Penner Art logo

The Art of Facilitation

September 29th, 2011 by Pat Pendleton

The following chapter from the book,”Patron Saint of Rascals” to be released in late 2011, is an example of how the creative process can be expressed in many ways. I use my experience as a group facilitator when I paint and take what I know as a painter into my world as a facilitator. Do you cross-pollinate between your art and something else?

Chapter 14 – The Art of Facilitation

By Pat Pendleton, for the People House newspaper in 1995

What exactly is facilitation? We started using that term at People House over 20 years ago. It’s a funny sounding word. The first time I heard it was at a 1973 statewide political conference where I was one of the leaders assigned to lead small group discussions on the issues. In our training we were referred to as facilitators. I remember smiling to myself at being called such a funny sounding name. Little did I know that in a few short years I would be co-leading an annual nine-month Facilitator Training Program with Ted Lothammer – a man I had met just two weeks before the conference!

Through the years, students of the Facilitator Training program have taught us the many applications of facilitation skills and helped us to better understand and define what it is we are teaching. The best therapists are good facilitators; so are the best managers, parents, ministers, mediators and just folks interacting with other folks.

What is it these students have learned that they find so useful in their professional and personal lives? The skills they’ve learned can’t be taught with flip charts because facilitation is not a series of learned interventions or a formula to memorize. It often frustrates new students that it looks so easy yet is so hard in the beginning for them to do. In order to learn facilitation skills, one must be willing to let go of controlling a situation, must trust the process as it unfolds and must become very disciplined at paying attention.

In addition to being a facilitator/mediator/minister, I am a contemporary landscape painter. I enjoy noticing that some of the same things happen when I paint and when I work with people. I find the experience of painting and the process of facilitation in a group or with individuals to be identical except one is with a canvas and the other with people. Facilitation itself is an art that affects the art of painting. In my studio, the easel is in one corner and opposite it is a well-worn chair with spatters of paint on the arms. As the painting progresses, I spend a lot of time sitting in that chair, looking at the painting, and waiting to be led by the painting before adding another stroke. Painting is about problem solving – how shapes and colors come together, soft or hard edges. The temperature, values and composition all must be dealt with until the work is completed. If I paint according to rules and theories doing only what I know how to do, it will be a very different painting than it will if I become the facilitator and invite the painting to teach me about possibilities as the clarity of what it is emerges.

To approach an individual as if he or she is a painting is to practice the art of facilitation. The facilitator does not come on as an “expert” filled with information to impose upon the person or group of people, but as an interested and very present participant in a shared exploration. Imagine that a woman has a problem and just doesn’t know what to do. Perhaps the problem is work related or maybe it is personal. It could be a pattern that keeps repeating and she wants something different and doesn’t know how to create it. You are the facilitator. You know that giving advice or sharing how much worse your problems are than hers probably won’t help. Instead, you begin to really pay attention to this person, communicating to her by your interest that you desire to know and understand her better. You stay with the person’s content and allow moments of silence. You only add what is truly helpful in keeping her on track with her emerging process – otherwise, you keep your mouth shut. You are along for the ride; it’s her trip. Because you trust her essential wisdom, you simply facilitate her past the roadblocks to a place where she can see what is happening. Either it becomes clear what the impasse is that keeps her from creating what she wants, or the answer that has been eluding her emerges. The important thing is that it is her answer, not yours.

Gore Vidal, while being interviewed on a television talk show about his lifetime experience as a writer, burst into as much child-like joy as an old cynic could muster up when he recalled a moment in one of his books. He was half way through writing the book MYRA BRECKENRIDGE, when he realized his heroine was a man, not a woman.

Many times, while facilitating a person’s process, I’ve been surprised by the direction the work takes. By letting go of my preconceived notions about what the person’s issues are and what the prescribed course of action should be, I’ve been taken into worlds I didn’t know existed, with solutions I never would have imagined! At these moments I know that the understanding they reached was far better than what I was anticipating for them. Working in a facilitative way with people – or books – is proven successful and a lot more fun than being the expert who thinks he or she already knows best what needs to happen.

Wolf Kahn, my favorite living artist, is quoted in one of his catalogs as saying:

“Every time I add a new color to the existing colors in a painting, I must ask the question: Does this color help the interaction of the others or does it diminish it? I am reminded of what Haydn said in regard to a string quartet, that it should seem like a conversation between lively individuals. Sometimes a good conversation becomes banal just by the addition of a new participant who, by failing to be at the prevailing level of discourse, brings all the talking to a halt. This easily happens in the interaction of colors; only the ongoing alertness of the artist will keep the conversation among the colors lively.”

A facilitator must stay at the prevailing level of discourse or the process being facilitated will come to a halt. Only the ongoing alertness of the facilitator will keep the interaction alive.

When facilitation is acknowledged as an art, it can no longer be mistakenly seen as a psychological intervention or misunderstood as any other application in and of itself. Facilitation is a process that affects in a positive way many endeavors including business management, painting, psychotherapy, parenting, writing and interpreting music, carrying on a meaningful conversation, hitting a tennis ball… The list is endless.