We want to make a case for the power of facilitation, and a case for you. Actually, it’s a case that facilitation is within you.
The three of them sit under a huge banyan tree that stands tall on the edge of the village. “It has stood here forever,” they say, with animated gestures that can roughly translate as “forever”! Rajvel, the leader of the panchayat (village council) and amongst the elders in the village, looks on. With a big twirling moustache and worn hands that have seen many seasons and several crops, he smiles. We get talking about their lives, our times, aspirations, differences and hopes. With a twinkle in his eye, he says, “You have to take people along. You have no choice. The village has no future if you don’t take people along.” The two other men stare into the sky. Their silence bore no indication of how strongly they lived that belief.
More on that later.
We have been following a hunch and going in search of evidence. Much like curious children with a Hercule Poirot1 mind-set. Our travel and conversations standing in for magnifying glasses that would typify a detective. And a dozen or more research papers and books that remain on our respective work desks. Between animated conversations and deep, reflective silences (and everything in between), this chapter got scripted. And so, indulge us, dear reader and spend some time absorbing this and marinating it in your mind later. It is, after all, a labour of love.
We want to make a case for the power of facilitation, and a case for you. Actually, it’s a case that facilitation is within you. Whoever you are. A novice. A business leader. A home-maker. A village elder. Whoever you are! We say that the power of facilitation, in its most basic form, is present in everyone around us.
We hasten to add context. The professional domain of facilitation with its tools and techniques for the modern-day world are of recent origin. Facilitation as a way of living and life has been long familiar to humankind. Facilitation continues to be present in varying degrees in every person. Not everyone realizes that yet. Our aim is to make it apparent for everyone.
Fishing in Deep Waters
We are well aware that process facilitation, which all the authors of this book revel in, is an established practice. A practice with ways of working, structure, competence, practitioners, certification and the like. A body of knowledge and work. It has made (and continues to make) tremendous value and difference to people the world over. It is there for all to see.
We want to go deeper than what’s available on the surface and emerge with pearls for all to see. We want to shake off our established ways of thinking and poke around to see what other riches we can find. We have simple questions. How did facilitation start? Why has it gained so much acceptance? What must it have been like at the beginning? What is at the very core? Who else practises it without knowing they do?
And then, of course, to ponder over what makes great facilitators truly great. We want to shine the torch on the world beyond those most familiar to facilitation to help us draw new renewal and raw energy. By that process, we seek to energize everyone to do their part to create a better world.
For now, let’s dive into facilitation.
At the very root of it all, several people argue, is the Latin word for “easy”, which is “facilis”. The origin of facilitation seems to be moored on “making it easier”. Our readings have pointed us in the direction of researchers and writers contesting that definition, arguing that it is far too inadequate. We understand that. Yet we want to begin there. For, in the mood of easy, it makes for a good clean start. But we don’t want to stop there, of course.
We want to dive deeper. Even as we want to do that, we are certain that this is not a piece of rigorous academic research. For now, we prefer anecdotal pointers over precise data. Conversation over statistics. Our interests and attention lie in reading and discussions, on history, anthropology, the evolution of society, work and so on. And even as we start out, we are aware of confirmation bias2 that we are bound to carry with us. We have been facilitators in the way the modern-day world recognizes. We are passionate about the topic and on many occasions, it puts bread on the table if not a song in the heart. For now, we can only make conscious promises to call out confirmation bias when we spot it and leave the rest to you, the prescient reader, to do the rest of the work!
Our purpose is clear. We want to explore whether there are ways of enthusing a casual bystander to believe in the power of facilitation. We would love to move conversations in the facilitator community beyond tools and practice. We believe that to infuse more life than there is into a discipline, you need to broaden the conversations. That is our North Star.
We also want to ensure that we leave you, the reader, with some tangible aspects to consider to get better at the game. Be that the game of life, or the game of facilitation. And we don’t want it to be our grand pronouncement, but a humble distillation of conversations across the board.
