I chuckled audibly when I read the tweet. “Happy New Year, group members! In 2023, may your instructions be clear, and your sticky notes always adhere.” An acquaintance who is a faculty member asked what I was laughing about. I read them the tweet.
“Is that from the Ass Deans account?”
“No, it’s from Shit Facilitators Say.”
I read them the account tagline: “I facilitate groups. But really, I’m just holding the space.”
Them: “What does that mean?”
Me: “It means I always have post-its and dry erase markers in my bag. It means I’m a keeper of space, time, and equitable engagement. I help groups brainstorm and I help them make decisions that work for them. I help keep out what belongs outside of the conversation and I help them focus on what belongs in the conversation.”
Them: “Do you identify as a facilitator?”
Me: “I do.”
Them: “So you belong to both the assdean and shit facilitators say communities?”
The conversation made me laugh inside. The only other time I hear people in my circles use the phrase “identify as” is in characterizing the non-normative ‘other’ (e.g., gay, trans, Latinx) in relation to the socially desirable and power-holding status (e.g., white, male, cishet). In this case, the ‘otherness’ I identify as is “not faculty.” And if you’re not faculty, what I do and how I do my work might be mysterious, opaque, and misunderstood. There are times when I detect harsher, derisive, and dismissive forms of ‘othering’ about facilitators and the work we do in and with people in higher education. The implicit messages I hear from some is that what we’re naive, saccharine, Pollyanna, silly, beneath, a waste of time and money, and unimportant.
I know we each have negative experiences with poor facilitation. I know some people aren’t ready for the work that facilitation might ask of them. And there are very real barriers of time, energy, priorities, local culture, and personal matters that make it hard for some people to fully participate with positive intent.
I want to share a little bit about what facilitation means to me. If you’re a PhD student wondering what else you might do in higher education with a PhD, here’s an introduction to facilitation work as I think about it. I used to do facilitation within a teaching center context through workshops and teaching consultations. Now I facilitate graduate student growth.
In distant kinship to midwives and doulas, I help graduate student individuals and groups give birth to new ideas and new self-/group-concepts. It’s up to the person or group to decide what direction they want to grow in, and then I help them develop their capacities. That might be about having new ideas, developing a more complete understanding of a problem, nurturing compassion for difficulties, practicing new skills, or committing to a bold action. I help people and groups “hop out of the groove,” question assumptions, and interrogate what is considered commonplace and “common sense” in their academic work areas.
Logistically, that means I think carefully about the space literally and figuratively: where we will meet, how we are arranged in the space, how we move through our time together, how are voices and perspectives are heard and accounted for, and what physical, emotional, and intellectual resources will be helpful. I favor a “cold model” of facilitation that looks similar to what happens in Twelve Steps programs and Quaker decision-making meetings (I grew up outside Philadelphia); we bring concerns and ideas to the middle for consideration and we attend to the group conscience – principles over personalities. Yes, that approach usually does involve post-its, dry erase markers, shared google docs.
There’s an aspect of facilitation that feels like uncovering treasures to me. Complaints, tensions, fears, and conflicts are values, dreams, hopes, and wishes in disguise. Sometimes I help people and groups break down well-worn processes so that they can identify, inventory, and store the bits and bobs they decide are worth keeping and that fit their values. There’s a Schrodinger’s cat element to a facilitated conversation that is exciting when I can feel a person or group is coming to a new idea that is both here and not quite here yet. Facilitation is a bit like chemistry and alchemy. I help lower the activation energy, making a reaction more likely to occur, adding the spark that ignites the creative and motivational energy.
I especially like the “shadow work” of facilitation. I help people and groups uncover the stories, myths, and illusions they perpetuate. On the one hand, these stories give them a sense of control over what they fear. Conversely, these stories can limit their self-/group-concept. I help them speak of their fears so that they can address the reality, frequency, and severity of those threats and then move through and past them. We deconstruct the stories and we break rules generatively.
Sometimes, facilitating feels sublime and transcendent to me. The vibe of the person or group is elevated. People see themselves in others and hear others in themselves. There’s empathy and attunement. There’s a community conscience and a collective stewardship that something more is possible and desired.