Steve Hearsum - Without Edge and Stretch, what's the point of being a facilitator?

Overcoming the shame of ‘being seen’

My relationship with group work, and therefore facilitation, goes back to my first foray into facilitating cross-functional groups on an organisation-wide review of processes when I worked at The Guardian around twenty years ago. Subsequently I worked regularly on technology-driven change programmes gathering requirements and then ultimately moving more to explicit training or learning contracts. In the midst of my own development as a practitioner, whilst attending one of the group modules on my Masters, I had the experience of being taken to my own edge and being stretched to the point of snapping.

‘Edge’ and ‘stretch’

When I talk about ‘edge’, I refer to what I imagine many might think of as ‘learning edge’, which can end up sounding like a platitude or facilitator jargon. The OED defines ‘edge’ as:

  1. The outside limit of an object, area, or surface
  2. The sharpened side of the blade of a cutting implement or weapon.

In the context of learning, in particular transformative learning which occurs not solely at a cognitive and intellectual level but more deeply, I mean ‘edge’ that is indeed at my limit (of understanding, competency, courage, comfort, physical or psychological ‘safety’ etc) and that has this sense of sharpness, an awareness that it can go deep, skilfully, and that may be painful even if needed and welcome. ‘Stretch’ may follow, but is not a prerequisite. I may have encountered my edge, but choose to step back from learning more, for a whole number of reasons. Stretch may occur without it being in an area that is at your edge, and it is when the two combine that practice really develops. Getting ‘into the groove’ of facilitation can be intoxicating and a breeze, for me at least. I have begun to notice that those moments of ease, when a group is on task and I am thinking “this is going well…this is flowing…”, that is data that I might be colluding with the group and/or individual participants in shying away from the edge that is there to be explored, if the purpose of our work together is genuinely about some form of transformative learning.

An example from my own life. I did the MSc in Change Agent Skills & Strategies at the University of Surrey (2005-2008). The programme no longer exists, which is worthy of a wholly different inquiry into how Universities and Management Education struggles with learning that offers edge and stretch at a human systems level. In a seminal moment, I had the epiphany that, despite calling myself, amongst other things, a ‘facilitator’, I realised that I found working with and in front of groups deeply distressing, exposing, scary and plain un-enjoyable. There I was, in front of the group, held by the skill of the facilitator, Simon Cavicchia (the embodiment of compassionately facilitating people to work at their edge), stripped emotionally naked, raw, exposed, utterly overwhelmed with the shame of ‘being seen’. For me, with my story, that was terrifying. On that edge, in that stretch, I had an experience of transformational learning. I teetered on the edge of two choices: to run, metaphorically and/or literally, or to dive headlong into the painful absurdity of how I had ended up as a facilitator who hated to facilitate. I chose the latter.

Fast forward from 2007, mix in five more years of therapy and finally four and a half years developing and deepening my practice at Roffey Park, and I show up as a different practitioner with a different experience of myself in group. That’s not the point, though. In a sense: big fat, hairy deal. So what? So what if I have learned about myself? So what if I have had my own rich experience deepening my practice (whatever that means – it seems like a euphemism for something, although I am never sure quite what. How deep do I need to go? Do I need a rope and a torch?). Part of the shadow side of facilitation practice and Organisational Development more widely is that both can end up being self-referential, self-absorbed and more concerned with the practitioner’s journey than in utility and relevance to clients. Yes, it is important that I increase my effectiveness as facilitator (or coach, or consultant etc.); it is vital, however, that I am clear enough on the balance between what I need and what is in service of others.

Facilitative edge

I have a couple of edges as a practitioner that I pay particular attention to at the moment, and these have been the main ones on and off for a few years. They are improvisation and challenge.

Improvisation

Every strength has a shadow when over-egged. I am extremely comfortable with working ‘in the moment’, and will happily respond to what is emerging in order to ensure that what the group/client needs to achieve/work on is attended to, even if that means tearing up a design/session plan and doing something totally different. Lean too far into my ease with improvisation, and chaos might ensue, or a shoddy learning experience. Thankfully I seem to tread the right side of that line most of the time, with the occasional kick up the arse administered by life.

Challenge

The other edge is around my experience of challenge, of what happens when it manifests as, say, conflict between others or between others and me (that’s the son of an alcoholic in me and much of the material for therapy, in case you were wondering). In recent years, my ease with gristle, grit, aggression and anger has increased. Not only in others, but also in terms of awareness of my own and my willingness to express it/use it appropriately and/or as data.

Nested in this developing comfort with what happens when differences are named and generate heat, I have noticed that the more I trust my instincts and couple that with critical reflection on what the data might be telling me, the greater the ease with which I am straight, direct and clean in offering observations. In turn, the feedback and observations from clients has been intriguing and useful. It has sparked the material for this piece of writing. 

“How far should I go?”

Working with a group recently, I had a sense from a participant, in how they were framing their story, of someone who is hard on themselves. The programme is an Organisational Development Practitioner Programme that offers a Graduate Certificate, and is run for internal HR, L&D and OD people within a major UK manufacturing business that has a globally recognized brand and presence. This person had not attended the first learning set (this was the second of a series of five, that forms part of the self-managed learning nature of the programme) therefore I was still getting to know them. My data was limited. Nonetheless, as I think back to that moment, I was acutely aware of a wrestle in me: do I name what I think is the harshness this person applies to themselves, do I soften, do I shy away entirely? The truth is, a few years ago I would not have done what I actually did; I would have facilitated but not named the edge as directly. 

“How far do I go?”

I made the following intervention:

Me: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard are you on yourself?”

Participant: “A 10 easily.”

Me: “I thought so.”

I was sure this was a challenging question. I was also ‘having a stab at hinting’, as my former tutor and colleague Simon Cavicchia would say – this is a kind of informed intuition, a term I have not come across until recently, in conversation with the author of a soon-to-be-published book.

The Art of Transformative Facilitation

That is the sub-title of a forthcoming book by Keith Jones and Tessa Sharp, and ‘transformative facilitation’ is the nub of what I am discussing: facilitation that goes beyond the setting up of conditions for a container for learning, rather it asks the question: just how much learning are you really up for? As the facilitator, it sets a different challenge: to what extent are you prepared for the ‘edge and stretch’ that may be required?