Exploring Elasticity in Facilitation – Episode 16

In this episode, Beth talks with Rebecca Sutherns about her book, ELASTIC: Stretch Without Snapping or Snapping Back, and how its insights can apply to facilitators and their groups. Rebecca uses the metaphor of a rubber band to explain how people can try to find the right amount of stretch – their “zone of optimal elasticity” – while neither understretching or overstretching. She explains some of the seven qualities within the ELASTIC acronym (Energy, Likeability, Adaptability, Strategy, Trust, Imagination, and Curiosity) and how facilitators can enliven these qualities in themselves and their groups.

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Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth
Hello, thank you so much for being here and choosing to listen to this episode today. This is Episode 16, Exploring Elasticity in Facilitation. You know, one of the things we are so lucky as facilitators to have are lots of books and resources to help us keep growing in our field. I know I have a book buying problem [chuckles], many people who are in my field and my colleagues in the field have said the same thing, where we love to buy books and resources to help us do what we do. This episode today is going to help us dive into one such book. I’m interviewing Dr. Rebecca Sutherns, she’s written a book that just came out this year, in 2023, called ELASTIC: Stretch Without Snapping or Snapping Back. Now Rebecca is not only a facilitator, but she’s a strategist, she’s a coach, she’s a planner. She does professional facilitation, stakeholder engagement, and evidence-based decision-making. She works with organizations in Canada and internationally to do her work.

ELASTIC is ostensibly written for leaders of various types of organizations but I read it with a facilitation lens, people who facilitate learning, people who facilitate process, and that’s where our conversation goes in the interview. ELASTIC actually draws on a metaphor, an acronym, and a series of conversation with inspiring community-based leaders. Basically what Rebecca is trying to do is help us think about the concept of stretch that we get from an elastic band or a rubber band and what that means for us in our work and in our life, and particularly we’re talking about it as facilitators of groups. So what does being stretched look like, for ourselves as facilitators and maybe for what we did with our groups? The funny thing is with our conversation is that we actually never did a very good job of describing what the acronym of ELASTIC stands for, so I’m going to tell that to you now. ELASTIC stands for energy, likeability, adaptability, strategy, trust, imagination, and curiosity. And so we dive into some of these qualities that leaders, facilitators, maybe even groups, can have and what that looks like in facilitated situations. So, if you’re interested in thinking about your optimal level of stretch or elasticity and what that means for you and your groups, please continue to listen in. Enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Rebecca, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s great to see you and I’m really looking forward to chatting about your book and a few concepts within it that I think are really going to be exciting and worthwhile for facilitators to learn about. So, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Rebecca Sutherns
Thanks for having me, Beth. I appreciate it.

Beth
I suppose we could start off with, you know, just acknowledging that you’ve written, it sounds like yet another book. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your earlier books so I apologize for that. But I have read ELASTIC, your new book. Can you tell us maybe to start off, how did that idea come about? You know, tell us just briefly what ELASTIC is, as a book itself, and what was the spark that made you think you needed to start writing and did finish writing that one?

Rebecca
Sure. The book has three parts to it and they’re quite distinct, so people can read them separately or together. But they each had their own genesis. So the first part is a metaphor of elasticity, and partly leadership, but kind of just human beings, right, of how it is that our experience mirrors some qualities of elasticity and needing to stretch, but not too far too fast, but not also allowing ourselves to snap back into shapes that no longer serve us or fit us. So that was one piece of playing with the metaphor of that. The second piece is ELASTIC, the word, as an acronym of seven qualities or skills, actually, that I think contribute to our ability to be more elastic in the way we show up. And where those came from, it actually started with the ‘I’. The acronym was not in order when it first appeared in my head. Really interested in imagination. And the I stands for that. And I’m curious about how each of these skills shows up, both individually and collectively. And so where it started for me was an exploration of collective imagination and the ways in which we think about imagination as an individual trait or activity but could it be a collaborative and collective one? So I was exploring that.

Then finally, the third section is really about stories and it showcases 14 people or organizations that I’ve worked with. And I started working on this book when I was in year 25 of my business. And I felt like I needed to mark that occasion. But I wanted to mark it in a way that celebrated some of the great people that I work with. And as I thought about the acronym, actually, I was thinking about humans, actual people whom I know who have been demonstrating those qualities. And I find when I look into kind of the leadership, business, organizational learning literature, you tend to see the same organizations profiled. Most often American, most often large, private sector, corporate Silicon Valley kinds of organizations whose brands you’d recognize. And I think many of us don’t cross paths with those types of organizations very often. So I wanted to make sure to include both Canadian content and organizations that are doing significant work but at a scale that many of us could relate to, rather than, you know, the top five largest companies or richest leaders in the world. So each part of the book came from a different place and eventually they coalesced into a what I hope is kind of a unified option in the book itself.

Beth
I really like that you included, you know, the types of case studies that you did, because we do learn from people at the local level, probably most of all, don’t we? We’re looking around, we’re networking, we’re meeting people that do similar work to we do or we’re supporting clients or whatnot. So those are the kinds of examples that we do learn from all the time, don’t we? So it makes sense. You’re right, I think that there’s a big relatability there in those types of examples.

