Facilitation Skills - Styles: Advanced
On the surface, there is very little in common between the styles of successful facilitators. Not only that, but the same facilitator will often use very different styles with different groups and at different times, even when conducting the same activity. In fact, the real secret of effective facilitators is closely connected to the apparent inconsistency:
To capture the flexibility demonstrated by effective facilitators, we need to understand the tensions on which this flexibility is based. For effective facilitators to understand themselves more clearly, they also need a framework for understanding their own natural behaviour - in order to gain an increased mastery and leverage over themselves. Six critical tensions can be used to understand the different possibilities for facilitating, and these are outlined below. Different Jewish student leaders will have different 'natural' styles - those that they lean towards all other things being equal. All facilitators should be able to adapt, change the way in which they are facilitating, and have a number of ways of changing their facilitation technique whenever needed.
When a newcomer to group facilitation asks, "Should I keep the activity moving at a fast pace or a slow one?" I usually answer, "Yes." The appropriate location of an activity along the six tensions depends on several factors, including the number and type of participants and the structure and purpose of the activity. To repeat, the secret of effective facilitation is to maintain a balance between the two poles of each tension. Unfortunately, however, "balance" resides in the perception of the participants rather than in outside reality. Thus, the balance between cooperation and competition may differ drastically between a group from California and a group from Israel, or between a group of involved students and a group of newcomers.
THE SIX CRITICAL TENSIONS
Tension 1 - STRUCTURE: How rigidly or flexibly should the small-group activity be implemented?
To tighten the structure. . .
Begin with a detailed explanation of the rules of the activity. Stress the importance of adhering to these rules. Provide a printed copy of the rules to each participant. Frequently refer to these rules.
To loosen the structure. . .
Acknowledge that the participants will be initially confused. Reassure them it is not absolutely necessary to stick to the rules. Don't present all the rules in the beginning. Introduce the rules only if and when they are required.
Tension 2 - PACE: How rapidly or leisurely should the small-group activity be implemented?
To speed up the pace. . .
Begin the activity promptly, regardless of whether everyone is ready, and get it rolling fast. Announce and implement intermediate time limits.
To slow down the pace. . .
Announce and implement minimum time requirements. If a participant or a team finishes a task before this time is up, insist on review and revision. Introduce a quality-control rule that punishes participants and teams for coming up with poorly thought-out ideas.
Tension 3 - INTERACTION: How do group members relate to each other?
To increase competition. . .
Use a scoring system to reward effective performance. Periodically announce and compare the scores of different individuals or teams. Reward the winning team with a valuable (by student standards) prize.
To increase cooperation. . .
Reduce the conflict among the participants and increase the conflict between the participants and external constraints (for example, time limits). Use multiple criteria for determining the winners: Reward individuals or teams for speed, quality, efficiency, fluency, creativity, novelty, and other such factors. Explicitly encourage
Tension 4 - FOCUS: Which is more important, a positive procedure or efficient results?
To increase the focus on the process. . .
Make the procedure more enjoyable by introducing game elements such as bonus scores and chance. From time to time, stop the activity and check that everybody is enjoying themselves. Let the participants suggest changes for making the procedure more interesting.
To increase the focus on the results. . .
Use a scoring system to reward efficient performance by individuals or teams. Stop the activity - regardless of whether this will irritate people, and emphasise the desired results. Have the participants commit themselves to getting the job done.
Tension 5 - CONCERN: Are we most concerned about individual or group needs?
To pay more attention to individual needs. . .
If participants are at different levels of skill or knowledge, organise them into teams of approximately equal strength. Encourage more shy and nervous people to participate more by providing them with additional information and responsibilities, but be happy to let go if they don't want to take too active a part. Spend time with individuals if needed, even if this delays the group.
To pay more attention to group needs. . .
Identify dominant participants and give them additional roles (for example, keeping score or taking notes) to channel their excess energy. Have the group check that everybody is okay from time to time.
Tension 6 - CONTROL: Where should group members look for direction and validation?
To increase external control. . .
Make sure that you have everyone's undivided attention before making announcements - however important. Feedback after hearing discussion points, so that the group are essentially talking to you. Give special responsibilities to some members of the group to make things run smoothly, and supervise their work.
To increase internal control. . .
Explain your role as that of a facilitator rather than those of a leader or an expert. When participants ask you a procedural question (for example, "What should we do next?"), refer it back to the group with a question such as "What would you like to do next?"
The tactics listed above for maintaining a balance among the six tensions in a small-group activity are for illustrative purposes only. Brainstorm additional tactics for yourself, so that you have a greater range of techniques at your disposal.
USING THE SIX CRITICAL TENSIONS MODEL
Knowing that it is possible to view facilitation through this six-dimension lens does not guarantee you will become an effective facilitator. You need to know when and how to use this way of seeing things. Here's a six-step procedural model for making the most of the theoretical model provided above:
Step 1. Identify your preferences.
Flexible facilitation does not mean that you should not have personal preferences, but you should be aware of these preferences and keep them under control. For example, one person might prefer a fairly loose structure, fast pace, cooperative interaction, results focus, individual concern, and external control. It is important to be aware of your biases and to realize they may not meet the needs of the group. The best way to discover your biases is to recall facilitations experiences in which you felt very positive or very negative and to analyse the factors that contributed to those feelings. Also think about how you facilitate most often. Once you are aware of your biases remind yourself to relegate them to the background whenever necessary.
Step 2. Identify participant preferences.
Before planning an oup activity, you need to collect information on the likely preferences of your participants along each of the six tension areas. The best way to do this, is to ask some of them! To cross-check your information you may wish to talk to other Jewish student activists who are familiar with the group.
Step 3. Design or revise the activity to suit participant preferences.
Whether you are designing a new activity or using an existing one, integrate your understanding of the participants' preferences into the activity. Carefully work through the steps and rules of the activity to decide where they appear to be located along each tension. For example, if there are several complex rules that are rigid, the activity will be perceived to be too tight by most participants--unless their preference is for a high degree of structure. When you identify tension areas at one extreme or another, use appropriate tactics to make suitable adjustments.
Step 4. Conduct the small-group activity.
With the appropriate initial adjustments, you should start the activity with confidence. Do not worry about making additional adjustments at this stage. Present an overview of the process and the desired products to get the group started.
Step 5. Make modifications on the fly.
As your participants work through the activity, continuously monitor the levels of the six tensions. If they are at optimum levels, do not interfere with the flow of the activity. However, there is no such thing as a perfect activity, and some tensions are likely to become prominent from time to time. Wait a little while to see if the group makes its own adjustments. Most groups, especially experienced ones, work out their own system of reducing the tensions. With inexperienced groups, you may need to intervene with appropriate adjustments. Do this as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. Continue monitoring the group and adjusting the activity as required.
Step 6. Debrief the group.
Even after the activity is completed, you still have a critical step to undertake. If practical, collect information on participant's perceptions of the style of facilitation. This can be done in a few minutes by asking the participants questions based on the rating scale such as, "When did you feel the activity was too tightly structured?" or "When did you feel the facilitator interrupted you too often?" Take notes on the participants' responses and use them to balance the same activity with future groups or activities with the same group.
The effectiveness of small-group activities depends heavily on the flexibility of the facilitator. Whether you are new to Jewish student leadership, or have been doing it for years, you can improve your effectiveness by attending to and adjusting structure, pace, interaction, focus, concern, and control of your activity.