The answer is in the room.

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The first time I was asked to train some managers in discipline and grievance handling I was petrified. It was a topic I knew well but I feared being boring. I couldn’t imagine that anyone else would find it as interesting as I had, in all my years in labour relations.   I also feared that someone in the room would know more than I did. After all, I was supposed to be the subject-matter expert – wasn’t that why I was asked to do the training? Say someone caught me out in some huge erroneous assumption or damning sweeping statement?

There was no way I could say ‘no’ to the opportunity though. I knew I just had to live through it. And so I did. Actually, it didn’t go too badly.   You see, I’m a bit prone to story telling, and I have a lot of stories about people who were unfairly fired, managers who deserved being bombarded with grievances in a tactical war to get them to change the way in which they treated staff, and people whose lives got turned around as a result of a manager who diligently followed the steps of constructive discipline.

I told stories to illustrate the points – the principles, the procedural steps, and all that. The participants weren’t bored; in fact, it looked like they were enjoying it. Then, a remarkable breakthrough happened. I was asked a question to which there was no simple answer.

It wasn’t simply right/wrong. I took the giant step that brought me into the world of adult learning. I put the question out to the room: I asked the participants what they would say to such a question.   All hell broke loose: we had an in-depth debate about the question and participants shared the insights they had gained through their own practical experience.   I merely facilitated the noise: I ensured that everybody who wanted to speak would have a chance, and I enabled the asking of questions and the thorough examination of the question. At the end I summarised the key points and asked what the answer to the question was. One participant offered it, and the others concurred. I wrote it on the flip chart. I then checked with the person who had first asked the question, and found that they were very pleased with the outcome and knew what to do next.

“A leader is best
When people barely know she exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When her work is done, her aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

We left that training facility – a beautiful place overlooking the lush gardens of a little country resort in the Magaliesberg mountains outside Pretoria, South Africa – happy and satisfied. I had been relieved of the burden of being the ‘expert’. I had discovered the magic of facilitating the discovery of the wisdom in the room.

There is solid theory behind the facilitation of adult learning, and a great deal of skills practice. I believe I’ve done my 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says you need in order to become an expert. My expertise has become the facilitation of learning.   My greatest strength in all this is to know that I’m not responsible for the answer: it is already in the room. My job is simply helping the participants find it.  It’s a bit like panning for gold, perhaps.  You know the nuggets are there, but it is an artful process of bringing them out into the open.

It is a great way of spending a day, and it is a thrill to get feedback, even after only one session, about things that the participants have gone and done differently, and how good they feel about it. The group of supervisors I’m working with at present are exactly like that.  They’re excited to go and try the ideas that they’ve formulated themselves – ways of testing their new perspectives are making their work more intellectually stimulating and they’re enjoying it.  Have I introduced brand new information and ideas? Yes I have, but I offered it as a resource, to be accepted or not, to be tried in their own real world, with their own creativity, possibly modified, adopted or rejected. Each person takes from the training what they need.  My job is to make sure it is possible. Isn’t that the best kind of job there is?

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1 Comment

  1. joan on April 11, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I have seen you open the question to “the room” in action. It is a great piece of action and one that usually gets more results than just answering the question outright.

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