Facilitating Emergence – Leader as Magician
It is 8 o'clock on Wednesday morning and I'm making my way to the conference centre. It is the midpoint of a very intense week. I am co-facilitating an international gathering in Northern Scotland of around 400 people, from all ages and cultures, who have come together to try to elaborate new paradigms and new stories for humanity.
We have followed a series of beats. Starting with a number of seed thoughts from a wealth of experienced and deeply knowledgeable people; segueing into a couple of days of emergence; and culminating in, we hope, a potent and fertile weaving together of the strands of the gathering.
The previous day I had worked with Open Space technology to facilitate a large number of interested groups in meeting and dialoguing about their particular passions. At the end of Tuesday evening, we had created further Open Space sessions for Wednesday.
The Wednesday session started at 9 o'clock. I arrived around 8.15 and took a step back when I discovered that all of the previous day's Post Its and agenda planning had been rearranged into three huge words which were now plastered across the board that we had used for planning purposes. “WE DON’T KNOW” was the clear and loud message. Who had done this? I had no idea. One of the ushers told me that she knew who it was but I didn't want to know. I felt that this was a signal from the field and its precise authorship was relatively unimportant. I was also noticing my reaction. I was surprised but not astonished, shocked or outraged. Some part of me, I think, had been expecting this. I noticed I felt curious and, while feeling a sense of care and compassion for the participants, no sense of needing to fix or solve the problem. In fact, it did not feel like a problem - more as if a crazy wisdom had arrived in the room.
There is only a certain amount of structure that one can use, even permissive structures like Open Space, when one is trying to facilitate the emergence of new concepts, paradigms and processes. By definition, all of the methods and concepts that we were using in the conference were tried and tested and, in this sense, were rooted in "the old". How could we be radical, bold and new when we were using ‘old’ processes? That was part of what this "rebellion", as some people experienced it, was trying to tell us.
Reactions from the participants were extremely varied. Some saw this intervention as a strong act of leadership; others felt it an act of violence. Some felt it was sabotaging the process; others that it was supporting it. Interestingly enough, my co-facilitator needed to go to an emergency medical appointment that morning, so I was alone holding the floor, though supported energetically by one of the conference conveners who was standing close to me for most of the morning.
What transpired was probably the high point in my life of my work as a facilitator. I literally had no idea what to do. My brain could not simply devise a new structure or process that would meet the circumstances of the moment. I sought to stay as present as possible, grounding myself moment by moment and Facilitating Emergence – Leader as Magician Robin Alfred
at the same time opening to allow inspiration and insight to land in me. I felt extremely energised, as if a strong flow of electricity was running through my system. Ideas as to what the next step should be were being downloaded into my system. Now is the time for chaos and allowing the mic to be taken by whoever grabbed it to say whatever they want to say. Now is the time for some silence and reflection. Now is the time to allow a poem to be read. Now is the time for a new structure to emerge for the rest of the day. I felt light as a feather and as if I was dancing on a shifting carpet through the morning.
By the end of the morning, much had been shared and processed. We had shared some time in silence to reflect and notice what was calling us, individually and collectively. People had shouted and expressed emotion. Some had booed other speakers. My sense was that nobody had been hurt and that much had been let go of. We had gone through a period of intense chaos and, miraculously, emerged with a structure for the afternoon.
What amazed me most was the reaction of several people at the end of the morning. While one or two people complimented me for being a magician who had somehow conjured the right steps at the right time and helped create a structure for the afternoon which, I must confess, was gratifying on an ego level, what really moved me was a couple of people, men, who came to me with tears in their eyes. I have often thought back to what these tears symbolised. Why would somebody be so moved by a facilitation process? Without wishing to sound too grand, or even grandiose, my sense was that they were moved by the presence of spirit. Using a term such as "spirit" is problematic but my sense was that there was a tangible feeling of magic, spirit, intuitive intelligence, however we might choose to language it, and that is what was so moving to these two men.
What might we learn from this experience about the ingredients and practices that need to be followed in order to facilitate emergence?
Clearly, much of it has to do with presence. I need to be truly here, awake, with my full attention and energy in the room and with the participants. To do this, it helps me to practice grounding - feeling my feet on the ground, bringing my energy down into my abdomen, thighs, knees, legs and feet.
At the same time I need to open my sensitivity to receive information and insight both from the group and from what we might term my ‘higher self’. I need to abandon thinking about what to do next which, by definition, will bring me concepts and ideas that I carry from the past. Instead, I need to open to allow insight and inspiration to arrive in me minute by minute. This requires courage and curiosity about the unknown; and an open heart, laced with care and compassion, for both the participants and the process.
We might think of this as simply a facilitation process but it is, of course, also a recipe for life.
I can walk through my life planning what I want to do next, with my best thinking and my best ideas. However in many ways, as mystic Thomas Hubl describes it, this is like taking a carpet from behind me and unfurling it in front of Facilitating Emergence – Leader as Magician Robin Alfred
me, all the time thinking that I am creating a future. In fact, I will simply get more of the same, albeit packaged differently.
How different it is to walk through life as an open question, practising presence, opening my senses to nature's intelligence and to the more subtle intelligences that surround me, be they intuition, the instinctive understanding of another, or ideas and inspiration that seem suddenly to arrive in me. Where do they come from? As the Qu’ran says, I can "rehearse the signs" and notice the synchronicities that appear. In this state, I am more likely to experience synergies, helpful and unexpected meetings, and seemingly chance occurrences that support my endeavour. Step-by-step my life will unfold as it is meant to.
The same is true for working as a facilitator. For sure, many clients will require plans and agendas and wish to know what is happening on Day One, Day Two, Day Three – sometimes even minute by minute. As facilitators, we can choose to provide this but in so doing we give the client what they want but not necessarily what they need.
Increasingly I find myself saying to clients something along these lines:
"Here's what I'm going to do in the first hour. After that, we will allow things to unfold. I am aware this might sound risky to you, but I have a range of methods and techniques in my toolkit to meet what arises, and also many years of experience working in this way. If you're up for the journey, so am I.”
Working in this way, where I am constantly on my edge as a facilitator, helps the group to work on its learning edge too. The atmosphere becomes alive, edgy, electric as none of us know what is going to happen next. My experience has been that the high energy in the room that this uncertainty creates enables much deeper and more transformative processes to take place. We are downloading the future together and, surely, there is nothing more exciting than that?