We have been working on a project we have titled ‘Building Bridges Breaking Walls—One Story at a Time’. We believe facilitation is an important piece of life in a future filled with choices, differences and dire consequences. We see this project as a small attempt to help add more life to a life skill.
This project took us to people around the world and is a result of many hours of conversation. We are richer by the realization that the riches of facilitation are ours for the asking. As we spoke to people, we explored the past and evolved a thematic map for the future. So, we go, back to the future!
Before we take you back to the village where we started out, we want to tell you something. In the ensuing pages, the stories we share are interspersed with our thoughts. We share only a fraction of the various conversations had and share them here in no particular order. Every conversation was valuable and has influenced our thinking. The stories we share here are to illustrate a point and hopefully they will inspire you to look around you for stories as well. So, now back to the village.
Even as the sun sets, casting its lengthy shadows on the dusty South Indian village, the three men offer some more tea. We have had a good conversation. They have spoken about their lives, the stories they have heard from their forefathers. Some practices that they follow to ensure the village stays invested in its future and lending hope for the future. “It’s good that the city has come to the village to listen to the villager.” Says the elder amongst them. And as the small laughs settle, he adds, “You know, it all started in the village.”
Back to the Future
But first, some rewinding into the pathways we have walked. How about some anthropology and literature? More to set the stage than anything else.
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god,” said Aristotle.i
The emphasis on the collective is in your face. It is stark. Whilst Aristotle and the Greeks said it well, several anthropological studies point to evidence that it existed far earlier. Our own curiosity took us in different directions. The origin of language was one key pit stop. Recent anthropological research points to some interesting questions and facets. Robin Dunbar’s views on Theory of Mind and the Evolution of Languageii piqued our interest. He argues that the evolution of language is not a consequence of large brains that were formed in primates. But rather, the brain size was more to do with social requirements of working in groups. Speaking of primates and brain sizes, he says, “The need to hold large highly structured groups together has been more important than the need to solve ecological problems.”
Research and evidence point to species growing larger brains to co-exist. Group co-existence necessitates a level of working together, norming, kinship and living together. Dunbar says, “The need to evolve large groups drove brain size upwards, and this, in turn, eventually required the evolution of language as a more effective bonding device.” Hector Villarreal Lozoya draws this connection more directly in his chapter on team development.
For millions of years, we have been living in groups. For thousands of years, humans devised formal structures for groups to work and cohabit. Be they tribes, communities, civilizations, countries and so on. Take, for example, the idea of democracy. The word comes from ‘demos’, common people and ‘kratia’, power/ rule. Earliest mentions take us back to 508 BC. For a whole civilization to be able to function like this, it is implicit that there must have been a way of having a participative dialogue and conversation for many people at one time. The idea of public participation for collective decisions is powerful.
It is hard to imagine a collective of people coming together to take decisions, functioning without a facilitator to the conversation.
Public participation is not a recent phenomenon; it is an inherent part of human civilisation.iii Every civilization has had its own version of collective participation in decision making for common good. Ancient India had the Sabhas and Samitis, which are quoted in the Vedas (1200—900 BC).iv People gathered, deliberated on issues, took decisions, advised the king and had representation across different strata of society. It is hard to imagine a collective of people coming together to take decisions, functioning without a facilitator to the conversation. Every congregation of people would have needed to consider alternatives, explore dilemmas and take calls. Perhaps there was no role designated as a facilitator but the role was assumed by someone in each of these bodies. The tribal chief. The village elder. The king. The noble man. The philosopher. And so on. A person or role that held the group together in dialogue.
Many indigenous populations, in fact, have words for describing this “holding”. Amongst the Pintupi people, an Australian Aboriginal group who originate from the Gibson Desert, referred to a “leader” as mayutju (boss), tjila (big one) and ngurrakartu (custodian). These people are described as “holding” or “looking after” (kanyininpa) their family, kin, subordinates and country. A boss is yungkupayi, someone “who freely gives”, a “generous one”. They will “look after” (kanyilku) people and country.v
The human facilitative bone surely has evolved over time as with society. Plato ran an academy where philosophy was taught. To be statesman-like required an ability to ask deep questions and debate dilemmas. He posited that philosophers made great kings and drew strength from debating questions and getting people to think as a collective.