Rebecca
Good. That’s what I was hoping.

Beth
The metaphor of the elastic, I found myself coming back to it. I know you have a, you know, an image in the book, which we can’t show on the podcast here. But I found myself thinking about it sort of physically, viscerally, I don’t know what you would say. Like, in my mind, as I thought about holding an elastic, and just kind of stretching it and letting it go back. And you talk about kind of snapping and snapping back. Can you try to explain what’s going on in that, you know, the image I’m talking about? Tell us about how that elasticity works and some of the, you know, those circles kind of within what’s happening when we’re elastic or not, I suppose.

Rebecca
Yes, absolutely. So if you think about a rubber band, for example, I have found this metaphor to be really kind of robust. Like you, it keeps coming up for me. Even you know that I’ve been working on this for a while, it’s still I’m still finding new ways that it’s applicable to real life. So let me give you a few. One of them is that if you think of a rubber band just sitting on your desk, it’s useless. It’s not doing anything. And so the nature of an elastic is that it has to be stretched to be useful, to fulfill the purpose for which it’s intended. So my first point would be that stretching is a good thing. So I don’t want it to be that stretching is a bad thing.

I think snapping is a bad thing. So, the snapping happens when we are stretched too far too fast. And you can imagine what that feels like. I think one of the things that makes human beings different from physical elastics, though, is that we have the capacity to learn to build our capacity to stretch. So our stretch isn’t fixed. And yet there are limits within which we can stretch, just like you know, if you think about those little tiny orthodontics elastics versus an exercise band, for example, different capacities to stretch. And I think there are people that have different capacities, but I don’t want that to be seen as a fixed quantity, because it is a learnable skill. So that would be one end, though, of the danger zone of moving outside of that optimal zone of elasticity and into one you want to be careful of which is to stretch too far too fast.

But another one is when you’ve stretched for too long. And so COVID is the obvious example of this. If we have been asked to put ourselves in a whole new situation for a long time, and then are expected perhaps to go back to an old way of doing things, we really struggle with that. And yet, elasticity, by its definition is a property of things that go back to their original shape. So we have this dilemma of I’m supposed to be able to pop back into my original form but that work arrangement, that relationship isn’t suiting me anymore, because I’ve been stretched for too long in this other way. And the classic kind of metaphor of that is, you know, your stretchy pants, right, or a bathing suit or something that has been stretched for too long, and it doesn’t go back into its shape. And not only that, it really can’t stretch very well, either. So it’s kind of in between and not that good for very much. And maybe some of your listeners have had that experience where you go, in crisis I was able to stretch, I didn’t burn out completely by snapping, but those old ways of doing things, those old arrangements, are not suiting me very well.

But sometimes that snapping back can be a good thing where it’s taking us back into comfortable, familiar territory in a way that allows us to refuel, recharge, rest. But other times, it’s a place where we literally are sitting on our desk. You know, the elastic is just sitting there not doing much. And I have to say last summer when I was writing the first manuscript of the book, I usually have elastic bands in front of me on my desk, and I came back to my desk in September, pulled out one of the elastics to show it on a Zoom call. When I went to stretch it, it just crumbled in my hand. And that gave me a whole other part of the metaphor that unstretched at all, underused, elastics get brittle. And so they become not stretchy anymore. So I think part of what I’m encouraging people to do is to think about these various states that an elastic can be in – and there are more that we could talk about, if you wanted me to get even more nerdy about my metaphor – but I think it’s helpful for us to go right now where am I at, and in what areas of my life am I overstretched or under stretched or in that zone of optimal elasticity?

Beth
I think it’s a great metaphor for people who facilitate learning, or process, and also participants. Because, you know, I myself, I’ve had people kind of push back when they’re uncomfortable, say in a learning environment, but it’s kind of, in my view, in a good way, you know, like, so I say things like, it’s okay to be at your learning edge, you know, that stretch, maybe is another way to talk about it. But we don’t, you know, we’re not going to push them into unsafe or, you know, traumatized or whatever. But so how do we kind of find that optimal stretch for both of our groups when we’re in learning situations? Because you’re, you’re right, stretching is, it’s a natural thing, it’s a great thing, but too much so we’d veer into dangerous territory, I suppose.

Rebecca
And I think one of the things as a facilitator that you’re always doing is both figuring out the level of stretch that your group can tolerate, and the level of stretch that you yourself can tolerate. So there are particular methodologies, for example, in group process, or in learning, because of who I am and my temperament and how I show up in a space, they just wouldn’t be a good fit for me. I don’t know, I might roll my eyes or something. I’m not a good marshmallows and toothpicks kind of girl, for example. [Beth chuckles.] It’s just not really my thing. And so for me to do that is a stretch. But I have to be really clear on why am I stretching in that way? Is that serving the group? Is that serving the outcomes that they’ve set? That kind of thing. And similarly, with a group, you’re constantly trying to guess in some ways where their kind of happy place is and where it’s your responsibility in the service of learning or the service of the objectives they’ve set for themselves, to push them and where do those two kind of stretch zones intersect with each other enough?

