January 20, 2012

Facilitation Friday #3: Balancing Challenge and Support

Psychologist and scholar Nevitt Sanford introduced an influential construct related to cognitive development that is a valuable framework for facilitation: challenge and support (PDF link).
Challenge, provided by either internal or external stimuli, can lead to growth and development so long as the disequilibrium caused by the challenge does not overwhelm the individual, in which case the person retreats or shuts down.

Support is an external influence that helps an individual successfully navigate the challenge being experienced without coddling the person so much that growth and development is impeded.

Let's take a physical example of this concept to help make it more concrete: lifting weights.  If you're doing chest presses and select a weight you confidently know you can press 10 times, you may experience a sense of satisfaction, but because your muscles weren't challenged, you won't experience much growth.

To produce growth, you have to select a weight heavier than what you normally lift.  Because this increases the challenge and the possibility of failure, you should have a spotter who can help you with the weight when your muscles become too fatigued.  A good spotter doesn't step in and grab the weights though the first time you start to strain a bit … that would be too much support and your muscles wouldn't be challenged at all.

Understanding the dynamics of challenge and support can help us in the design of effective meetings, workshops, and conversations, as well as facilitating what is actually happening in real-time.  A group used to meeting in a hollow square with a highly structured agenda could find a rooms et with a circle of chairs and a meeting agenda with just a few discussion questions posed to be somewhat challenging.  Individuals accustomed to lecture-style presentations may find a highly experiential workshop involving a great deal of personal sharing to be somewhat uncomfortable.  These are just two examples of how challenge and support are evident in a facilitation environment.

My previous post focusing on how behavior is the result of people interacting with the environment can help us think through challenge and support in a facilitation effort.

Think about the individuals you will be facilitating.  What content, environment, session formats, conversations might they find challenging?  What support might you build into the facilitation so that they can successfully navigate that challenge and grow instead of retreating or shutting down?  What support might be excessive, unintentionally impeding their learning and growth because you eliminate too much of the challenge?  Here are a few examples:
  • Individuals who are analytical might struggle with an exercise that has vague instructions or asks them to engage in a creative task.  Offering them more detailed information or an example of what a possible creation might look like could allow them to fully engage in the activity
  • Workshop designs or meeting formats that focus almost exclusively on verbal participation can sometimes impede the contributions of more introverted or reflective learners.  Including brief segments where individuals think on their own before verbalizing their ideas with the group can support their interaction and learning needs.
  • A lecture segment introducing an idea or concept to a very diverse audience might not connect with each individual's respective work environment or job function unless the presenter gives a variety of concrete examples illustrating her concept in varied settings.
  • Not honoring traditional or expected norms in any setting (think nametags at a conference, assigned seats at a meeting, slides or handouts for a presentation) could cause some initial discomfort as people are unsure of how events will unfold given the absence of the features to which they have become accustomed. This doesn't mean you couldn't eliminate these items, but just be sensitive to the discomfort or challenge this might cause.
  • A group that is very comfortable with unstructured, informal conversations can become hesitant or challenged if an intense conflict erupts in the middle of such discussions and may need the facilitator to help provide structure and new norms for working through the disagreement.
  • Individuals attending a workshop in which the presenter covers content they already know extremely well won't learn anything unless the speaker modifies what is being explored to include more challenging material.
Embedded in the very root definition of the word facilitation is the emphasis on actions that make it easier for groups to accomplish their goals.  But if we as facilitators do the work of the group for them or provide too much support, we take away the challenge and reduce the group's likely learning and development.  The same is true when working with an individual.

The key is a thoughtful calibration of challenge and support in the original design of your meeting, workshop, or conversation, as well as a real-time vigilance about recalibrating your contribution in order to produce real growth.  It's more art than science, but it is critical nonetheless.

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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