Nalanda in 5th century AD in India boasted a grand university. More than 10,000 students studied there—with over 2,000 professors from what is now Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.vi The 9th century saw the university of Al-Karaouine and a bunch of other universities in the next 300 years.vii These places of learning helped learning and thought exchange take place in real time, thus moving societies forward.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw European institutions for higher learning come to being.viii The works of Arabic texts and Aristotle becoming available in the 12th century saw new beginnings.ix From grouping together for safety and social connection, people were making moves to continuously create new realities. One of which was to learn together and bring worlds closer. When the worlds themselves were far apart from each other. With none of the communication tools of the present-day world, people still came together, worked as groups and made meaning for themselves and for each other too.
Different societies would possibly have had different levels of devolution of power to groups for decision-making. But the premise is this: as we evolved through the years, living in tribes and belonging to communities, moving forward as a collective was one very important way to be. It had to compete at times with autocratic and other forms of leadership. Collectives, on their part, need facilitators or facilitative leadership styles to hear the group and move forward.
Perhaps it was primitive, but it is an ample pointer in the direction that the role of the facilitator or the style of facilitative leadership is not new!
If that is a premise that we hold dear, that the facilitative bone has been with us through the ages, we choose to extend it into the present as well. We believe that the facilitative bone exists in all of us and we will find some part of it if only we care to look hard. Armed with that hypothesis, we went out and had conversations with a number of people. People who didn’t call themselves facilitators. These were people who we thought, were leading a facilitative life.
These people keep making a difference in how they work with groups. Irrespective of what their titles or their professions were. The radio jockey. The truck driver. The housing society manager. The CEO. The midwife. The musician. The building contractor. These were the spectrum of people we interviewed.
The more we spoke to them and teased out their own approaches to life and living, the more apparent it became to us what it meant to lead a facilitative life. Mind you, they did not claim to lead one. They were just going about their lives as ordinary human beings. It was us, the seekers, who saw in them the remarkable difference they were making, in their own way.
The Nature of Living a Facilitative Life
We sat in silence many a time, satiated with the richness around us. Knowing fully well that is available to all of us on tap yet the busyness that engulfs us, gobbles that richness too. During this reflection, we arrived at three themes that are common to all the folks that we met with. Themes that we distilled out through careful perusal and deliberation. Show Up. Meta Knowing. Lattice Sensing. We want to offer these to you, dear reader, not with the rigour and definitiveness of academic research, but with the humility of storytellers. We invite you to play with these ideas and see what emerges for you.
1. Show Up
“Eighty per cent of success is just showing up,” said Woody Allen.x The understated power that resides in that sentence is often missed. Showing up takes courage. It takes a bunch of other things too. A genuine interest in getting people to move forward past their immediate situations. This is quite a common ask, you may say. You are absolutely right. It is a common ask, that often at times, does not get its due.
Allow us to explain, with the use of three different prisms.
The first. A predominant narrative in the world today runs on narrow individualistic rails with an engine called WIIFM. That is “What’s In It For Me?” for the uninitiated. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? The problem is that the WIIFM story has been stretched to move from being an occasional thought, to a widely held narrative. Part of Showing Up is to show up with a different mind-set: “How Can I Help?”
That is a significant shift for several and the payoffs are in multiples. Just that the multiples don’t appear instantly in the form that will be most desired. Across all our conversations, we found a sense of service superseding any thoughts of rewards for self.
If showing up without a specific reward is disquieting, consider the second prism: Showing up without invitation!
Showing up without an explicit invitation requires a degree of courage that is beyond the ordinary. It means that the facilitative bone creates the space and builds a platform when everyone else is busy with emotions of the problem.
