Are you a lecturer/expert or facilitator/learning catalyst?
“Two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
—Sydney J. Harris
With a combined 40 years of training experience, we have had the opportunity to attend countless workshops as participants. During one workshop, one of us recalls a facilitator who launched a mini-lecture after each introductory comment by the participants. The facilitator (scratch that, the lecturer) was obviously proud of his expertise and wanted to make certain the audience knew it. Yet, these multiple mini-speeches came across as dismissing and devaluing the participants’ comments. It was at that moment that this author vowed to never do that when facilitating.
Another situation surfaced whenever a participant would share a comment, the facilitator would beam a big smile and then proceed to pontificate her reply. Again, the facilitator’s response held an air of righteousness and devalued the participant’s inquiry.
Co-author Danielle also recalls a third example of this “know-it-all” behaviour. Having paid $400 to take a weekend workshop on basic math principles in hopes of raising her GMAT scores, she was eager to engage and learn new skills. The workshop effectiveness was derailed immediately as the facilitator began with his history and proclaimed, “This will be easy, because math is the easy part…” It was at this point that Danielle wondered if participants would appreciate hearing such a comment when they each paid $400 to attend the workshop. For her, this comment shut her down, and no math knowledge was gained. The lasting impression was a permanent lesson regarding how quickly a facilitator can shut out audiences by acting like a know-it-all.
The danger as illustrated in each case above of the know-it-all facilitator is a stifling of participants’ thought process. So the question is: Should a facilitator assume the role of “expert” or…instead focus on performing as a catalyst for the learning? This prompted us to remember:
If I say it, it might be true…
If you say it, it is probably true.
A Behaviour Without a Label
We vowed to avoid these mistakes, but we did not have a label for these behaviours. That is, until we read “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith. In his best-seller, Goldsmith shares 20 workplace habits that have wrecked professional careers. All of these “flaws” are interpersonal, and the one that specifically relates to this article is:
Habit #2: Adding Too Much Value
The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
This is what Goldsmith describes as “classic destructive smart-person behaviour.” It is a variation of “I need to win,” which conveys a sense of competition. In essence, it relays the message that “my words are better than your words.”
One of us recalls seeing this trait in an Organizational Development consultant. While working with his internal clients, the consultant always had to have the last word. As facilitators, we are promoted or hired into our roles due to our expertise, so this habit is an easy one to demonstrate. And having the last word is a difficult habit to stifle.
As professionals, we are proud of our knowledge and a product of our experiences. Below are suggestions for better alternatives for responding to participants:
• Mentally note the comment and refer back to it as appropriate.
• Boomerang the comment or question back to the participant or group.
• Paraphrase the comment to confirm understanding.
• Refer to the comment during transitions.
• Compliment a participant for the question or comment.
As facilitators, there are plenty of choices to guide a discussion. In a workshop, the goal is to activate the participant’s learning, not our own. So while these alternative responses may not come naturally, it is important to remember that communication is a two-way street. As tempting as it is to answer every question, there are better choices to truly facilitate the learning process.
I am far less interested in people having the right answer than in their thinking about the issues the right way.—Harvey Golub, former CEO, American Express
It is an advanced facilitator who can incorporate a variety of the participant comments and refer to their comments throughout a course rather than diving into a long-winded monologue. A great workshop is a push-pull discourse between all participants, enabled by a talented facilitator who works as a guiding force.
Becoming Self-Aware and Avoiding This Behaviour
One “red flag” is to watch for the use of the word, “but.” Any time “but” becomes the transition word between what the participant says and what we say, it could imply: “I hear what you said, but what I am saying is more important.” The word, “but,” discounts whatever preceded it.
While many facilitators have made the mistake of “over-lecturing” more times than we would like to admit, there was an instance we recall of getting it right. While conducting a workshop on communication skills, a participant in the back of the room made some superbly insightful comments. The author was beaming as the comment related directly to the upcoming topics. And he was tempted to immediately make the connections by spewing his wisdom. Fighting this natural tendency, he chose to simply and briefly confirm what was said. As the workshop came to a close, he realized the participant who made the comment was the VP of Global Support. The VP held the authority and appreciated being as seen as a valuable asset in the process. More importantly, the VP’s comments were not diluted and discounted by an eagerly talkative facilitator.
News anchor David Gergen once said, “A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” Similarly, facilitators should facilitate…as a catalyst in the learning process. In a workshop, facilitators should remain open and inclusive so participants can gain a valuable experience.
Developing self-awareness creates the foundation for a positive workshop experience. Since it is difficult to watch ourselves, ask for feedback when possible. Have a co-worker or other participant make a note of instances when this behaviour occurs, or point out missed opportunities. Ideally, the relationship built between a facilitator and the audience is a symbiotic one. The relationship is fragile and dependent upon the talents of a facilitator to bring the audience along and not ruin the process of learning through unflattering actions. Being the smartest person is useless if no one listens to what you have to say.
As a learner-centric facilitator, it is not what you know. It is what you enable your participants to know.
By John Castaldi, Senior Facilitator, Castaldi and Associates, and Danielle Miller, Product Manager, Customer Experience Manager, MHI Global