The dangers of facilitation

An interesting experience last week in one of my other identities as a school governor.  There’s a debate going on regarding whether or not a Trust is formed in Mid-Beds under Samuel Whitbread Upper School and whether we join it or not.  So, mindful of wanting to understand different perspectives before I decide, I went along to an invited session to look at the realities of building a Trust.

I won’t go into the details of much of the afternoon that I witnessed, but after presentations, the afternoon’s facilitated invited us to break out into groups and carry out some exercises.  I’ve no doubt that they were thoughtfully designed but intentionally or not, they made it appear that what had been billed as a listening/sharing thoughts event was in fact pure sales.

The exercises were:

1.  On the red sheet, think about all the problems inherent in the current status quo for us, our schools and the pupils.  (The focus on the pupils was high in all the preceding presentations – something that worked heavily counter to the speakers’ intentions.  Keep reminding us of our responsibilities to 5,400 children and we’ll keep wondering whether we should entrust them to a new, unverified venture…)

2.  On the green sheet, think about all the opportunities and possibilities available if we join this potential Trust.

A classic sales process – ramp up the discomfort factor in people’s present state, then sing the praises of the future state under your chosen result.  And even better, get them to do it for themselves, so that they own it.

If it wasn’t intentional it was spectacularly naive and, once exposed (I had little option – there are moments when these things need to be said to facilitate a more honest, open discussion), served only to increase the distrust already in the room.

The facilitator, I accept, may have simply designed what he may have thought was a helpful tool to engage people in the Trust.  But coming from a public sector background and, presumably, not having a sales background meant he fell into the trap of confusing engagement with persuasion.

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