Listening, for facilitators: enabling ease through discerning difference

One function of facilitation is indicated in its etymology: to make actualisation of an aspiration easy. So, facilitation requires discerning others’ aspirations and perceptions accurately. Projecting, relating to one’s own experience or not really listening may be easier for the facilitator but doesn’t enable ease for the facilitated: 

Discerning different makes all the difference if your facilitation is intended to make a difference.

In this post, I’ll share some examples to expand on this assertion including some implications for application in facilitation.

One example situation is when empowering people through consciousness groups and workshops. One skill participants develop listening: to actually get another’s experience. Listening this way means without judgement, reaction, or response, and getting another’s experience as it is for them. A participant who really listened in a recent workshop subsequently realised they had never really listened. Even in communication with their intimate partners they had never truly gotten another’s perspective as they lived it. True communication, getting each other’s experience, is profound. 

If the facilitator’s role includes making something easier for another, then one must really get their experience: theirperceptions, conceptions, aspirations and their sense of what is difficult or easy.

One clue to whether you are listening or not is that really getting another’s experience, concepts, perceptions, and emotions will be experienced by you as foreign.

An example of what foreign means arose when assisting a colleague preparing for a workshop bringing together both traditional First Nations and Project Management epistemologies and methodologies. A concept to do with caring for country in Martu languagemay have a similar concept, no corresponding concept or an unknown correspondence to anything in (English) project management or (Western) land management language. Even if ‘translated’ technically correctly a foreign term could become familiaryet lose all its meaning and be misleading. Meaning is a relative distinction, so in a ‘world’ or context different words have different meanings e.g. “up” is a relative direction: north, or out from the planet are different; ‘healthy’ may refer to biological conditions or cultural experience.

Consider the word ‘set’, which has 464 meanings: if someone says “set” you must discern if their meaning is to do with tennis or theatre depending on the context. Different contexts, different ‘worlds’, same word, completely different meaning.

So listening is not just about meaning, definitions or even simple context, it’s about experiencing those who you are working with their whole “umwelts” (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism) which may be entirely foreign. What one is listening for is not that organism or human’s experience out ofcontext (in yours) rather the experience in context (theirs).

It is remarkable actually, that we have the ability that we can actually experience another’s experience. It does require conscious effort and can be developed as a skill. And, is essential to facilitating, enabling easefor individuals or groups in theirexperience.

Realising that your umweltis differentfrom another’s can create new possibilities and great freedom. Discerning that you really don’t know what another is experiencing could mean:

  • intelligence in your domains of expertise may be useless in theirs,
  • good facilitation may have nothing to do with you as a facilitator,
  • you have no idea what another may mean by their communication,
  • being genuinely curious is a precondition to being effective,
  • you may be able to immerse yourself in their world as they experience it, yet not be bound by their aspirations, beliefs, history or limitations,
  • together, through communication and facilitation, you may create a new world (beliefs, rules, possibilities) they can easilymove into.

This freedom to ask from a place of not knowing and creating new worlds brings to mind Gregory Bateson’s playful metalogues, and the attentiveness invited in Bohmian dialogue. On the theme of play, Rachael West wrote recently about what we can learn about listening from clowning. A historical coaching session with Rachael drew my attention to speaking and listening from my whole being: cognition, emotion, and locomotion integrating to enable coherent communication.

What this all means in application is to listen. Listen as you never have before. Find listening beyond hearing. Come from and stay in a place of not knowing – let go of the gravity of your world to enable really experiencing others. Accurately perceive what is so for them. And consider: listening well, actually, is doing nothing at all. No activity. Simply being, receiving.

And that – doing nothing from nowhere for no reason other than to get another’s experience – is, perhaps, what’s hardest about facilitating easily.

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