Why a ‘just fine’ facilitation is not good enough – and how to get it unstuck

Photo of solitary confinement cell door

Stories teach us about five types of resistance that a storyteller must take the main character through in order for him or her to transform. If you want to turn a frog into a prince, and not just dress the frog up in princely garb, you must guide that frog through. And your strongest ally in this journey is information. People need information – five types of information, matching the five types of resistance:

  1. Personal Resistance – Why me? How is this relevant to me?
  2. Relational Resistance – Why you? Why would you know how to help me?
  3. Social Resistance – Who is in this with me? Do I belong with them and they with me?
  4. Practical Resistance – How is this going to work? What is the process and the strategy?
  5. Cosmic Resistance – What happens when things don’t work out as planned? If it or I fail?

When you are the speaker, facilitator or coach, you are the story weaver and your client or audience is the princely frog.

I spoke this morning at the Knowledge Resources Organisational Development Conference about these five types of resistance. I devised an ingenious interactive process to illustrate it and cleverly used Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape as metaphors for breaking through (or out of) the prison of resistance.

But it bombed.

No, it did not bomb, it actually went just fine, but it did not wow the way I dreamed it would (being so clever and all). ‘Just fine’ is just not good enough.

Why did it not work?

At first I thought it was because I failed to get two thirds of the audience over the first kind of resistance.

The plan was for the whole group to get up and act the part of someone who had been in solitary confinement for two months and then gets released. One third of them were ready to do so immediately. The idea was that, by the end of it all, most of them would be willing to do it. But, it was mostly the same group doing it by the end. Yet I tried it the day before with another group and it worked like a charm.

What went wrong on Wednesday?

I know that personal resistance has two aspects. I worked them through the first aspect, but not the second.

The question: “Is this for me” has two sides: first it relates to my personality i.e. “am I the type of person who would get up and act out anything?” But the second part of it has to do with the relevance of this to me: “Is this relevant to who I am and where I am at in my life?” This latter question is the one I did not make room for, and therefore two thirds of the people did not come with me on the journey.

How did I miss this?

Firstly, the answer lies in how a story begins. No story starts with the hero at the first point of resistance. It starts with the hero somewhere in a situation of stuckness. In the midst of that stuckness, whether or not they are aware of this ‘prison’, they receive the Call to Change. Only then can they resist this call.

As the story weaver, I needed to ‘get’ the nature of this stuckness so that I can fashion an appropriate Call. Usually I take quite a bit of time to understand where the audience is at, and to let them voice their perspectives on their situation. Unfortunately, I did not have time to do this as part of the talk and I could not mingle with them enough beforehand. I also think that, unconsciously, I thought I knew where they were. I did not.

Secondly, I know that the moment of cosmic resistance is usually such that, if any of the other resistances were not overcome by the time you get to it, they will surface and you can loop back and deal with them. My time was up, though, and I could not address them. This idea is supported by the fact that one participant said: “I could not get up and play the role as asked, even though I was ready to jump up and do it when you first suggested it, because the details of the story (the rape and the pain in the prison) upset me and it is unresolved.”

I wish with all my heart, dear participant, that I had the time to explore this with you. I am sorry to have opened it up without the opportunity to loop back and accompany you through it a second time – you and anyone else who needed it.

But this was not the whole story.

Really it comes down to simple group dynamics (if group dynamics were ever simple). I talked with a delegate the next day about the presentation. Of course he told me it was wonderful. Then I asked him why it was so difficult to get them moving? He agreed that it seemed like a tough crowd, but then simply said: “These guys are all strangers to each other: and it is a large group of strangers. They just needed more time to warm up. Also, it took me a while to remember the Shawshank story. I’m one of those people who forget detail.”

And that means that, in spite of my efforts, resistance number 3, Social Resistance, could not be broken with no warming up and in the short time I had. It also means that I needed to spend more time on establishing the shared reality: the Shawshank story.

What did I learn for next time?

  1. I will never again assume I know where people are. It’s odd, I have learned this lesson so many times and still unconsciously made assumptions. So the word ‘never’ is an intention, but I may step in the trap again. To help me, I will remember to take time before a talk to speak to people and ask them about their current challenges.
  2. I will not accept only 30 minutes of time for such a talk, especially if it is the first talk of the day and there is not time before hand to talk to folks. I need at least 60 minutes so that I can talk to folks, tell the story. And later on, get the feedback from the group and loop back if needed.
  3. I will not rely on PowerPoint to set the scene, but play to my strengths which is facilitation and conversation rather than information transmission. I so badly wanted to show my clever pictures and get through my slides that I could not work with the group where they were. If ever I use PowerPoint, it must be embedded in a facilitation process and not the other way around.