The facilitative bone creates the space and builds a platform when everyone else is busy with emotions of the problem.
Life doesn’t provide us with invitations to step up, gather ourselves and step in to help people. Life provides us with opportunities to do so every minute. People who do it all the time, often do it without a thought that they are doing so.
“The only thing that you have to remember is to be careful not to try and solve all their problems,”’ says Rajvel, the village elder you read of earlier. “We have to believe that people are resourceful and that you step in to channel those resources when you think they are not seeing it all.” That choice making makes a difference. That perhaps is an intuitive ability that builds over time. This is integral to showing up. This makes showing up meaningful.
That provides the perfect window to the third prism: Tightly & Lightly. People who lead with a facilitative leadership style hold themselves lightly but regard the work that the group will do rather tightly.
“When people are at loggerheads, they are running on high emotion. They can go in all directions. You have to earn the right to help them stay focused on something that will be useful.” That was Venu, a building contractor who has had remarkable success in putting together a contract workforce. He has no direct employees but a set of people who want to work with him, contract after contract. “In the construction business, problems are plenty. We are always facing constraints and interests. The problem can be looked at from many angles and when you look at it from a new angle, the problem appears different. You need empathy, patience and help people converge to middle ground.”
“He jumps right in and we think he is a fair man,” said one of his contract workers. Venu himself doesn’t think of it as much. “We have a job to do. Everyone has a different way of doing it. If we give a chance to hear another’s view, then we get a new angle. I just help if another angle can be added. It’s a small thing,” he says, with a wave of a hand.
This got the contract worker to chip in. “He is not doing it for himself.
That’s the other bit.”
People who have a pronounced facilitative bone in them are more interested in the people that work with them than their own interests in the problem. They regard themselves lightly and are intent on hearing the other person out. This helps clarify the voice from the emotional noise and bring people together towards the outcome.
These prisms, in our minds, add richness to Showing Up. Showing Up is not just opening the door and making an entry with a bang. It means a silent, unobtrusive and courageous entry. This gets the group to focus on the task at hand. That is Showing Up in full.
2. Meta-Knowing is Not Knowing
One of the greatest advancements to human life has been the ability to predict, to a reasonable degree of accuracy, stuff that was previously given to chance. How soon will you get from Place A to Place B? Will there be rain next week in Brisbane? What are the chances that my package will reach London? The number of steps walked on a given day? A while ago, arriving at answers to these were all matters of chance. Not anymore.
The only knowing that they have is that of ‘non-knowing’ what will emerge from a conversation.
Today, these predictions sit coyly in the palms of our hands. These and several other aspects have added a definitive layer to our life. So much so that we seek such definitiveness in every move of our life and without this definitiveness, we feel out of depth. Yet group processes are about human behaviour and they happen in the moment. They have jagged edges and jarred boundaries. Precision doesn’t quite fit. We do not know what will happen in any given moment.
People who have a way with groups know this well. In fact, the only knowing that they have is that of “non-knowing” what will emerge from a conversation. To be comfortable with that has a deep impact on the group. From that comfort comes a degree of childlike curiosity about what the next move the group is willing to make. That curiosity gives a whimsical energy that wilts any lingering doubt about the interest of the facilitator superseding that of the group’s.
What aids in people getting this comfort with “not knowing”?
For starters, it is a deep sense of self ( You will find some neat tools in Babrbara MacKay’s chapter on The Power of Facilitation for Self-Reflection, Change and Personal Growth for this state of connection). An inner compass that seems to get people to first understand who they are. Most of the people we spoke with had no qualms telling us where they usually trip up. “Anyone who indulges in luxury, comes across to me as someone ‘showing off wealth’. It puts me off. I know that. And whenever I find someone with a degree of ostentation, I am conscious that I am put off by this and am careful that it does not come in the way of knowing the person better. It’s an effort.” This was Manfred, CEO of a large enterprise who is well regarded amongst his people. To be aware of biases and to be sensitive to them makes a huge difference.