So for example, I facilitated what was called a retreat one time, and when I showed up to the, what I was told was the retreat site, it was actually a very bougie country club and the retreat meant that the men in the crowd, who were still in their suits and button up shirts, had taken their ties off for the day. And that’s what retreat was for them. Well, for me, that wasn’t the image that I had in my head. And I wondered about it later, thinking I wonder if that group wanted a more relaxed environment? Would they have preferred, I don’t know, yoga and meditation and smoothies, which is what happened in the retreat I did that same day later in the afternoon with a different group. And sometimes you think, Oh, they’re a very whatever straitlaced, button up, stuffy group. Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re craving someone inviting them into a new way of being. And so I think as a facilitator, you are constantly gauging your own comfort level and your group’s comfort level, to find their ways into a stretched place.

Beth
Absolutely. And that maybe makes me think about the imagination quality that you talked about earlier. So you said something like there’s a paradox there, around the need for people to be imaginative, but then the kind of box I guess, this isn’t, I’m paraphrasing, these aren’t your words, but the box that people kind of work in, that really doesn’t reward imagination, in a sense. So there’s like, I would call it a wicked question. There’s a paradoxical thing going on there, isn’t it, about we need imagination. We need…you called it novel ideas. But then there’s that environmental pressure or something going no, no, no, no, we can’t be imaginative. We can’t do that here. So I don’t know, how do you get groups to realize that this imagination quality is something that they can learn and actually, it is necessary for our environments and for our work?

Rebecca
It really is. And I think becoming aware of our mindsets toward it is a good first step. Because I think when we think about imagination, you might have a visceral reaction to the word, positive or negative. And so in some ways, we have this longing for it. It’s this pretty positive, almost yearning for a, you know, I don’t know, rainbows and unicorns, right? But there’s also this sense that imagination is the territory of creative people, or is something that only children do, or have or use, or somehow leads us into literally imaginary territory that is not helpful in the real world, you know? And so what I’m trying to encourage people to consider is that it’s very hard to live into a new story, either personally or collectively, if you can’t picture it. If you cannot even picture what that different reality is like, so you don’t have any role models for it, you’ve never seen it in existence anywhere, it’s really hard for you to go there. You need to be able to sketch it, if not fill in some details before you can actually pursue it.

And so I do a lot of strategy work. And strategy cannot, in my opinion, be informed only by our past experience, by our rearview mirror style data. It has to also have a visionary quality to it. And I think if we use that word, it can sometimes sound sort of impractical or a bit ridiculous. And that’s not what I mean by it. I mean, I want to hear from groups what their preferred future together actually looks like. And I think when you invite, as a facilitator, invite a group to have that kind of conversation, you discover that what people have in their heads is either very different from one another, in which case we need to talk about that, or it’s really vague. And so the conversation that allows us to fill in those details and develop a shared picture allows the group to move toward that future together in a way that if you hadn’t imagined it in the first place, you wouldn’t go there.

Beth
It’s true. Because we, I mean, kind of briefly, we teach how we were taught. You know, if we use the word teach at all right, that’s a whole other conversation. So groups do find it hard to imagine a different way, especially in certain environments, because it’s different for what that particular environment is. So how do we get them to imagine that visionary future as not something…I think you said in the book too, like the problem with the word vision sometimes it’s that unattainable thing that we may, you know, when the corporations have a vision statement, it’s that thing that we maybe will never get to, but they’re always striving for but in a workshop or a course situation we are trying to enact and achieve that vision and have the group imagine it and get them there, hopefully.

Rebecca
Or even imagine themselves individually as the kind of person who is capable of doing X. So there can be an identity piece here and a mindset around what is possible for us individually that isn’t only on the group process side, but even on the learning side or imagining what could be unleashed if I were better able to master skill X or Y. So I feel like there’s all kinds of applications for this. And I think one of the other, you mentioned paradox, and I think one of the other paradoxes inside imagination is that I find it very interesting that neurologically, for us to imagine something we need to build more memories. So we actually draw on our memory looking back in order to look forward in a new and more detailed way. And that’s because our memories create, almost like the raw materials from which we can imagine. It is very hard for humans to imagine something they have never ever thought of or seen before, even in its component parts.

You know, if I asked you to imagine a new colour, for example, you would only imagine variations of colours you and I have seen before, it’s really hard to imagine a new, a whole new category of crayon, right? And so one of the very concrete skills that groups can think about, or individuals, is really filling up their memory banks with a variety of interesting experiences. So the more you’re exposed to, the more imaginative you can be. And another really practical example is to think about where you host learning events. Because the venue itself – and coming out of COVID is a huge blessing in this area if you’re coming back to in person learning opportunities – because the thing I missed most in COVID was the lack of variety of venue. Because creative venues allow for creative experiences. And what happens in a space is affected by that space. And so that’s another way that imagination can be encouraged. I can assure you the retreat I referred to earlier would have generated different kinds of outputs had they been in a yurt in the woods compared to being in this stuffy paneled boardroom, and would be different again, if they were, you know, sitting beside an ocean, right? So where we are can generate a different kind of imagination. And you can imagine that with tech startups, for example, that try to create – or Google offices – that really do try to create inspiring work environments because we know that – before it becomes too familiar at least – it can really trigger more imaginative work.

