One thing you can do to improve your facilitation

Diane Musho Hamilton

Diane Musho Hamilton

One of the most important things a facilitator needs to practice is facing the fear of criticism that comes from standing in front of a group.

Every time you step in front of a group, whether you are a beautiful and seriously talented pop star like Beyonce or a quick, clever media personality like Jon Stewart, a politician or an athlete or a car salesman, there is a certain amount of criticism coming back at you, even when people are your fans.

Usually it is not spoken, sometimes it is, but the criticism is alway present in the field on a subtle level, which means we feel it and often unconsciously defend against it. The people in the room are sorting through their experience: do they trust you, do they approve of what you are doing, do they want to go where you are taking them?

A good performance will transmute the criticism in the moment into a beautiful and coherent energetic field, but the next day in the papers and in retrospect, the criticism might come  back.

For facilitators, the sensations of receiving criticism need to be felt on an embodied level—in the belly, the heart, the throat, and the mind. Only then, can a facilitator truly relax. It usually takes practice to learn to identify the feeling in the body, experiencing its texture and the flurry of the sensations. We can use the breath to receive these sensations more deeply into our experience with the inhale, releasing our identification with them on the exhale.

In this way, we learn to circulate the energy of the sensations, rather than reacting to it. We learn to receive the experience of the criticism in and feel it, and metabolizing it through our bodies so that we’re not subtly holding it and our audience at bay.

We also need to practice with the criticism in the cognitive domain. That is, allowing both the truth of the critical perception and its inaccuracy into our mind. In Integral theory, we talk about how every perception is both true and partial. This is an important idea when working with criticism.

As a way to practice this, imagine for a moment that you are going to be criticized in front of a room. Ask yourself, what’s it going to be for? What are people thinking about me that they’re not saying? As an example, let’s imagine that you are being criticized silently for being too controlling.

You can begin by exploring this criticism using a Integral polarity practice.

First you can ask yourself, “What’s actually true about it?” In the case of control, you might notice the ways in which you do want to influence the group’s process and control the outcome of the meeting. You may also want to control their perception of you as a facilitator. You may want to control the direction of the conversation, or limit angry outbursts.

So the practice begins by recognizing the sense in which your critics are correct.

Then ask yourself, “What’s right about it?”  What’s good about your desire to control?

Chances are, you are trying to achieve something together with the group that you feel is in service of what they want to accomplish. In that way, there’s something necessary about your desire for control. In fact, you are being asked to help manage a process, create structures that serve the group’s purpose, facilitate conversation in a way that flows, and prevents certain personalities from dominating.  Well done.

Now what’s the downside of that controlling impulse?

When a facilitator is controlling a group too tightly, he or she becomes disconnected them from the group. It is almost like the person is standing outside the group, but attempting to have influence. Because the facilitator feels separate, there is a free floating anxiety that participants pick up on. They may defend against the anxiety, and separate from an allegiance with the facilitator. They may resist the attempt to dominate them and start to unconsciously argue or cease to be cooperative. They may feel critical of the facilitator’s style, and try to build coalitions with other members against the facilitator. All of this happens in meetings all the time.

After you’ve looked at the positive and negative aspects of control, you can turn to the flip side of the critique—which is being out of control. You can doubt the criticism and ask yourself: Where are you actually out of control?

Now imagine some people are criticizing you for not being controlling enough. Is there a part of you that feels out of control? Of course!  There’s is always so much that we’re not able to control, no matter how well-intended or well-prepared. So we are picking up the truth on the other side of the polarity, and in doing so, getting to the opposite experience in our mind, emotional, and physical body.

In the body, control doesn’t feel the same as being out of control. What do these sensations feel like? What does it feel like to be criticized for not being in charge?

You can start to recognize where the initial criticism is incomplete because there is a very real way in which as a facilitator, we are always experiencing something out of control. What people say, when they say it, who they say it to, how long they talk, when they express emotion, how topics arise that aren’t part of the agenda, and on and on— this is the out of control part that has to be experienced as a facilitator. And of course, you can be criticized for this at any moment.

Going back to our practice, the next question to ask is “What is right about being out of control?” Well, you are not imposing a strict agenda, you are in touch with the liveliness and emergent qualities in your meetings. You can meet people on their terms, really listening to what they have to say without wanting it to be better or different. Yes, you may be criticized for being out of control, but it is always an important aspect of any group gathering.

Now for the down side. The downside is that as the facilitator, if you’re entirely out of control you won’t be effective at supporting the group’s intention. You can’t move the group in a forward direction, or keep it on track, or help to shape the conversation. It would be like having no arms—and people need you to have your arms and legs! People actually need to be able to trust you. So even as you experience the criticism of being out of control, you can see how it has a place in your psyche.

To finish you want to notice what is good about facing the criticism. Do you notice that you are a little braver, a little more relaxed? Maybe you are actually grateful to the critic for helping you grow your skills.

This is an interior practice about facing your fear. In terms of your embodiment, feeling fear and including it strengthen your presence, your openness, your groundedness, and your capacity to lead. We don’t want to get rid of the fear, we want to learn to include and transcend it.

In your facilitation there are moments when it might be really important to choose to disclose your fear in the room. For instance if you suddenly find that you’re feeling very out of control as the facilitator, you might say, “I notice I feel like I’m losing the reigns on this. Am I right? Is it a good time for me to let you work on your own?”

Or you might say something like, “Wow, I notice I’m holding on really tight. What do you think that’s about? Do you feel a need for more discipline in the discussion?” Depending on the group, these kinds of interventions can be really useful.

So as integral facilitators, we want to work with our fear and criticism in our interior and embodied practice, and then respond to the validity of it through adequate preparation, and with supportive structures and processes. Facing our fear of criticism is one of the fundamental requirements for becoming a facilitator who is free, creative, and positioned to serve a group to the fullest.

Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.

2015 Diane Musho Hamilton© used with permission

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6 thoughts on “One thing you can do to improve your facilitation”

  1. Love, love, love your teachings. I have experienced both sides of the “control” coin. I have watched meetings spin out, knowing that it made me anxious, then brought them back in to my direction, and then have spun out with then group on another tangent. Both can be beneficial, both have ups and downs. I don’t yet have the expertise to know which is best in the moment. I often rerun the meeting/talk, look to see what happened. I love the idea of checking in, asking the group what they most need in the moment – because I’ve felt after a meeting and I’ve either controlled or not, there were some in the group that wanted it the other way. Checking in with the group gives some of the responsibility back to them. Love it!!

  2. Thank you for this… I have a big workshop next week in Brazil and will take this practice into it with me. I’m so looking forward to the training in Amsterdam next month. I look forward to meeting and working with you all!

  3. Thank you!
    This article is a reminder to me why you are the best facilitator that I know personally. So much clarity of self- and group, process and content, transparency and strategy. And loads of ease which gives rise to self-confidence and group confidence. Group facilitation can be such a wild ride. I love the wild creativity of it. I seek to practice structure with a lot of freedom within it. Your articles are extremely helpful.

  4. Great Post Diane and thank you. Very helpful to acknowledge that criticism is always there not because facilitation is such hard work but because it is human beings we are facilitating. Our growing ease with working on it can also model something very important for the group in terms of its own need to criticise aspects of its experience /its work in the group.

  5. As always, Diane, this teaching comes at the right moment for me and so close to my fear of not being good enough, always between these 2 poles: fear of controlling which I am a natural at, and this much worst fear, of being out of control which I equate often, as being incompetent. Thanks you for giving me this frame of reference to soak in.

  6. I did the course but I have never got to do the job,am still afraid and ask my self if I could make it but I like the job!

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