I was part of a fascinating conversation the other day with a group of people who are exploring what it means to exercise facilitation skills. Within CCiC we talk a lot about creating new space where a different culture exists. Those of us who had come together acknowledged that there is something deliberate and intentional we have to learn to do if such spaces really are going to model a better way of doing things. The assumption we hear all too often is that as churches, we have lots of experience of being in small groups and therefore what we really need is better material to put in front of groups to encourage them to share conversations about faith. That all sounds great, but the experience that an awful lot of people talk to us about, is of a culture within such groups that is hierarchical and competitive in ways that leaves many people more excluded than included. Of course, that is not true of all groups, but it is a common enough tale to be a real concern for how we grow people who are both excited AND enthusiastic about having spiritual conversations reflective of their own life stories and experience.
Part of the CCiC approach is being intentional about creating a new “safe” space where people have the freedom and confidence to learn the skills, or maybe it is the “art” of conversational curiosity, coming prepared to receive and learn from others as well as to give of oneself. Those of us who have been journeying with the CCiC have spent time developing “ground rules” that we ask the group to abide by and generally this is a good thing, but we have also realised that just holding up a list of rules and saying “please obey these when we talk” really isn’t enough to make much of a difference. Why not? – I hear you say! Well, to be honest, most of us have vast amounts of experience of how to behave badly in groups and conversations, and we have all become so used to it, that it has become normal. Sure, we put a polite gloss on it much of the time, but it doesn’t take much talking with people to uncover the many and varied ways that they have felt put down, ignored, excluded or patronised within groups they have been part of. Hence the need within the CCiC vision of a new way of doing things, to have someone who acts as a facilitator and who takes some responsibility for the rules and for the tone and culture of the conversation. So key to the CCiC experience of intentional conversation is the idea that before a conversation starts, we take time to establish a contract between those who are going to participate that says “how are we going to be with each other in the space that follows?”.
In my recent conversation with a group of people who are wanting to become facilitators, we began to realise together that moving from holding up a list of rules, to taking responsibility for how we put them into practice together is far from an easy task, and one which most of us feel a bit daunted by. What if someone breaks the rules? What if someone behaves badly or makes someone upset? What if one person dominates the conversation and goes on for longer than they should? These are not easy questions, and we must ask ourselves how we will manage them because to tell people in advance that a group will be safe and inclusive and then to blow it, just adds insult to injury!
We asked ourselves as people who want to facilitate, what it might feel like to be in a group and be told that we were in breach of the rules we had set out at the start. We asked what the subtext that we actually hear might be if we were pulled up in a group for not abiding by the group rules. Of course we frame our ground rules with care and politeness, but when we say “be civil to others and respectful of the confidentiality of the group”, what most of us felt we heard in our hurt pride was “you can seem quite rude sometimes!”; and when we say “If you don’t know, say you don’t know”, what we decided our bruised ego heard was “you want the last word, even if you don’t know what you are talking about” Ouch!! Both these are from the list of ten ground rules that we aspire to, so it made us realise how important personal reflection and learning is in developing this new way of being together. When we asked each other what it actually felt like to be on the receiving end of such admonitions, we were using phrases like “feeling small”, “a bit humiliated”, “I won’t say anything else then”, “hurt that you would think that of me”. Is that what is going on within our groups when there is no moderation of how we react to each other? Have we got so used to a polite assertive robustness that we do not spot the casualties? The polite answer is “probably!”
We then reflected on what some of the time honoured ways of regulating such behaviour were, and none of us were too proud of the examples we could come up with such as “politely ignoring it”, “challenging”, or “distracting”, none of which we really felt did much for anyone’s confidence.
OK, it is one thing to point out how things can go wrong, but the whole point of CCiC is that we do not end there but change the whole dynamic, so the space is positively pregnant with potential and positivity!
So, what can we do as facilitators to change the dynamic in the group, and what can we do to improve our confidence in being the sort of people who can make conversation spaces safe and inclusive? After much sharing and reflecting together we decided that there were three different layers of activity that we need to engage in intentionally to start to make a difference. We use that word “intentionally” a lot in CCiC to remind us of the need to be purposeful as well as meaningful in what we choose to do. The three layers of activity we looked at are:
What do we need to do as facilitators to prepare in advance of any intervention in a conversation?
What does the intervention by the facilitator look and feel like?
What reflection do we need to do with the group because of the intervention in the conversation?
The first area about PREPARATION in advance is crucial. The sorts of things we can do is to set the tone for the conversation space with reflection and prayer and using our senses to “centre” ourselves so we come to the conversation in a different state of mind than we would otherwise. We need to learn how to talk about the ground rules in an open and honest way, not just to describe or state them, but to really explore them together. Spending time on this and helping group members explore their own feelings about what it would be like to be checked in terms of behaviour in the group is time well spent. By enabling people to feel part of the group contract, we become a community of conversation rather than a discussion group. One group member rather helpfully suggested that it could be beneficial to use the ground rules and the notion of a shared contract of engagement as the focus for a whole conversation at the start of a series of meetings. This sounds transformative and we need to think more about this in the coming months.
The second area about INTERVENTION is about how facilitators equip themselves with an array of tools that they can use to help shape interactions and culture within a focused conversation. CCiC is developing a set of “competencies” that might underpin the journey towards personal confidence and skill in being a facilitator and being part of a community of practice so we can grow together in confidence and skill is important. When we talked in the group about the “tone” of the interventions that the facilitator might need to initiate we used words such as “respectful”, “civil”, “reflective”, “non-judgmental”, “empathic”, “vulnerable” and “skilled”. No pressure then! The point of CCiC is that we are not doing this alone, and the support, coaching and learning that we do as a community of travellers really is a blessing.
The third area is about REFLECTION and takes us full circle to how we prepare for conversations. Self reflection is crucial for self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is pivotal to being authentic and empathic with others. We always take time at the end of conversation groups to remind ourselves of the journey we have taken, and someone will summarise to remind us of where we have been. We also recognised that when there has been a need to intervene within a conversation it might be helpful later in reflection time to ask together “how did we get to that point?”. If we encourage and nurture our curiosity, we will find ourselves in new places. CCiC is built on reflective practice in learning how we grow as individuals, as groups and as communities.
The conversation in the group of facilitators was a creative time and we recognised that we have much to learn together. There were two comments made by participants right at the end which left us all with much to think about. The first was that as facilitators our role is “to serve the quality of the conversation”. We are not there to lead or control, but to serve. The second was that it is our responsibility as facilitators to approach the conversation space as “sacred ground”. We enable the space to be opened and shared by the group in safe and inclusive ways, but we are not in control and we must be prepared to listen, be curious and “let God be God!”