Beth
Sure. And I think the group can be together in different ways too, more easily than you can do in you know, Zoom or whatever. I think you said several times and it’s probably a running theme of the book this individual versus collective – or I shouldn’t say versus – but individual and collective, you know, things going on around these qualities. So I really appreciated what you said, particularly, and maybe you said it for other qualities, too, but for imagination that it was a collective responsibility. So maybe as individuals, we might think, Oh, we’re not, I’m not an imaginative person, or, you know, curiosity is another quality that you talk about in the book, part of the acronym. So what can you tell a group to, or do you tell a group anything to help them feel better about that? Going, okay, you know, curiosity, imagination, like this is something that if you feel that you need help on rely on the group, because we’re going to do it better together. Or I don’t know, how do you address maybe those two or more of the qualities from a collective standpoint?

Rebecca
Maybe I’ll take us into the A of the acronym to get us there.

Beth
I know, we actually haven’t said what the whole acronym yet, I think so maybe just give us a primer.

Rebecca
Well A is for adaptability, and I do some work with an assessment called AQai and it’s a measurement tool for both individual and collective adaptability. And one of the interesting things that I love about it is that even at the individual level, it asks you questions about your environment. So your team, your organization, the ecosystem in which you sit. Because those features affect your ability to be adaptable, just like your own skill set and temperament will. And so I see them as very interlinked that a group can help an individual be more curious or be more adaptable, just like that individual contributes to the adaptability and curiosity of the group. And it’s not just, you know, we’ll find out your individual adaptability and then put them all together with everybody else’s. It’s, no, your individual adaptability – almost by definition – has the group settings in which you live baked into it. So you can imagine if you work in a very sort of blah, conservative, quiet, low key environment, your ability to be imaginative, adaptable, curious is probably going to be lower than if you’re in an environment that rewards experimentation, and that has a really lively vibe to it.

And so I think it’s baked right in, but also as facilitators, we have a responsibility to sort of choose tools from our facilitation toolbox and enliven them in appropriate ways to help a group be more imaginative and curious. And that can come from something as practical as the order in which you put things on an agenda. So I remember sitting in a meeting during the pandemic, where a leader said, “I just have five minutes to talk to my team about something, and then I’ll pass it over to you as the guest facilitator.” Great. Well, the first five minutes were this depressing, you know, bad news story that she had for her team that they weren’t aware of, they didn’t know about. And it just brought the energy of the whole group down. And then said, “That’s all”, and handed it over to me, expecting me to do some kind of positive team building productive generative work. And it was really hard to do that in that moment. So the way that we sequence an agenda can so directly affect the energy of the group and their ability to engage positively in something. So it may not even be the tools that I choose, because I hadn’t even chosen a tool yet and we’d already set a tone. And then similarly, in a room, or in part of a meeting, or a learning opportunity, if I say to a group, just go ahead, and you know, think of anything, every idea is a good idea, you know, whatever. And the group is sitting in the most boring room ever, where they have all of their meetings, where they all sit in the same seats every day. And they can almost finish each other’s sentences, because they are so in a rut with this particular group, I can’t expect them to show the same level of creativity as if I had taken them out of that environment and invited them, in a really creative way, to engage in something.

And that’s where that level of stretch comes in, too. Because people, if you stretch them too far in a facilitated environment, they will shut down. There’s a law of diminishing returns in this, right, of if you stretch, but not too far, because if you stretch people too far, and they are embarrassed or deeply uncomfortable, or feeling triggered, in some way, your effort to stretch them actually has the opposite from the intended effect.

Beth
Yes, and you talk about the pause, and you were saying about, you know, we can stretch and stretch, but we can’t keep stretching and keep stretching and just stretch forever. I mean, these are my words, not yours. [Rebecca: Yeah.] But there’s a utility to the pause. Some things have to stay fixed, I think it’s kind of how you said it, right? There’s, there’s a fixed point that to that rubber band, so that the other pieces can stretch. But something has to stay fixed because otherwise we just, what, burnout, I guess?

Rebecca
Yeah, I think there’s kind of two parts to that. One is that piece of that pause, as you mentioned. So let’s use the analogy of stretching our bodies. And you can imagine that, if you, like me, have tight hamstrings, and it’s hard for you to touch your toes with straight legs. If I go down gradually, I will eventually be able to touch my toes. If I try to bend over right this minute, having been sitting at my desk all morning, I won’t get there. And if I do force myself to get there quickly, I will snap something. So there’s this element of gradual, of the pace of stretch matters. And the analogy with a human’s learning process is we need time to absorb new learning before we can take on more learning. And so if you’ve allowed a pace that lets us percolate and absorb, then we are more likely to be able to stretch further than we originally thought compared to having that learning thrust on us all at once and we will be overwhelmed and not be as successful in incorporating those new skills.

