Being authentic

“The only question in life that matters is this – will we dare to be ourselves?”

Pablo Casals

Point 1 of the 5 Point Plan in The Accidental Facilitator focuses on the importance of knowing ourselves, being present and being authentic when working with the group. I think the best bit of advice I ever received when starting out doing group work and consulting was simply this – “If you are sincere they’ll give you a go”. He was right – groups respond positively if they decide that you are sincere. Conversely, people turn off and get cynical pretty quickly if they think the facilitator is faking it.

So, … it’s a bit of an elusive topic but I wanted to offer a few thoughts – and quote a few others who know more! Abraham Maslow said this –

“Discover your true identity. Strive to be honest in the sense of allowing your behaviour and speech to be a true and spontaneous expression of your feelings. Live in a way that expresses your real desires and characteristics. Know yourself. Authenticity is the reduction of phoniness toward the zero point.”

According to the philosopher Kierkegaard, the “authentic self” is the personally chosen self, as opposed to one’s public or “herd” identity. To be authentic is to recognise resolutely one’s own individuality and distinguish one’s own essential being-in-the-world from one’s public identity. So, to be authentic is, essentially, to be faithful to who you really are.

It’s pretty hard to be totally pure on this when working with a group. And it would probably be a bit indulgent and unhelpful to be declaring every moment of your experience of the group! You are after all there for the group – they are your client, it’s about them. However, openness and the exchange of thoughts and feelings about the task are important characteristics of effective groups. People take their cue from the facilitator – if you model openness and authenticity you encourage it, you give people permission to do the same. Groups need openness to have the conversations that really matter and make good decisions.

Self-awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Authenticity relies upon self-awareness: to be ourselves we need to know ourselves. And I think any mention of self-awareness leads inexorably to the broader challenge of Emotional Intelligence.

Daniel Goleman proposed five domains, or areas of ability, for emotional intelligence. They are all particularly important for the group facilitator –

  • Self-awareness – the ability to know one’s emotions. In particular, recognising a feeling as it happens.
  • Managing emotions – building on self-awareness … handling feelings so they are appropriate and adapting to changing circumstances.
  • Motivating oneself – marshalling emotions in the pursuit of a goal.
  • Recognising emotions in others – empathy, attuned to the social signals that indicate what others need or want.
  • Handling relationships – in particular, managing emotions in others.

There is a lot to discuss here, and I will expand on some of these topics in later posts, but for now I just want to make the point that we have to bring all of ourselves to the group facilitation role. To do that we need to know who we are and how we respond around other people, and stay true to self.

A couple of practical examples may help here –

Self-disclosure – where it is appropriate to the discussion, disclosing some aspect of your own experience can have a powerful positive effect on the group. You should obviously only disclose things about yourself that you are comfortable with. And only you can judge that. Self-disclosure should be done selectively and only occasionally – as discussed, the workshop is not about you.

Your self-disclosure may also be about your experience of the group, an observation or suggestion regarding what you think may be going on in the group. In this instance it is important that your feedback is offered constructively, offering a potentially useful insight into the group’s dynamics and not delivered as a criticism of the group.

If you don’t know, say so – don’t try to bluff your way through when you are unsure what to do. It’s always a good idea to check what the group thinks in these situations, and, if required, let the group know if you need a 5 minute break to review your process, maybe with one or two of the group members.

Receiving feedback from the group – when a member, or members of the group give you feedback on your facilitation or the process, strive to be as open and non-defensive as possible. This relates back to interpersonal skills and the importance of non-defensiveness in assertive communication.

To wrap this up I would say that it takes a whole lot of pressure off you in what is already a challenging task, if you don’t try to be anything other than yourself and don’t try to bluff your way through situations where you are not sure what to do.

Hope these thoughts are helpful. My next post builds on this topic to some extent. It will address the importance of good interpersonal skills – and emotional intelligence more generally – and the extension of interpersonal skills into the micro skills of group facilitation.

Developing high performance teams

Studies of high performing teams, typically identify characteristics such as:

  1. A unity of purpose and well-defined goals
  2. A commitment to understanding the process – how the group works
  3. An informal atmosphere and lots of discussion
  4. People discuss their feelings as well as their ideas
  5. Disagreements are welcomed and the team is not afraid of conflict
  6. Everyone pulls their weight
  7. The leadership of the group is shared. 1

When working with a team, as part of the early climate setting activities, I often invite the team to reflect on these characteristics and rate themselves against each item.  I’ve found this always generates an energetic discussion and provides the team with a “quick and dirty” profile on how they are performing as a team and where they could do better.  The task continues on to what they want to commit to doing to develop their collective skills in those areas where they have identified they could do better.

