Monday, August 16, 2010

Psyche of Facilitation

Understanding Facilitation

In adult education and training, the trainer is always recognised as the source of wisdom. In this one-to-many learning environment, the trainer is responsible for preparing and encouraging his trainees into accepting his body of knowledge, experience and insights.

The facilitation of group-based learning is very different. In this instance, the source of wisdom is with the participants. They are recognised to have the capacity to enrich and enlarge the body of collective knowledge within the group. The role of the facilitator is to provide the participants his skills of unlocking this wealth of individual experience, knowledge and insights, and transforming them into a collective one. He does this by reading the interactions and motivating them into exchanging their thoughts with each other, and helping them reach a consensus over what they want to do with their collective learning and insights.

To effectively accomplish these, the facilitator needs to know how the brain creates insights, understand the science behind the enrichment and enlargement of collective wisdom, and be aware of the predictable behavioural responses in group interactions. Armed with this knowledge, the facilitator is more capable in using the right questions to move the conversation forward, and applying techniques of paraphrasing and clarification to keep the participants authentic about their conversation. I call this aspect of group facilitation the ‘Psyche of Facilitation’.

Brain and Insight Creation

In his book - ‘Quiet Leadership, David Rock outlines six key findings about the brain. They explain how the brain creates insights and responds to change. These are:

Brain is a Connection Machine

The brain has evolved to generate new links between unrelated points. It creates trillions of such new connections every day. Each new connection or insight produces chemicals that pleasures our bodies and energise us into action.

No Two Brains are Alike

Each brain has a unique set of connections that defines and controls how it perceives and judges the world. While one set of connections may greatly appeal to a group of individuals, the same set may turn the others away.

Brain Hardwires Everything

The ‘active memory’ understands the connections and operates our behaviours. While powerful, its resources are very limited. Whenever possible, we hardwire our thoughts and behaviours into our ‘long term’ memory, which resource is infinite. So, we largely leave our subconscious to manage our behaviours. Awareness and new wirings only take place when thoughts and behaviours are taken out from this sphere and are placed into the conscious-active memory.

Hardwiring Drives Automatic Perception

We always see things as they should be. Our perception of reality is driven by our hardwired heuristics, circuitries, and old habits. We do not automatically receive fresh data from our surrounding to see things as they are.

It is Practically Impossible to Deconstruct Our Wiring

By focusing on the problem, we are actually deepening the hardwired circuitries that keep it in place. Attention creates change in the brain and the more we are aware of the problem, the more we are driven to complain about it. The focus should be one of solutioning so that new wirings could be created.

It’s Easy to Create New Wiring

The brain creates new connections or insights all the time. Instead of dismantling old wirings, it is more effective creating new ones that support learning.

Enrichment of Collective Wisdom

Evian Gordon, a neuroscientist, suggested that the brain is a machine that ‘minimises danger and maximises reward’. When a person encounters a stimulus that is deemed as ‘positive’, he will become attracted to it and engages it actively for its rewards. The reverse is also true. When a stimulus is labelled as ‘negative’, he will disengage and avoid its dangers. This attraction-avoidance response is a mechanism for survival. It is designed to help us stay alive by quickly assessing and easily remembering what is good and bad in the environment.

David Rock proposed that there are five elements that could increase or decrease this attraction-avoidance response. These are:


Status is the ‘pecking order’ of the group. We sense our status going up when we feel that we are more ‘superior’ to others. We form a mental model of our status in our group. This ranking system affects our mental processes.

Research has shown that when we experience a reduction in status, the region of the brain that lights up in the CT scan is the same as the one when we are experiencing physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003). Interactions that generate perceptions of increasing status amongst participants could create a strong attraction response to the group and with its members.


The brain does not draw new data from the environment all the time. The brain predominantly draws on its memory for recognisable patterns to predict the future. Our brains only call us to attention when there is a mismatch between what our senses tell us and what our brains have expected.

Without the ability to predict, our brains must stay attentive at all times. This is not only exhausting, it also distracts us from our main goals. Interactions, which structures and formats are well understood by the participants, are more attractive.


Autonomy is the perception of our ability to exercise freewill over our environment. Interactions that generate the feelings of autonomy are rewarding and attractive. Interactions are stressful activities and when the stress is interpreted as escapable, we become significantly less destructive.


Relatedness measures the degree of how ‘in’ or ‘out’ we are with our groups. Naturally, we like to be in groups to experience the sense of belonging. Trust has significant impact on the relatedness in the group and our attraction towards the relationships within the group. Interactions that build trust amongst group members enhance the attractiveness towards each other.


Fair exchange is intrinsically rewarding and unfair exchanges generate strong avoidance responses. When we perceive others as being unfair, we do not feel empathic towards them. In most instances, we feel rewarded when they are punished.

Behavioural Responses in Interactions

Dr. William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist, feminist theorist, and inventor, theorised that the way we perceive the favourability of our environment and the amount of power we could exercise to control it will impact the way we express our emotions and behaviours in our interactions with other people. Marston's Model of Behaviour was first proposed 82 years ago in his book ‘Emotions of Normal People’ (1928).

When these emotional expressions are placed along two conceptual dimensions, he created a 2 x 2 matrix showing four distinct but predictable behavioural styles - Dominating (D), Influencing (I), Steadiness (S), and Compliance (C). This provides a model that informs about the adaptive nature of interacting with people displaying these kinds of behavioural styles.

In facilitation, we need to encourage participation at the individual level. Therefore, how we communicate to encourage an individual’s contribution to the collective wisdom is important. Marston’s model provides insights into the ways we could be make the interaction more effective by suggesting approaches to flex our behaviours.

Here is a brief description of the four behavioural types:

Dominating 'D' Type

The ‘D’ type is full of drive. He packs his daily schedule with plenty of activities. He pushes himself and people around him to their limits, often achieving outstanding results. Some common adjectives used for describing 'D' type are, “decisive, direct, and driven". He is a self-starter, egoistic and bottom-line driven. If there is a challenge to overcome, ‘D’ type will be the first to attempt it.

Influencing ‘I’ Type

The 'I' type is attention seeking, persuasive, influential, and loves to be with others. He is known to be charismatic and capable of commanding and motivating the crowd towards a common objective. 'I’ type enjoys having fun and having others around him.

Steadiness ‘S’ Type

The 'S' type is steady, stable and loyal. Compared to the 'D' and 'I' types, he is more passive and reserved. He will prefer to listen more than speaking. While ‘S’ type is empathic, friendly and helpful, he is more comfortable being with a small group of closed friends.

Compliance ‘C’ Type

Some common adjectives used for describing ‘C’ type are "compliant, controlled, and correctness". The ‘C’ type is neat, detailed, accurate and systematic, and these characteristics are easily spotted. The 'C' type arrives at his decisions from facts and figures.

Reading Your Participants

Most of us will have one or two 'main' behavioural types. We do display a different profile at home, in a training course, and at work. To uncover the behavioural types of your participants, you could get them to complete the DISC Behavioural Type Profile before facilitating the interaction or they could play a game that you have designed to help you discriminate their types ahead of the facilitated conversation.

Facilitators could also read their participants using the following guide:

New Language of Facilitation

Not every participant in an interaction will respond in the same way to the facilitator. Some language of facilitation may attract the participants to the conversation. Others may cause them to stay away. So, by combining the sciences presented and described in this article, I have created a framework that provides a guide on how the language could be better fine-tuned to enrich the collective learning and wisdom of the group. Please visit this link to download this framework.

Here is the Slideshare for this article:

This article was written by Anthony Mok on 17 Sep 2010.
Copyright 2010. Anthony Mok. All Rights Reserved.

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