The other piece that you’re talking about around an anchor I think is slightly different, but equally important. And it’s true, that if you picture a rubber band, if I have no fixed point at all, that rubber band does not stretch. You’re just moving it around. But in order for it to stretch, it needs at least one point to be still. To be anchored firm so that the rest can stretch. And so I’ve been exploring that kind of element of the metaphor too, to say do we know in our lives or in any given context, what the fixed things are that we can count on, and therefore from those, how we can stretch? And I think during COVID a lot of those were up for grabs. And we felt that some of the things we thought were pretty firm anchors turned out not to be. But similarly, it can help us be even more strong in our convictions around the things that are fixed. So deeply held values, for example, would be in that category. Where you say, I am really clear on our organizational mission, or I am very clear on my values that are important to me and those are not changing. So in the context of not everything changing at once I can then allow some other things to flex that perhaps I didn’t think were that flexible. So my example there would be if you’re really intent on – as an instructor for example, if you’re a teacher or a learning instructor some way – if you have the learning objectives firmly in mind and can be really flexible with how to get to them, you will be a better educator than if you are married to your method. So it’s the same kind of thing, only maybe at an existential level or a strategic level to say we know what kind of organization we want to be or the outcomes we’re looking to achieve, but we’re going to hold really loosely the map to get there or the methods to get there.

I talk about this more in an earlier book called Nimble. And it’s probably worth having a look at if people are interested in that, because it’s a facilitation book. And the point there is that often in facilitation we are taught methods and we’re taught planning, like map out your lesson plan or your facilitation plan. But we’re not very often taught what to do when things don’t go according to plan. And to me, that is all the time. That’s what working with humans is about. And so I don’t want folks to think that’s the exception, or that they have somehow planned badly when that happens. But in fact, that’s a living thing. That’s what real live people do. And so if we can be very clear as learning designers, what things we are not willing to flex on and what things we are – and hopefully the flexible category is bigger and longer than the non-flexible category – and for us to learn as facilitators not to fret about that. To actually find a really comfortable, sort of knees bent, ready to go, kind of place. With that, I think we will be better at our craft.

Beth
Yes, exactly. I think the piece about anchoring to that fixed point, it’s making me think and I don’t know, you know, tell me what you think about this. If we circulate or oscillate back and forth between devising and facilitating activities that incorporate a learner’s own experience, like maybe can that be a fixed point for them? So we say, okay, you know, here’s this activity, draw on your vast knowledge, whoever you are, learner, and that’s immutable, because they all have experience in whatever they’ve done before, but then there’s the new learning and is that, can that be the stretch point? And then they kind of, you know, does it give us more fodder to say, yes, we actually have to anchor learning to fixed things that learners know about. And then we kind of ask them to stretch and incorporate and figure out what to do with this new information that we’re all hopefully generating together. Can I take your metaphor in that direction? Do you think that works?

Rebecca
I really do, I love that. Because the familiarity of past experience can feel like an anchor for us. I’m not a neuroscientist but I’m learning a lot more about brain science. And I think when our brain feels under stress all of our receptors that would make us open to learning, open to curiosity, I picture them kind of circling the wagons and facing inward to deal with whatever threat we’re perceiving. And we’re really, it’s very hard for us to learn under stress. And so same thing, we’re trying to keep our brain relaxed. So, for example, if I’m planning a facilitated experience, if I’m training people in that, I’m encouraging them to plan for multiple scenarios. So what are you going to do in the room? What do you think you’re going to do? And then what might you do instead? So that very exercise of planning for multiple scenarios, it’s not so that you can be predictively accurate, that Plan A or Plan B will definitely happen like that. It’s more so that you can reassure your brain that something unexpected is going to happen. So the unpredictable becomes the normal for your brain. It knows, Oh, it’s not going to be Plan A, it might be Plan B, it might be Plan C, okay. So that when you get in the room and Plan M or X happens, your brain doesn’t go, Oh, my gosh, we’ve never been here before. It goes, Oh, no, we have been here before, because we planned for something unexpected to happen. And all of a sudden, we’ve almost reprogrammed or hacked our brain to feel like unfamiliar is familiar. And what that does is gets us out of that fight, flight, kind of freakout space and put us back into a more relaxed space.

Because that’s my goal as a facilitator is to be alert, yes. Sorry, alert enough to adapt. I’m not a sloth, I’m not asleep. But I don’t want to be so wound up that I can’t adjust because I become quite frozen. If I’m really under stress I become you know what that feels like to be facilitated by a facilitator who is married to their script right, on their like white knuckle grip on the plan because their plan was beautiful and they agonized over it and it was so perfect. And you’re a participant going I don’t care what you planned. I care what happens in this room. So I think that nimbleness is really important and I love what you said about familiar can be that anchor.

