Thursday, 24 September 2009

Where are you now?

The second facet of my touchstone cube is a constant reminder to consider the three modes of facilitation: (Heron, J. 1999)

According to Heron, the three modes are:


I am guessing that this facet is fairly straightforward, and most of us will have some sort of theory for the transitions of group dynamics and behaviour. However, the three modes also begin to deal with the politics of learning - which are important in any intervention, but particularly so in consultancy interventions.

The considerations are about the exercise of power, who controls and influences, who makes decisions about what and how people will learn. Essentially it is about whether these decisions and political dimensions are managed by the facilitator alone, by the group alone or a balance of the two. Of course, there is another layer to consider at planning stage - and that is where else the power is invested outside the intervention space - by the Company, employer, boss etc.

1) Hierarchical

In this mode, as facilitator, I take all the responsibility (and the glory!) leading from the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group, directing the learning process, exercising my power over it, interpreting, giving meaning and managing group feelings and emotions. (I find this mode closely linked to the Control dimension of FIRO - but that's another story and another blog-series for later.) The hierarchical mode may also be a group preference - it can be a safer position to not take own responsibilities for learning! Too much hierarchical control can encourage participants to be passive, or they may become hostile or resistant.

2) Co-operative
In this mode, power for the learning process is shared with the group. As facilitator I am engaged in enabling and guiding, working with group members to make decisions and become more self-directing. Outcomes are negotiated and the facilitation style is co-operative and participative. However, too much co-operative guidance can degenerate into a bland style, or kind of nurturing oppression, as I may unconsciously work to keep the dynamic "comfortable" and prevent them from becoming autonomous in their learning.

3) Autonomous
As the facilitator I do not do anything for the group in this mode, or with them, but respect their own autonomy. They have total freedom to find their own way, exercise their own judgement without guidance, reminders or assistance through the subtle art of creating the space in which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning. It is a subtle art though, as too much autonomy too early on can leave them wallowing in ignorance, misconception and chaos.

However, the modes are situational - so now link this facet to the Six Dimensions and witness what happens!

Each of the six dimensions can be handled in three different ways. By applying the three modes to six dimensions, we can combine eighteen areas for consideration:

Whenever I am in planning, meaning, confronting, feeling, structuring and / or valuing dimension, the next level of question is "and which mode is most appropriate for this activity?"

Am I ...

Planning in hierarchical mode? Planning for the group and making decisions for the learners - I plan everything including time, topics, resources, methods
Planning in co-operative mode? Perhaps planning with the group and integrating their ideas with my own, negotiating and co-ordinating the learning contract, discussing and canvassing views.
Planning in autonomous mode? Delegating the planning to the group and letting them get on with it

Am I...
In the meaning dimension in hierarchical mode? Being the source of understanding, giving meaning and making sense of what is going on for them. I input the theory, concepts and images and interpet and assess what they mean and what is going on.
In the meaning dimension in co-operative mode? By prompting, sharing, inviting participation in giving their own meaning and collaborating with my view in an effort to make sense, stimulating the group to work out "what is happening now?", describing events without interpretation.
In the meaning dimension in autonomous mode? Leaving the group to manage its own interpretation, feedback, reflection and  /or review to reach understanding for themselves.

Am I...
Confronting in hierarchical mode? - I decide when to intervene, interrupt the process and interpret things for the group. I do this directly to participants and for participants in order to bring it to their awareness.
Confronting in co-operative mode? - This is collaborative consciousness raising where I work with the group to surface avoided issues and defensive behaviour. I may describe what I witness and experience, prompting and inviting people to comment and become more aware.
Confronting in autonomous mode? - I provide and hold safe space and structures for peer confrontation and for particpants to experience self-confrontation.

Am I ....
Feeling in hierarchical mode? - I take on the control of the affective dynamic for the group, deciding the process and how it will be handled, judging what will suit them best, switching the dynamic with activities and prescribing opening and closing ceremonies. I think for the group and give permissions for expression.
Feeling in co-operative mode? - We work collaboratively together with me eliciting, prompting and encouraging views and discussions about different ways of managing feelings and how they are being experienced and handled
Feeling in autonomous mode? - Giving space to the group to manage its own life of feeling and emotion - it is managing its own affective process and learning, perhaps collectively or in smaller groups or pairs.

Am I....
Structuring in hierarchical mode?- I take responsibility to structure, design, and supervise the learning activities within the group, managing feedback and supervising the collection of learning points
Structuring in co-operative mode? - We co-operate together in devising activities and structure to progress their learning.
Structuring in autonomous mode? - The group manages its own process, being self and peer directed to complete whatever needs completing, devise and mange its own learning.

Am I...
Valuing in hiearchical mode? - I take a strong lead in caring for group members and demonstrating that I consider their value, I decide the ground rules and direct the group accordingly
Valuing in co-operative mode? - I co-create a community of value and mutual respect with them, giving choices and collaborating as they develop and respecting self-determination.
Valuing in autonomous mode? - I simply choose to let the group manage their own affirmation of self value and give space for them to celebrate their self-worth, identity and emergence in their own self-determining way. I make self-disclosures about my own beliefs, attitudes, anxieties, defences and delights.

Of course, the lines and spaces between these definitions are soft and blurry and all these questions also have a time dimension - Am I asking these before the intervention? At any time during it? Afterwards when reflecting on my own practice?

And, do I only ask myself once? - or continuously and regularly?

Now you can see why the cube is so symbolic - because the model itself is 3D and dynamic - it's simply too much to sit flat on a page.

I love the notion that I can have the whole thing in my hand as a touchstone - and reminder to keep asking these questions. I am mindful that through my own descriptions, I may be displaying my preferences and unconscious judgements.

I am also hoping that people in groups I have facilitated, coached and trained will read this and question me, hold me to account and challenge me about decisions or actions I have taken in the moment and their reactions to the experience - so please do!

I find it helpful to keep asking myself "where are you now?"
Which dimension and which mode?
The next question is inevitable and equally important "and why!"

I can't imagine feeling safe with any facilitator who was not asking these questions on a regular, if not continuous, basis. I also wonder if leaders of teams consider it in the same depth as trainers and facilitators? It seems as relevant to me - especially for leaders of high performing teams.
So, my question is:

Where are you now? 

I'd love to know

We have another four facets to explore...

My big thanks to Pat Young at Learning Edge for the gift of my precious cube.


  1. I'm enjoying this posting - thinking about what mode to adopt and when. In the field of Nonviolent Communication, for example, it makes sense to consider an autonomous mode: this models to participants that they are responsible for meeting their own needs and that, as facilitator, I am there to support them in identifying their needs and making requests of others that will bring them closer to meeting their needs.

    I am also aware that different modes may bring different challenges and different learnings for participants, especially if they come with assumptions and expectations of which they are not consciously aware. How does it feel when you expect a facilitator who operates in heirarchical mode and you encounter a facilitator who is operating in autonomous mode, for example?

  2. Hi Dorothy - thanks for your post. It is a balance isn't it! I find there is a different quality of my internal questions when people are coming to me for personal development or I am going to them in their company setting - being asked to do "a team build" for example - and managing the multiple expectations from there. And then I am dancing with how brave I am feeling in the moment to nudge, push or breakthrough the boundaries of their expectations!

  3. Hilary,

    A valuable set of distinctions for facilitators and leaders. They require a high level of self awareness but will give great value if considered. Where I am now is curious about the notion of selecting a mode prior to an assignement versus letting the assignement unfold and in the moment noticing and choosing the best mode to use.