insight on Decisions
Groups Will Make Better Decisions When They Are Calm
At one point in my 10 day silent mediation retreat, probably at day 5 or 6, I felt very discouraged because my mind kept going over a decision I had to make this week. I could not seem to put those thoughts away. They would come back to me over and over again and it seemed that no matter what decision I made, I was not going to be happy with it. It had something to do with the problem with pleasing myself versus pleasing others. When I shared this dilemma with my meditation teacher, she encouraged me to just let the decision come to me when my mind was calmer. To become calmer, she offered a few different techniques such as counting my breath or using words for each in and out breath. I was so grateful for this suggestion and think it will revolutionize the amount of angst I have in making many personal and professional decisions, i.e. don’t try and force a decision when your mind is not calm.
What are the implications for this with the groups we are helping make decisions? What can we do to help them get to a calm state before they make their decision? Are we forcing them to make a decision after little discussion or a frenzied pace of activities? Perhaps it simply means slowing the group down enough and asking them to do a check with their guts, a check with their logic and a check with their value system. If there is internal consistency ideally with all three of these (could be two), then they will feel much calmer and confident about going ahead with their decision.
Insight on Effort
Apply the Right Amount of Effort
When you meditate on the breath, often the mind becomes very disinterested and bored. Let me speak for myself. My mind became very disinterested and bored! The mind gets agitated and so you need to either increase your effort or decrease your effort in watching the breath. When you play around with the right level of effort, it can make a huge difference to how focused and present your mind becomes. For the next many years, I suspect I will start playing around with the concept of what is the right effort I need to apply to this group at this moment. For example, I may be trying too hard to get through a pre-planned activity and get to the intended outcome. If I can step back from my own sense of urgency and be more relaxed, I know from experience the group will either 1) reach the intended outcome when they are ready (as opposed to my own preconceived timeline) or 2) they won’t reach the intended outcome because the conditions are not right. Then I just have to release my effort and let go of being successful around achieving this particular outcome. My bias is to always put in more effort in the hopes that I will have better control over the outcomes. What I found out on this personal retreat was that often less effort yielded better results. So my work is to practice putting less effort into things.
I’m leaving you with 3 principles.
- Practice with a beginner’s mind. Take the attitude that you need to practice no matter how experienced you are. It is all about practice.
- Strive for a calm state of mind both for yourself and for the group. Better decisions will result when calmness is present.
- Be prepared to change your level of effort at any given moment. Sometimes less effort will yield better results. Sometimes more is required to lift the group “off the ground” and moving forward. We have our own biases. Be sure to practice the one that you don’t do so often so you are versatile in both.
You might want to look at this module that I wrote after doing yoga teacher training for 3 years. I had many insights about how our spiritual practices influence our ability to work with groups. The purpose of this module is to invite process facilitation practitioners to see the connection between your personal spiritual practices and working with groups professionally. You will read how I draw on my own spirit practices* to think about group morale throughout this module. I feel that paying attention to and intentionally lifting a group’s spirit is one of the greatest gifts we can give them as facilitators.