The other piece is the moral hand of the inner compass. The moral hand of the inner compass, firmly pointed in the direction of the collective good, helps. That means building a degree of congruence between what you say, what you do and who you are. “If you are not authentic, people see through that,” Rajvel says, “Dissonance can easily be spotted.”
Rajvel brought out another dimension. “Compassion with people and self is important. This is about being very human. One is human and will make mistakes.” To view everything with compassion frees people up to speak their view and not look to orchestrate results. It is a process. And it begins with the leader and their compassion and acceptance of themselves. The power of facilitation, therefore, resides in sensing and harnessing the energy of the group. This requires a minute-by-minute presence, each minute not knowing what the next will beget. Knowing this frees up the facilitator to draw upon all of the groups resources. This is “meta knowing”.
3. Lattice Sensing
The first thing anyone will notice about Venu, the building contractor, is his intense eyes and calm demeanour. In his work overalls and covered with dirt and grime, his ability to look beyond what is stated is uncanny. A plumber entered the room stating, “Am I going to fix the bathrooms on the 15th floor now?” Venu’s response: “What time did you finish yesterday?”
It was an interesting exchange, with them deciding that they will do the 15th floor the last. Venu shared later, “Normally, he is a lot more cheerful when he states that. He is sprightlier. Never with a slouched shoulder. I think he likes the view from the 15th floor. Today, there wasn’t as much energy in his voice.” It did turn out that the plumber had a late night and he wanted to finish and get home soon. “The work in the 15th floor requires his full attention. Perhaps he can do it tomorrow,” he said.
To a bystander, that difference in tone and intonation would be difficult to catch. When you listen with your eyes, you are seeing everything happening around you. It adds a layer by soaking in every sound. When you see with your ears, you not only hear what is spoken but watch out for the tone, the twitch of the lip, the fret of the brow, the smile in the corner of the eye. This is what we call lattice sensing.
The lattice has layers and angles. Those layers create strength for the design. A lattice gives you a picture of symmetry and depth. Lattice sensing is to make meaning from the many layers and angles in the conversation, what is said, not said, loud and silent, colourful, black and white and grey. Seen and felt. A good facilitator works with the many layers and angles.
David, a musician and artist who works with a wide spectrum of people, spanning countries and cultures, has a way of solving challenges. He understands that people often just need someone to talk to. Someone to hear their story. He says, “Being a listener is help in itself. It is not what they are saying, but feeling where they are coming from. Accepting where they are at helps people feel they are not alone. It does not matter what I say, they have to experience it for themselves. It is not about giving advice or trying to influence. It has to be that person’s choice. If I have expectations or attachment to what I say, it can have an adverse impact on their ability to move forward. There is a fine line between caring for them and getting involved in their drama.” David practises lattice sensing.
You make sense of everything around you by paying complete attention and deploying more than one sensory organ. It means that people like Venu and David bring about a presence that sets the tone for a conversation. They give themselves to the moment and to the group in front of them. They are doing all of this without getting distracted by a debate or any device or process.
Rajvel, the village, elder added another important dimension, as always. “Sometimes we don’t know what to do, and don’t have much to say at times. It is OK to sit in silence. We just sit there under the tree and decide to reconvene.”
To many of us, silence can be unnerving. To be able to read into the silence and to stay secure with the thought that it is part of being human is key. That is not everyone’s game for sure. But that is an important part of the ask.
To the uninitiated, lattice sensing can be in the realm of the magical or the happy coincidence. The difference that it makes to outcomes is humongous. Perhaps you can get started by listening to the smiles, sighs and emotions in every conversation that you have. Stuff that is not explicit but that you are able to catch.
Years ago, we were introduced to active journaling of observations. The exercise is to sit down and make a list of all feelings and emotions after a conversation is over. We realized that when we begin to look for it, we see, hear and know much more! When was the last time you looked for more than you could see or strain to hear through the silence in the room? Well, there is always a next time.