What sort of team do you want to be?

The above exercise dovetails nicely into a discussion of ground-rules. Characteristic # 2 on the list makes the link explicit. High performing teams are “self-conscious” of their process; they want to know how the group works and how it can be more effective. This commitment includes a commitment to their ground rules – the set of rules, or norms of behaviour, that the team agrees to observe in order to be effective in the session – to make better decisions, to achieve their goals for the session, and to enjoy the work.

So, if your discussion of ground rules with a team follows the review of high performing teams you can frame the question accordingly:

“Given our discussion of the characteristics of high performing teams, and your plan to work on developing your skills in order to be a more effective team, what ground rules do you think will be helpful for today’s session?

Contextualising the discussion of ground rules this way adds weight to the identification of those basic ground rules that all teams need to observe to be productive – things like “one person speaks at a time” and “respecting different views within the group” (and even “returning from breaks on time”!).

And importantly for you, as the facilitator, there is a broader issue of shared leadership and accountability here – through this simple exercise you are heightening awareness and encouraging all members of the team to recognise their individual and collective responsibility for the performance of the team.

1 For more information on these characteristics go to this Stanford University page which provides a summary from the work of Douglas McGregor and Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith:

Leadership for change

Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard University gave a TED Talk in 2013 in which she described a handy set of “Six Keys to Leading Positive Change”. Her six keys are: show up, speak up, look up, team up, never give up, and lift others up.

I have summarised each below, along with a few additional thoughts –

1. Show Up

Her first point is the universal lesson of life – show up. If you don’t show up, nothing really happens. The very fact of showing up, of making oneself available, of deciding that your presence makes a difference, is the first key of leadership.

This seems to me to be part of the broader Buddhist concept of “showing up for your life”.  Which is about mindfulness, about fully inhabiting the present moment, and by so doing, being more aware of self, less anxious, and more effective. (It also reminded me of the Woody Allen quote – “80 percent of life is showing up”!)

2. Speak Up

Being there makes a difference but that’s only the starting point – no one knows what we’re thinking if we don’t express it. So this second point is about speaking up, declaring yourself. But Kanter is talking about more than just words, she is talking about leadership through shaping the agenda, framing the issues for other people and helping people think about things in a different way.

This one reminds me of a ground rule I often suggest for new groups and participants in training workshops, and that is that we will all “help each other learn”.  This ground rule encourages group members to take responsibility for the work of the group – to listen carefully to what each other are saying, and, where helpful, ask questions to check their meaning and help them clarify what they are trying to say.

3. Look Up

Her third point is to look up – at some higher principle, bigger issue, or value.  Without vision and values leadership is hollow.  It’s important for any leader to know what they stand for and to be able to elevate people’s eyes from the everyday problems which bog us down – to get above this and gain a sense of hope by remembering what’s truly fundamental to our values.  To be regularly reminded of our nobler purpose, of what we stand for, lifts the spirits like nothing else.

4. Team Up

Nearly anything worth doing is difficult to do alone – everything goes better with partners. Kanter’s third point is to team up. The best ventures, she says, are where there’s a sense of partnership from the beginning.  Leaders should bring people together, taking lots of separate efforts and aligning them in one big team.  And values are important here too, finding partners who share the same values is essential.

I would add that, as well as strategic alliances, with funding pressures on NGOs in particular, opportunities to establish partnerships to achieve economies of scale are worth exploring in areas such as office accommodation, financial management, payroll, membership/database management and professional development.

5. Never Give Up

“Kanter’s Law”, as she calls it, states that everything can look like a failure in the middle.  Middles are difficult. Almost nothing we start that doesn’t hit an obstacle, a roadblock, things takes longer than we imagine with new projects or ventures, because we’ve never done it before. That ability to hang in there and not give up is the hallmark of leaders. If you give up, by definition it’s a failure.

6. Lift Others Up

Her final point is to lift others up. Share success and give back, build support rather than lose support.  Make sure other people feel elevated.

Finally, this one reminds me of the Tom Peters’ adage – it is a leader’s job to create more leaders!