AITA? Or, “STFU while facilitating.”

Purpose of post– to nut out some ways of avoiding one of my facilitating blindspots/weaknesses.

I just had a flash, to a truly appalling climate meeting I went to in Stirling (up in the Adelaide Hills) a couple of years ago.

We were all sat in a circle – so, there’s no power or control in the room, right?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

We watched a shit film (some eminently forgettable and worse-than-useless documentary – they all meld into one after a while).  In the post-film “discussion” the person who was in charge (it happened to be a woman on this occasion, but I have seen this dynamic so many times; gender irrelevant) “suggested” that we go around the room with each person saying what they thought.  She would respond at greater length to each of these points. The minutes felt like hours at first. Then they felt like days. She was manipulating us all, consciously or otherwise, with herself as the centre of attention, herself as the oracle.  I invoked the law of two feet and legged it, before it was my “turn.”

The flash to that was an awful realisation: if you were being unkind, you could accuse me of having done the same thing with regard to a recent workshop I ran about sharing skills and knowledge.

For the record, I don’t think I was that asshole (AITA?) but

  1. Assholes rarely do (see The Onion for the exception)
  2. Even if I weren’t then, the tendency is there, and therefore the techniques to minimise the risk need to be devised, developed, deployed.

The event went well (according to feedback), but my spider-senses were tingling afterwards – had I taken up too much time/space that other people might usefully have occupied? How can I develop techniques that allow me to speak a lot less when it is helpful to do so, without it seeming that I am abandoning the position of “leading” a group discussion/following through on a plan?

The problem: the desire to validate and expand on what people say can slow down the meeting, and turn it into a gameshow with each moment of suspense being whether the facilitator thinks somebody’s contribution is good, bad or unworthy of comment.

The dynamic – everyone is sat in a circle/we are on a zoom.

We may have broken into small groups to discuss, we may be speaking on behalf of the person next to us (x introduces y, y introduces x).  But each of us is speaking in turn (1) about whatever it was agreed we would all speak about (2).

The danger is that after each person speaks there is an expectation, or a kind of dynamic set up, where the facilitator is expected to/wants to/slip into the role of making some sort of (supportive, hopefully!) statement in response (3)

This has three consequences

  1. It slows down the flow
  2. It makes it harder for other people in the circle to put their own opinions/points on what has just been said
  3. It solidifies the batshit crazy idea of facilitator as guru (and this one is dangerous, because you come to believe your own publicity).

So ultimately, even with processes that bill themselves as “anti-ego-fodder,” ego-foddering (EF) can/will creep back in (hiding in plain sight).  We learn that E-F is harder to kill than an Alien Chest-burster.

[Digression– a few years ago I went to an academic workshop in Lausanne, mostly made up of PhD students and ECRs.  The alpha profs waited to the end of any given presentation’s Q and A to make their (excellent) points, because to do so earlier would be to intimidate/shape things. It was brilliantly done.]

The solutions

Well, name the problem at the outset (get people to watch this short video


Explain that after each person has spoken there is an opportunity for other folks to pitch in.  It feels odd, but it gets easier. (The first time you ride a bike, you’re constantly terrified/afraid you will fall off and hurt yourself. But after a while, you realise that for most journeys, most of the time, a bike or something with wheels is “better” than walking – or at least quicker, more efficient.)

Explain the dilemma – if the facilitator is not consistent in speaking/not speaking, or if there is not a clear rationale for why they are speaking/not speaking, then those whose contributions don’t get commented on may feel neglected – as if they’re not worth responding to. So the solution would be to cost toss a coin. And if the coin comes down allowing the facilitator to respond, they respond, if not, they email afterwards..

Next – implement it (with different people commenting, but perhaps not same person more than twice). If there are no comments, and the facilitator has some observations she thinks worth sharing, she can toss the coin.

For the facilitator it can be tricky to bite your tongue is if there’s something you really think is worth mentioning, but if you’ve already spoken too much (and too much is a lot lower amount than you think) then write it down as a note and come back to it later in a post-workshop blog post.

There will be occasions where you have the “authority” to speak, and there may even be an expectation on you to exert that authority.  But just because you can do it, and/or other people expect you to do it, doesn’t mean that you have to, that it is always in everyone’s best interests, rightly understood.

The problem is, interrupting and validating the other people is simultaneously a form of self- validation, self-promotion. When you praise other people, you’re doing it from a position of assumed authority and means that you constantly are the centre of attention.

Sometimes the best thing to do, even if you have useful things to say, is to STFU.  This is hard for people raised and bathed in privilege (like me) to understand, but you know, other folks have been saying this – politely and/or impolitely – for decades, and eventually maybe it’s a good idea to listen (I know, radical, huh?),

The coin toss may seem a bit artificial, but can be a bit of fun. Or throw a die and keep yourself to the number of sentences on the die.

References and things that would slow down the main thread if we talked about them then and there – endless digressions a la Ronnie Corbett in The Two Ronnies

(1) You can mix that up by drawing names out of a hat, so people are not falling asleep waiting for it to be their turn. Keep everyone on their toes.

(2) I reckon it is good practice to allow people to say ‘pass’ and for it not to be held against them. Not everyone is an extrovert/comfortable with public speaking

(3) You’ve been invited to speak, or you’ve called the meeting and people have turned up – therefore they must be just desperate to hear MORE from you, right? Er, maybe, but probably not, and is that healthy anyhow, for anyone? You want to accentuate/reward the comments by people that you think are important. But why do your thoughts/assessments/judgements have primacy? Eh?

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