Beth
I love the word nimble and I actually used it last year when I did some learning strategy work with a client and it became a you know, kind of a touch point for that client like what does it look like to be nimble, especially in this environment going on right now, where we, it is uncertain, we can’t necessarily predict for the future because we don’t know what it’s going to look like. But what you were just saying just also reminds me of a couple of pieces. Of course, as a learning designer, I’m reading your book going, Okay, how are all these qualities related to learning and, and so these things popped out at me. In the Adaptability quality you talked about the meta skill of learning how to learn. And you also I think, for one of the other ones, you’ll probably remember more than me, I can’t find it in my notes just right now but the concept of unlearning. And those are probably two different qualities, you know, they were in those different categories, but unlearning and learning how to learn, like what you were saying around being flexible within structure as a facilitator, are pretty related to those two concepts, aren’t they?

Rebecca
Yeah, I think so. I mean, the unlearn piece is one of the elements. There are 15 elements, sort of evidence-based proven elements in this adaptability quotient tool I talked about. And that’s where I’m getting this information from. And one of those 15 is the ability to unlearn. And it’s very closely related to something called cognitive flexibility. So cognitive flexibility is the ability to imagine different ways to do something. So as an instructor, you know, the learning outcome you’re going for, or the skill you’re trying to help people build. But you can also, if you have that mental flexibility, you can imagine different pathways, or different learning strategies, different teaching strategies to help someone get to that place, right. That’s the flexibility piece. But it’s coupled with the unlearning piece in that if you add more and more and more options, more and more and more pathways, our brain gets too cluttered. We actually need to clear space for these multiple new pathways. I picture it literally like decluttering, and getting rid of the pathways and approaches and mindsets that are no longer serving us. So it’s kind of the Marie Kondo of you know, brain exercises, because you’re trying to declutter your brain. I’m all about mixing my metaphors today, it seems. But you can imagine driving a car and putting the gas, like a gas powered car, putting your foot on the gas at the same time as the parking brake is on. And it’s a bit like that, where we might be learning new things that make us go forward like that gas pedal would. But we haven’t let go of the old ways of doing things that aren’t serving us well anymore, such that they are causing those new ways to be held back in their effectiveness, because we have to shed old beliefs, old ways of approaching a problem.

And those old ways served their purpose. We were not ridiculous for thinking this was a good idea. We were not foolish for having that mindset, necessarily. But it’s almost like they have served their time, like our old, you know, most favourite sweater that it’s time to get rid of. It was amazing in 1983 and it is time to pass it along to our children who now think it’s amazing. So that unlearning piece is very important, too. I think of it as clearing space, both for new ways to enter the space but also for the curiosity. Because if you think you have something all figured out, you might need to unlearn that in order to have that first step of curiosity like, Oh, are there other ways of seeing the world, as almost a precondition for learning. Because if we’ve decided that we’ve solved something, we don’t try to put the pieces together anymore. We think it’s fixed and done. So unlearning to me and curiosity are quite related, too.

Beth
Yeah, and I think that piece is related to both participant and facilitator, isn’t it? Because if we go into a room as a facilitator, thinking we’ve got nothing to learn, we’re in trouble. And our participant, well, I mean, you know, we sometimes have participants like that and we have to figure out what to do about that, too. But, you know, it’s a lens that we all have to bring to a learning space, don’t we? In going, Yeah, let’s be curious, what does that look like here? For whatever our role is, all of us together?

Rebecca
I think the “how might we” kind of language – if you’re doing group planning, for example – there’s certain as a facilitator, there are certain question prompts that take you in directions that are more likely to encourage that kind of learning experience than others. And it’s not as simple as you know, ask open ended questions not closed ones. It’s actually how you sequence those questions and how you phrase them and the energy with which they’re delivered that can open up or close down people’s ability to access their curiosity or their imagination or even their energy. That’s what the E stands for. And there’s ways of facilitating processes and groups that are energizing and others that kind of suck the life right out of you. So I think, as a learning designer, that energy stewardship is a really important element of the facilitator’s job too.

Beth
Yes, we haven’t really talked about energy yet. You said it was that people are in the business of group energy management. And so you were you were talking about leaders and I insert facilitators in there. So facilitators are in the business of group energy management. How do we approach the design of a facilitation to think about that, to learn what to do with that? Any practical approaches there?

Rebecca
Yeah, let me think about it in a few different ways. One is the ability to read the room and gauge how that something is landing, how a group is doing. So I consider that kind of a foundational facilitation skill. And it’s one that’s talked about and written about a fair amount so I’ll move on from there. So I think part of it is if your group is falling asleep, you need to do something. But I think even more than that, I’ll go back to my other example of the leader that delivered bad news at the beginning of a meeting, there’s a sequencing to things that makes intuitive sense to the way that a group is, where, you know, you don’t want to put bad news at the beginning and then something really creative right afterwards, because you become the oblivious facilitator or the oblivious leader in that moment. Where you go really? Like that sequence just doesn’t work for us.

