Teaching Facilitation: Brain Science to Legitimize?

For the second term now, I’ve been asked to give two guest lectures on facilitation for the PPPM 494 Leadership & Change course, which now serves as the undergraduate capstone course for the PPPM department. During this first class I present a Facilitation 101 workshop, which includes some underlying constructs of group process and facilitation that can guide good meeting design, as well as introducing the use of agenda design. I frame the workshop by re-defining the goal of facilitation as strengthening the culture and skills of a group to do their best thinking. Framed as a thinking and decision-making exercise, I then provide a series of design tools for facilitation including: the big rocks theory to design objectives, Kaner’s diamond of decision making and divergent-convergent thinking, types of participation and meetings, the curve of participation, the satisfaction triangle, and the importance of closure.

In addition, using the triune brain model, I talk about the importance of getting people into the best brain space for engaging and making decisions, the neocortex, and the importance of helping people to get out of the reptilian brain where they are limited to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn forms of participation. To demonstrate the value of thinking about brain space, I tell the story of facilitating a strategic planning session two days after Trump’s November 2016 election. It was a very liberal group and the strategic planning effort was already bringing forward many difficult conversations and decision-making points for the future of their organization. Recognizing that people were consumed by fear and frustration over the recent election, I integrated an exercise designed to release those fears and re-set the parasympathetic nervous system. I tell the story because it really, really worked and led to an incredibly brave, productive planning session with 20+ participants, which naturally impresses students.

The triune brain model

However, based on both their questions during the class and the feedback cards collected at the end, I’m beginning to think that connecting facilitation to brain science might be a bit problematic. I don’t feel this way because I don’t think that the connection is not true, nor that the insights gleaned from an awareness of neurology and psychology are not valuable. Instead, I worry that without the prospect of hard science backing up this art form, then facilitation will not be seen as legitimate. This is an issue that plagues the social sciences and human services fields: without scientific proof, how can we demonstrate value? We know qualitatively and anecdotally that facilitation (or mediation or therapy or…) works because we can experience it as having a positive effect on a situation or an individual, but there is little to prove these effects since longitudinal and control studies are rarely, if ever, done. I’m a huge proponent of science, which is why I’m interested in the role of brain science in my work, however, I do worry that if people new to this work only recognize its value as connected to what is a very young understanding of the brain, then they both won’t appreciate the more subtle art of the work and could negate its value if/when our understanding of the brain shifts. I will most likely continue to use brain science to teach facilitation, but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially when thinking about the not infrequent facilitation skeptics and cynics: do we need science to legitimize our work?


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