Facilitation Friday #18: Authenticity Matters

We were about halfway through the program on facilitation skills. Participants were practicing the core skills we had explored, facilitating various small group conversations. As I observed one very earnest young man in action, I kept feeling his efforts lacked authenticity. The questions he used and the gestures he made were too studied … too rehearsed … too textbook.

During the debriefing, I asked him to talk about how he felt he had done during his practice time. Brimming with enthusiasm, he spoke with great pride about how he had been able to incorporate many of the techniques and mannerisms he had seen his mentors use when leading groups. It became clear to me that the discomfort I felt while observing him was due to the fact that his facilitation was not of his own doing. Rather it consisted of loose-knit ”impersonations” of the mentors he apparently channeled during his practice time.

I began to gently probe his thinking about effective facilitation, his own communication style, and his own beliefs about what gifts he could offer to a group when serving as its facilitator. Though my questioning was non-judgmental, it was not completely comfortable for the young man. Getting inside his own head when it came to the topic was not something he had spent much time doing.

After our conversation, I asked him to demonstrate some of the thinking he had just shared in another round of role rehearsals. Somewhat hesitantly, he agreed. His initial efforts were less polished than in the first round and were offered more tentatively. But as the discussion progressed, you could slowly see a more natural rhythm being established. The young man’s confidence increased, and when it did, he actually became a bit more reserved, more trusting of the group to continue on without his every intervention.

This young man’s experience is one that we have all probably had numerous times. In our effort to honor what we have learned from those we admire—our mentors and role models— we try and appropriate their speech, their actions, their thoughts and then proffer them somewhat as our own.  This right-hearted, but wrong-headed, approach causes our efforts to feel hollow when introduced into our relationships.

This situation reminds me of a vocal master class taught by 2011 Kennedy Center honoree, the legendary Barbara Cook. One of the many epiphanies she offered resonates so deeply with me: “It’s so hard to believe that what the world wants is us. It’s hard to believe, whatever you’re doing, that you’re enough. We are all, always, enough."

Without a doubt, we should reflect on (and learn from) the wisdom of our friends, family, colleagues, and mentors. But ultimately, we have to find our own voices as individuals, as facilitators, as leaders. And perhaps the best way to find our own voice is simply to let our voice speak, to listen to it with great intention, and to make as much meaning of it as we are equipped to do at any particular point in our lives.

No single "correct" facilitation style exists other than the one that most reflects your authenticity, your humanness.  That is the most important tool we bring to any meetings or conversations we facilitate. We shouldn't turn facilitation into performance art, becoming the character of Facilitator.  Instead we must simply bring our personal character to whatever facilitation work we are called to do.

As Cook so eloquently noted in her master class:

“To be as authentic as we know how to be at the moment, so that we can be more and more present in what we do. The more we can do that, the safer we are. The problem is it feels most dangerous … But this very thing that seems dangerous is where safety lies.”

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