Leading a facilitative life often is a huge catalyst for effectiveness in the present-day world. It doesn’t matter which profession that you are in. Strengthening the facilitative bone that resides in you will stand you in great stead. Reasons abound. Here are two.
If we offer our ear, people are ready to open their hearts.
Firstly, with the spread of social technologies, geography is history and the world is shrinking. Knowledge resides in everyone’s fingertips, free to be deployed at will. That can also lead us to being holed up in our own world. It’s as if giant walls come up in our minds with information that supports our views and biases, thereby leaving less space for anyone with a different view.
The future of the planet is at stake and it will take all of us from all sides to do our bit. To make sense of the emerging world as a collective, and thus shaping our future, is an ask that stares at us.
There are clear pointers to how “walls” are default and bridges need to be designed. Walls come up first in the mind and are easy, lazy defaults.
Technology has helped us congregate within our communities where similarities abound. As has been discussed in previous chapters, we need more effort to traverse the echo chamber and embrace differences to be able to see new worlds.
Secondly, demographic differences compounded by income inequality are huge challenge that confronts the world. With more millennials (1980– 2000) and Gen Zs (2000–2020) in the world, there are tectonic shifts that need urgent work. These have their collective futures at stake. There are so many angles to each argument made here. Each is valid from a particular angle. Obviously, the work that needs to be done is at the intersections of these angles. That requires a facilitative state of mind.
There are other challenges and jagged edges pointing to history, borders, culture, climate, wealth, technology and so on. The answers to questions in these spaces will involve complex variables that will mandate dialogue. The future of work and sustained life on the planet depends on how we are able to engage with each other, listen to another’s point of view, resolve differences and live together.
Rajvel, the village panchayat head, David, the musician, Venu, the contractor, and every single one of the people that we met spoke with quiet courage about their lives. They taught us that if we offer our ears, people are ready to open their hearts. They went about diligently doing their work. They were not trying to change the world. But in trying to go about diligently doing their work, taking their people along, they were contributing to change in the world.
Changing the world may sound like an onerous proposition. Like all good things it starts with a showing up. Knowing full well that you do not know everything. When you combine showing up with being open to possibilities, and being fully present to what you are seeing and not seeing, you tap into the power of facilitation within you. And that is showing up, meta knowing and lattice sensing.
Even as we type out the last lines of this chapter, we are left with nothing but a deeper resolve to go out and talk to people. The last word will remain beyond our grasp as human kind perpetually evolves. Human kind will need to make sense to what emerges and keep coming together to make collective meanings of new realities and take action.
1 Hercule Poirot is a fictional Belgian detective, created by Agatha Christie. Poirot is one of Christie’s most famous and long-running characters, appearing in 33 novels, published between 1920 and 1975. He was unsurpassed in his intelligence and his investigative, curious mind.
2 Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki/Confirmation_bias
i. Aristotle, (350 B.C.E) Politics (line 1253a of chapter 2 (9) in the first book)
ii. Dunbar, R., (1998) Theory of Mind and Evolution of Language in Hurford, J. R., Studdert‐Kennedy, M. and Knight C., editors, Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases, Cambridge University Press, pp.92‐110. (C)
iii. Muse, S. A., & Narsiah, S., (2015) Public Participation in Select Civilisations: Problems and Potentials, J Sociology Soc Anth, 6(3): 415-421
iv. Encyclopedia: Sabhas and Samitis https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sabhas-and-samitis
v. Myers, F., (1986), Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics Among Western Desert Aborigines, AIATSIS, Sourced from the Indigenous Governance Toolkit https://toolkit.aigi.com.au/toolkit/4-1-indigenous-leadership
vi. Wikipedia Nalanda https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Nalanda
vii. Guiness Book of Records: Oldest higher-learning institution, oldest university https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-university https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_al-Qarawiyyin
viii. Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/hwp215.htm
ix. Wikipedia Medieval University: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_university
x. Quote Investigator “Showing up is 80 percent of life” https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/10/showing-up/