Where did this last point come from?

I noticed a pattern that, of the three bombed keynotes I did over the last five years, all of them had in common that :

  • It was based on a set of slides. In each case I worked on the slides till late the previous night, so they weren’t seasoned and embedded into my talk yet.
  • Also, I noticed that all three occasions was for an audience larger than 30, I do not know yet what that means… But I will watch and reflect and keep learning.

So, why should 65 OD practitioners need to get up and act like Tim Robins in the role of Andy Dufresne?

How entrenched in, or ‘confined’ by, their current way of doing are the people in your organisation? How harsh would they experience the new ideas that you want to introduce? Do you truly get their current reality? What can you do to guide them out of their solitary confinement safely and yet firmly so that they, like Andy, can own their actions and so be truly transformed?

Post image from Wikimedia Commons

How do I make a strong beginning?

5.1 How do I make a strong beginning?

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Current Reality 2

Upon entering the room where the workshop on Participatory Methods for Learning and Research on HIV/Aids and Sexual & Reproductive Health was to take place, an unusual sight met my eyes. Instead of people straggling into the room and finding a seat either around tables, behind desks or even in a circle, they were forming clusters and clumps around posters and pages of news print on the walls, markers in hand.  Was I late? Did they start without me? As I was wondering, a student came up to me: “Good morning, while we wait for everyone to arrive, take a moment and look at the pictures and posters on the walls. On the news print below them, just record any thoughts or associations that come up for you in relation to the pictures. Here is a marker to document your ideas.”

The year was 2008 and I was attending the first Drama for Life Conference at WITS University. The facilitator of the workshop was Ross Kidd. It was the first time I learned the value of beginning a workshop before it begins. The pictures on the walls were of gender stereo types and people’s typical reactions towards HIV. By recording our own thoughts as we looked at the pictures, we were all given an opportunity to become aware of our own positioning in relation to the story in the room as depicted by the title of the workshop. Before Ross Kidd had opened his mouth, we all had formed an opinion and had a story of our own to contribute.

Even if you did not want to be as highly participative as this, it is essential that you help delegates become present to the current reality regarding the story in the room. Most traditional speakers choose to do it by telling a story, raising a case study or citing some research results. However you chose to do it, step one of Story-Strategy is:

Sketch a picture of the current reality

(Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix). 

Every story begins with someone (character) somewhere (scene) in a certain fix (plot). Some examples: Little Red Riding Hood at the edge of the forest, wearing the same hood every day. Brave Heart in a particular time in history with his tribe getting murdered by the English. Harry Potter is in Privet Drive being mistreated by his family. The Game of Thrones begin with a young lord on the other side of The Wall (a monstrous wall of ice that marked the edge of the seven kingdoms) killed by walking dead…

In each case the scene is set in such a way that the reader, watcher or listener (from here on the audience) identifies with the plight of the character so as to be drawn into the story.

  • How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room?
  • How do you help them acknowledge where they are?
  • How accurately do you sketch that current reality?
  • How deeply can you empathize with them?

If you remember the SHIFT model, you will know that telling them is not as effective as letting them tell you. Creative participation is essential so that people can connect their own stories to the story in the room. Yet, there are many ways to do this. It begins before the talk, workshop, or conference really begins. From the moment delegates arrive, it is the beverages you serve, the way you let them register, the conference pack or learning material you hand them, the way you set up the room and the way you as facilitator or trainer greet them at the door or from the platform.

The Double Journey

This is because there are two cycles of Story-Strategy – there is a ‘double journey’ at stake. First people must be drawn from outside the room to inside: not just physically, but also with their attention and emotion. Secondly, once willing to be ‘here’ they must be drawn from their current understanding of the issue in the room to a new perspective. First they cross a physical threshold from their everyday existence filled with partners, colleagues, kids, traffic and unanswered emails into the learning space. Then they must cross the threshold from their current understanding of the learning content e.g. customer service, leadership or Learning and Research on HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health, to a fresh perspective i.e. the one that you as speaker, facilitator or trainer want to convey.

In the example above Ross Kidd did not have to pay much attention to the first threshold because we were already in conference mode, but the conference designers themselves sure had to do it. I remember a carefully planned foyer space with musicians setting a tone, and a clearly themed conference pack. I also remember Warren Nebe starting the conference with a story about Blue Beard, immediately capturing attention and focussing it on the theme of the conference: African Research in Applied Drama and Theatre. He was establishing current reality by asking us to identify the role we see ourselves playing using examples from the story: Are we the naïve one driven by instincts to open the forbidden door? Do we find ourselves overwhelmed and surrounded by bloodied bodies? Are we dealing with the old folk hiding the past?

