Feedback: A facilitator’s dilemma

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca is a leadership innovator, a thought leader in facilitative leadership and one of the world’s top two experts in Integral Facilitation. For the last decade, she’s been bringing her vision to life as the developer of the world’s premiere Integral facilitative leadership training, Integral Facilitator® and Next Stage Facilitation, with graduates in 5 continents.

I was speaking to a friend the other day about a facilitative experience they were having with a group of leaders.

I can relate to their experience – perhaps you can too?

My friend said the session had been “a little rocky”.

The story unfolded like this.

This learning program is in its early days – and the group identity and culture are still forming.

The members are offering feedback, solicited and unsolicited, to the leader throughout the class.

Some of the feedback is critical – things framed as ‘what I don’t like’, ‘we could have done was more x or less y’, ‘you are not doing this correctly’.

The skillfulness and clarity by which these points of view are expressed varies from person to person.

Energetically, this type of communication can start to stack up at the side of the room like a pile of smelly, dirty clothes.

The unpleasant odor is unmistakable, and some feel moved to add contributions to the pile. Whether everyone agrees with it or not, just having the unbalanced feedback sit there commands attention.

Before you know it, that pile of debris is teetering, threatening to cast a shadow over all the other aspects of the experience.

The session ends.

The facilitator is left to clear up the stuff in the corner… broom in hand, deflated and discouraged.

Let’s pause here.

  • Can you relate to how the leader might feel?
  • Can you imagine how others in the group might feel?
  • What kind of potentially useful perspectives are arising as you reflect on this?

The ground from which you relate to and take perspective on this situation is crucial. If you can, set aside any solutions, conclusions, or advice that come to mind at this time.

What are you curious about, from a beginner’s mind?

This exploration is not about the actual skills of giving and receiving feedback, although we have created a helpful resource on honing them here if you’d like a little refresher.

The key to the riddle from Part 1 is in how you are making sense of this scenario. 

The ground from which you relate to and take perspectives is crucial.

For example, what happens when we shift from a coping or problem-solving orientation to one of open curiosity? How might a more thriving way be created?

The considerations below will help us land this question more deeply into our learning and practice:

Understanding the group’s intention and the territory they are in.

  • Is their culture – or current context – one of learning, decision-making, or problem-solving? Becoming more attuned to these differences might define how you frame your questions and invitations, and how you will relate to their experiences, comments or suggestions.

What is the intention for inviting feedback? 

  • Are you looking for input in the moment on their insights and what they are learning? Are you explicitly asking what is valuable about their experience, rather than what is deficient or otherwise not working for them? Being clear first on your intentions will help in articulating and clarifying what you are inviting, especially when complaints, shortcomings or veiled critiques start to pile up in the corner.

The power of reframes: 

  • A good reframe takes out the sting or personal nature of the comments into something more neutral so that it is easier to receive. “It’s taking too long” is reframed as, “You want to trust we’re using our time efficiently.” Developing this skill can keep the “we” stabilized in groups, as well as showing that it is safe to be direct, and to include a range of expressions in the room.

Sharing the responsibility as a learning community: 

  • In facilitation, a critique closes off the energy, while the right question opens up possibility and allows room for shared inquiries and co-creation. Great questions help in creating a larger field of intention and learning, and draws the group’s attention towards a more generative direction.

For example, What question would, if we all had the answers, enhance our ability to work with this in our own world?

How you receive feedback matters:

Partial truth: 

  • Even if feedback is not expressed skillfully, it likely contains some relevant data, especially when it comes from someone’s “I- perspective”. By keeping in mind that this feedback does not express the whole story, its value becomes easier to appreciate.

What is the request under the complaint?  

  • Underneath every complaint is a request. The task is to hear people out, then ask what they would like to see. What is the request at the heart of the issue they’re complaining about?

This is not an exhaustive list, but I hope these ideas can inspire moves that transcend negativity and criticism and move you towards more thriving and possibilities.

What are your thoughts?  How do you engage with and include feedback within you and with your groups?

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