Four Mental Aptitudes Help Facilitators Facing Challenges

By Garmston, Robert J. | Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Four Mental Aptitudes Help Facilitators Facing Challenges


Garmston, Robert J., Journal of Staff Development


Facilitation is planned improvisation. Within learning communities, groups examine student work, talk about data, plan, look for solutions to problems, and reflect upon their own learning. Facilitators guide with planned agendas and selected protocols. Yet the unexpected can and frequently does happen. Facilitation, like teaching, is cognitively complex and has the added tensions associated with performing leadership tasks in front of colleagues.

Relationships, emotions, perceptions, and decisions inform facilitator behaviors. Because of this, facilitators must recognize the importance of the mental agility required in facilitation work. This column explores four mental aptitudes or capabilities critical to effective facilitation. They are the metacognitive processes that answer the question, "How will I use the skills and knowledge that I have?"

1. Know your intentions and choose congruent behaviors.

2. Set aside unproductive patterns of listening and responding.

3. Know when to intervene and when to go with the flow.

4. Support the group's purposes, topics, processes, and development.

KNOW YOUR INTENTIONS

Intention separates reactive behaviors from proactive ones. Facilitators work to sustain the spirit of inquiry and protect groups from selecting the easiest - but not necessarily the best - solutions. This intention directs the facilitator's attention to a group's distress signals, such as frustration with process, or a diminishing number of inquiry questions, and drives an internal search for things to say or strategies to employ to sustain the inquiry stage of work.

Knowing one's intention is the source of impulse control, patience, strategic listening, and strategic speaking. Clarity about intentions precedes and influences the three other capabilities.

You can increase this skill by rehearsing in calm situations. When you prepare for a conversation with a parent, ask yourself, what is my intention? You step into a classroom to observe - what is your intention? You attend a social event - what is your intention? Exercising this mental ability when the heat is low makes it accessible when temperatures rise.

SET ASIDE UNPRODUCTIVE LISTENING

Facilitators listen unproductively when they: (1) think of solutions while listening to a participant speak; (2) pry for details about what is unimportant to the theme of the conversation; and (3) mentally dwell on a personal experience related to what a group describes.

All these traits are normal, and in some settings, useful. But during facilitation, they interfere with several principles: A group is its own group, not the facilitator's; a facilitator is neutral to content; and facilitators model desirable communication behaviors to groups. To set such listening behaviors aside also means letting go of judgment about them. The facilitator simply notices these internal processes, and lets them go. The box at left displays three major set-asides.

Solution listening

Listening for solutions is normal, yet no always productive. Humans are pattern-seek ing and meaning-making creatures. The press of time in schools accelerates this tendency, which leads educators to be eager for action and resist reflection. Solution listening violates facilitator neutrality, the core principle in facilitation. As a result, a facilitator loses credibility and trust with the group.

Solution listening also has a toxic byproduct: The listener cannot deeply understand the communications of others if he or she is internally formulating a solution and rehearsing a "best way" of saying it.

Inquisitive listening

Autobiographical listening sometimes triggers the inquisitive frame. Facilitators might inquire to see how others' stories compare to their own experiences. Curiosity also motivates inquisitive listening, responding, and inquiring. (See chart on p. 66.)

Speakers often generalize, delete, and distort information as an adaptive response to an overabundance of detail. …

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