More examples will follow in future posts. For now, just remember:

Begin before you begin

 

What are the components of Story-Strategy?

What are the components of Story-Strategy?

Story-Strategy Act 2 Episode 4 continue – The Magic Weapon

Story-Strategy is the big picture sequential design and the poignant delivery of messages and events that take people from where they are to where they could be.

Every good story-strategy, like every good story, has a well designed beginning, middle and end. Each of these three can be divided into three more sections so that your beginning leaves no-one behind, your middle keeps everyone riveted and your end leaves them changed forever.

Here are the components of each:

Beginning

1. Sketching a picture of the current reality (Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix).

At the beginning of Cinderella we find her in the ashes dominated by an evil stepmother and two spoilt step sisters.

How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room? How do you help them acknowledge where they are? How accurately do you sketch that current reality and how deeply can you empathize with them?

2. Issuing a Call to Adventure that opens up new possibilities   (then one day something unusual happens).

Cinderella and her sisters get an invitation to the prince’s ball…

What new opportunity or possibilities do you/your material or programme open up? How do you communicate these possibilities? How do you allow your audience to begin dreaming a new dream?

3. Making room for debate and doubts (But there are obstacles and questions)

Yet, Cindy cannot see her way open to attend: she will exhaust her time and energy in helping her sisters get ready and anyway, she does not have a dress…

Neuroscience dictates that anything new brings about mixed feelings of excitement and fear along with actual obstacles that could hold you back.

How do you make room for these mixed emotions that relate to the new possibilities you are opening up? How do we allow for a conversation on the doubts/reservations people may have? How do we make room for them to identify obstacles and debate pros and cons?

The middle

4. Preparing for the journey (Because of this characters receive magic weapons, a clear plan and a mentor that help to bring safety and build confidence)

 

The fairy godmother appears with her magic to make a plan and send Cindy on her way. She proves her point by giving her a coach, horses, coachman and a dress.

What specific model, plan or strategy do you offer to guide participants through? Whose plan or strategy is it and why should it be trusted? Do you give a quick overview or big picture perspective before delving into detail? Can you give a short example or story that brings it home?

5.  The Journey itself (Tests and trials along the way, meeting friends and enemies)

At the ball Cindy meets her Prince and dances all night and deeply connects with each other. She plays at being royal, pretty and rich, but forgets to watch the time. When she flees the scene as the clock strikes, all seems lost…

What are the key tasks and who is the tribe that typify the journey to the new reality? How do we structure the steps/processes of the solution? How do we help people practice new skills increasing the level of difficulty?  How do we build relationship in the tribe that travels together?

6. Rewarding valiant effort (Finally there is a breakthrough and characters receive short term benefit).

The prince rushes after her and there on the steps he discovers her glass slipper and with it the promise of finding her again.

How do we celebrate breakthroughs and frame insights? How do we reward participation and risks people take in reaching into unfamiliar territory? Neuroscience again shows how people are motivated by a sense of reward. This can be given in the form of a feeling of accomplishment, of being appreciated by others, or of receiving input that is relevant and applicable to them personally.

The ending

7. Return (With new found insight characters return to their world to apply it)

While Cindy is back in squalor, the prince (as representation of her other half) now return to the village to look for her, trying to fit the slipper on every possible girl that seems likely.

What strategy or structure do you use to help people apply your model or new ideas to their personal contexts? How do you help them not just see its possible use, but actually try it out? Can you come up with a simulation that help you do this?

8. Commitment and sacrifice (After trying new ideas in practical contexts, the characters discover that they will need to sacrifice something of their old life to make room for a new commitment)

When the prince finds her, he must let go of his expectation of a ‘likely’ candidate and accept that his queen might be a serving girl…

How do you call them to commitment in adopting the new ideas and behaviours? How do you inspire them to let go of old patterns that may interfere with the shift they want to achieve?

9. Integrating new ideas to form a new current reality (Now everyday characters live in a new state different from before, but stable and integrated)

As the prince slips the glass shoe onto Cindy’s foot, poor and rich merge, servant and queen become one…

What first steps, tools and support structures do they leave with for integrating new ideas and actions into their everyday lives? How fully can we, as journey guides, ‘die’ so that we are not needed when people are back in their everyday lives.

And they live happily ever after.