But then there’s also sort of a proven rhythm to things – Dan Pink talks about this in his book, When, and there’s lots of others who do – where we, our brains tend to work best for certain kinds of activities at certain stages of a day or a week or a life. So we start pretty high energy in the morning, good for analytical and strategic work at that time. And then we have this after lunch dip if it were a whole day. And we’ve got low energy at 1:30, 2 o’clock, 2:30. And then we get into a more creative space late in the afternoon. Well, if I’m planning a full day learning event, which doesn’t happen very much anymore, but if I do, I want to take that energy dip after lunch, and make a conscious decision as a facilitator how I’m going to…I call it designing for the dip. How am I going to design for that dip? I’m either going to go with it. I have a colleague who actually invited her participants to have a nap during that time, she brought blankets and pillows and they lay on the floor. Speaking of not stretching too far, I’m not sure I could pull that off but she did. But you could do, you know, a reflective journaling exercise, or you can watch a video. That’s kind of going with the flow of low energy. Or you go, Okay, we need to, you know, do a highly interactive, maybe competitive, maybe outdoor, maybe tight timeline event in this learning experience, to get people offsetting the low natural energy flow that’s happening. I don’t mind which way you go but I think a good facilitator will pay attention to the energy in the room.

I once was asked to facilitate a large community meeting in a space, that it turns out, they were going to be hosting a funeral in because it was going to be a massive community funeral for a police officer. So we were in this big community space, and people were bringing in funeral flower arrangements all during my workshop. Well, I need to read the room, right, us doing sort of light hearted, imaginative, creative work was not an option in that particular physical environment on that day. Any other day we would have been okay. So some of that you can plan for and some of it you can’t. But if I had gone in saying, [in a robotic voice] I have my script and we are doing this, it would have been even worse than it already was. It wasn’t awesome, but it would have been worse.

Beth
Yeah, the unplanned events that affect energy. I mean, we can’t design for that, can we? We just have to flex in the moment and figure out what to do about it.

Rebecca
For me the big example of that, right now, it’s unplanned hybrid learning events, which I’m finding really challenging. Where you think you’re heading into an in person event, and you arrive there to discover that they say, Oh, there’s just a couple people that last minute couldn’t come so we just gave them the Zoom link. And if you didn’t plan it as a hybrid event, the unplanned hybrid is my most common, unexpected situation right now to the point that I am getting much better at ensuring that it is expected now or [chuckles] forbidden, one or the other. There is a learning process of seeing the patterns in what the so called unexpected things are that are happening and seeing if we can in fact, begin to plan for them.

Beth
Yeah, because of your experience, too. You’ve had all these things happened in your career, in that 25 plus years of career that – there’s a whole other book there about challenges in facilitation [laughs] that maybe you can write next, Rebecca, for us. [Rebecca laughs.] The one thing I wanted to talk about, because there’s a bit of um, oh I don’t know, there’s a bit of a caveat here, I think with a couple of the qualities that – I’m thinking specifically about Likeability and Trust – and it could have come up in some of the other ones. But these are great qualities that leaders and facilitators should have. But then tell us a little bit about that piece where you were saying, hmm there’s some maybe problematic stuff that could come up in these two particular qualities that we want to watch out for. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Rebecca
Yeah absolutely. [Beth: Yeah.] I think Likeability was the quality that I was having the most trouble with and wondering if it should be included. And I find acronyms very cheesy and so I really struggled with whether to build this book on an acronym-based model in the first place. And I didn’t want to feel like I was forcing it. And so you know [chuckles], I’ve got all the letters except the L, I better find a word that starts with L, it wasn’t the way I wanted to approach this. And it wasn’t in that Likeability kept coming up for some other kind of evidence-based reasons that I was resisting. And the reason I was resisting it is because likeability has a very culturally specific, status quo oriented feeling to it, where we tend to like people who are like us. And if we are deemed likeable, that is something that comes from someone else toward us and we really don’t have any control over that. And as a parent, I wouldn’t encourage my children to set out to be likeable. I don’t want them to be the opposite but I can’t encourage them to take responsibility for whether someone else likes them or not. So I had all these reasons why I didn’t love it. The reason it landed in the book, though, is because good leaders need to be persuasive people who can get things done. And we know that if we have something to get done, and something to solve, or whatever, we will go to the people we like first. And when we look at various qualities of persuasive leaders – if you don’t, if you’re not persuasive, you’re not a leader, because you can’t talk anybody else into following you – the number one quality that defines a persuasive person is whether they are deemed likeable or not. And I wish that weren’t true, but it is true. So I spent some time unpacking that piece. And we know as facilitators, the importance of building rapport with our groups, we know the importance in any relationships of developing that emotional intelligence and relational currency that acts as a lubricant to let us get things done. So that’s the likeable piece.

