Facilitation and Emotional Intelligence

I used to think I was pretty great at facilitation. I had the methods down. I’d done the workshops. Heck, I’d run the workshops. And jeez, I had experience: meetings, training, you name it.

As it happens though, I stank. I’m reminded of John Searle’s thought experiment, the Chinese room. Sure I was executing the program. But I didn’t really understand what was going on. I now think of this as the duality between substance and essence. My substance was ok: I could facilitate fine. But the essence, the core, the true understanding and ability, was absent.

It’s a little bit like netball umpiring. Because being a decent netball umpire is easy. You learn the rules, you practice making the calls, you know how to move around a court. But being a great netball umpire is very hard – it’s not just about doing the same things better, but bringing a stronger self to the role.

You see, umpiring takes emotional intelligence. Play is fast, and players are sometimes rude. It doesn’t matter how well you know your stuff if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to remain confident in yourself, to process your own emotional reactions, and to remain centred. Ultimately, like a netball player’s landing foot, the umpire must remain grounded. Emotional intelligence is the umpire’s most important attribute. It’s also the hardest to develop.

The same goes for facilitation.

You can’t become a great facilitator by doing lots of OK facilitation. The essence of great facilitation is emotional intelligence. Without emotional intelligence, the substance is empty. Great facilitators understand their own emotional responses, practise self-restraint, and empathise with others. If you want to be a great facilitator, it’s these things – rather than the World Café method – that you should be working on.

I'm facilitating a workshop at the Fairly Educated Conference, demonstrating emotional intelligence in my facilitation.

A workshop at Fairly Educated Conference. Unfortunately, this photo is of the one bored-looking person in the room. Photography by Winston Struye.

I don’t think the distinction is immediately obvious in practice. As with driving, 80% of the time the good and the great are indistinguishable. It’s the rare events, the surprises, the near-misses that demonstrate the ability of the great facilitator. Then again, as with driving, the great facilitator is still more present, more engaged, more aware of what is going on, even during the mundane 80%.

How can one be a great facilitator? A better question is: how can one start becoming a better facilitator? It begins with emotional intelligence. And if you want to build that (it’s possible!) start with reflection. Before any facilitation, and afterwards, listen to yourself, feel your emotions, figure out what is going on inside you. You can even do this while facilitating, learning to identify in yourself anger, impatience, perhaps inadequacy.

And, over time, you’ll get better at this. You’ll become more self-aware, better able to restrain yourself, and better able to understand the feelings and actions of others. It’s called emotional intelligence. For great facilitation, it’s essential.

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