It’s similar to the trust side. But let me pick up at another spot on the trust part from the facilitation point of view. Trust is really critical, lots of people have written on it. I felt like it was a bit overdone. I was trying to emphasize words that are less often written about. But trust was coming up everywhere. And I didn’t love how it was being written about because it didn’t seem as practical to me, it seemed very, um, almost moralistic. You know, like, you need to have integrity. Well, of course you do. If I’m helping groups with strategic plans, the last thing I want is for them to write the world’s most obvious strategy, or the world’s most obvious list of values that has, I don’t know, respect, integrity and accountability on it, and you sound…like no one’s going to take issue with it but it’s not interesting.

But with trust, I think from a facilitation point of view, what is interesting is how we handle the building or breaking down of trust in a group – I think that’s a critical skill that we need to develop – and how we extend trust to the group. So for example, part of trust in this ELASTIC book is about being someone who extends trust, even before perhaps it’s been earned, and how catalytic and amazing that is. And all of us know that from having, I hope, had a boss or a mentor or a teacher that trusted us before we had earned it. And similarly, as a facilitator, we are asking for the trust of a group often before we’ve earned it, too. And what can we be doing to encourage that being safe for them, without making promises around psychological safety that we can’t keep?

So one of my pet peeves of facilitation is if a facilitator from the outside shows up in a room and says, “This is a safe space, you can say anything you want here.” I would never say that walking into a room because I can’t make a space safe nor can I presume that it is or isn’t safe. I’m not there for the long term. I do not know the relational dynamics that are happening in that space. I don’t know the power differentials that I’m walking into, despite my best efforts to prepare. And so I don’t want to over promise on trust either, because I think that can actually erode the group’s trust in me as their facilitator, right from the start. So I think making promises to a group that we can actually keep is a really important piece of facilitation that would come underneath that trust category.

Beth
Rebecca, you’ve shared so many great things for us to think about. This is like a lifetime’s worth of work, I think, right? All these pieces, there’s so much within each of these qualities that you’ve written about in your book, and just I really encourage everybody to go grab it, because it will give us so much to think about to keep developing ourselves as facilitators. And it’s great for participants too. I mean, it’s all of us together in a learning experience. Is there something that you’d like to leave us with as a final word about, you know, the concepts in this book? There’s a hopefulness there for me. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But what would you like to say last of all around what you’re trying to do for all of us with writing this book?

Rebecca
So the book is called ELASTIC, and we use that seven letter acronym, but there are three other letters – an I, an S and an H – at the end. And I have to give a shout out to my colleague Lynne Cazaly, who wrote a book called Ish that was the inspiration for that addition at the end. And the H stands for Hope. And inside Adaptability, of the 15 qualities that I mentioned earlier, hope is one of them. It’s actually the most powerful one. Empirically speaking, hope is the skill – and it is a skill – that allows us to be the most adaptable. And so that’s what I would want to leave with people is the possibility that being hopeful is learnable, is a skill we can get better at, is highly predictive of our ability to be stretchy and elastic in the way that we show up. And I think that’s a skill set, all of these are skills that serve facilitators really well so that we can in fact be nimble in the room in the way that we described.

Beth
And you said that hope is learnable. I think the message is loud and clear that these qualities are all learnable. They aren’t fixed. And that came across loud and clear to me as well.

Rebecca
I’m really glad, it’s absolutely true. Thanks so much, Beth, for the opportunity to talk about it.

[Episode outro]
Beth
I really enjoyed my conversation with Rebecca, and a couple of the things that stood out for me are around those pieces about unlearning and learning. Rebecca said that we have to let go of the old ways of doing things that aren’t serving us anymore, because that will hold us back in our effectiveness. And so in today’s ever changing world, the concept of unlearning is something I think we can all hold dear. To go along with that is that piece around hope that she ended with. That these ELASTIC qualities and skills are all things that we can learn. That first we have to be aware of them and all the kinds of pieces within I mean, go and read her book. But just hold that concept in your mind that we can learn new things to be able to increase our effectiveness in our work. But of course, we’re talking about facilitation, with groups, we can learn the things that will enhance our effectiveness, and we can do things to help groups develop these skills as well. So think, as you go through the rest of your day today, around the concepts of unlearning and learning, and just consider and pay attention to how they might show up for you today and in the future.

In the next episode of the podcast I interview Kirsty Lewis. Kirsty started something called School of Facilitation that ostensibly is based in England, but she supports facilitators and corporations around the world with it, helping them develop facilitation skills. Kirsty, in our interview, goes a little deep with me – and that was the whole purpose of our time together – we talk about some of the things that we can do to do the inner work of being a facilitator. So some things that we do to look inward as ourselves as we grow our careers in facilitation. And then along with that, how do we kind of turn externally and outward to learn from our peers in facilitation and turn to communities of practice, like the School of Facilitation, to be able to grow in this work? So Kirsty Lewis shares with us some of her journey around looking for a thing like the School of Facilitation that she eventually created herself to be able to bring it to the world and shares some of her own personal experience with these concepts around doing your inner work and turning to and creating a community around herself to excel in her field. So I invite you to join Kirsty Lewis and I next time on the podcast. We’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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