The Importance of Being Centred when Facilitating

Hi I’m Ben and am one of the people delivering our new course, Human-Centred Facilitation this November. Today I want to focus on the ‘centred’ part of human-centred facilitation. More specifically, why it’s important that you stay centred. 

If you’ve ever been to China, you may have seen the early morning activities in the parks. A favourite is groups of people practising tai chi, especially on frosty mornings where you can see their breath. Very poetic. There is something hypnotic and calming about watching the gentle movements of this ancient martial art. And there’s an important facilitation lesson to be learned in its philosophy and style.  

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Tai chi is all about maintaining connection to your own centre of gravity with the aim of developing sensitivity to the opponent’s movements and their centre of gravity. This sensitivity dictates the appropriate responses. 

It is simply and eloquently shared by another master of martial arts: Bruce Lee. In a scene from the film ‘Enter the Dragon’, his master asks him how he deals with an opponent and part of his response is: “When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit - it hits all by itself.” 

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Let’s unpack this. 

“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand.”

In Tai Chi, this means being ready to affect the opponent’s centre of gravity on contact. Sensing the flow of their movement and using it to knock them off balance. 

In a facilitation scenario, it means being ready at all times to direct the flow of conversation and/or enquiry to where it needs to go. It’s not about force or control, it’s about an appropriate response informed by the situation. It’s impossible to predict this, so all you can do is be ready for it. If viewed through this lens, the art of facilitation is about being present enough to deal with an ever emerging unknown. 

This can be challenging for us as facilitators, because we want to be a few steps ahead of the group, anticipating the direction things are going, always prepared to control the outcome with a pre-emptive strike. Great for your ego, but not so great for uncovering the truth and reaching a satisfying resolution for the group.

One of the ways we centre ourselves at Huddle is to use mindsets. In this case, two relevant mindsets are: “Beginner’s mind” and “Liquid mind.” Beginner’s mind is the mindset of forever learning, seeing things anew, living in the present, not the past. Its fuel is curiosity, remaining open and willing to learn, so that whatever is presented to you is met with an embrace, not a punch. 

Its kryptonite is experience. Knowing it all. Making quick judgments about people and situations because you’ve seen it all before. This is dangerous in facilitation because it can stop the flow and become about you, not the people you’re serving. Think of it like this: no two sunsets are ever the same. Neither are groups you’re facilitating. Remain open and be willing to see things anew.

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‘Liquid mind' is about the ability to change perspectives and positions on things. Its  fuel is empathy: being willing to see another’s point of view. Again, this is crucial for successful facilitation. All voices are valid and your job as a facilitator is to create an environment in which those voices can be expressed.

The ‘liquid mind’ killer is a singular perspective. Thinking it’s my way or the highway. Facilitation is not the place for “your way.” Your job is to be like water, taking the shape of your container and nourishing what’s there. 

By adopting healthy mindsets like ‘Beginner’s’ and ‘Liquid’ and combining them with curiosity and empathy, you’ll find it easier to maintain your centre and keep things flowing.  

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This brings us to our next part of the Bruce Lee quote…

“And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit - it hits all by itself.”

In Tai Chi, it becomes about trusting that the countless hours of practice have been integrated. You are primed and tuned so the body simply acts appropriately, beyond thought. It knows what to do, even if you don’t. 

The same is possible in facilitation: readying yourself for right action. In practical terms, this may mean asking a deeper question, changing an activity that’s not working or encouraging more robust discussion amongst the group. By being centred, present and available, you will find it easier to respond accordingly.

In order to reach this state as a facilitator, it requires developing a sense of trust with yourself. This trust stems from learning to listen. Not just hear: listen. It’s a conscious choice. 

At Huddle, we’re big fans of using listening channels. They are essential for the kind of human-centred work we do. The channels range from completely tuned out to highly generative and insightful. Of course, they can be active externally or internally. We encourage both, but in this case, we’re talking about developing your internal channels: aka listening to your inner voice. 

Whether you are aware of it or not, there is a part of you that always knows what to do. It’s a built-in navigation system with a little voice sitting in the control room. This voice isn’t a loud mouth. It doesn’t “mansplain”. It quietly, patiently gives direction. 

It’s quiet for a reason. It knows that if you have taken the time to slow down, find some stillness and calm your mind, then you are ready to listen to it. When you do, right action becomes natural. 

There are many ways to learn to connect and listen to this part of yourself: meditation, exercise, journalling, tai chi! The method doesn’t matter, it’s the practice of it that counts. As a facilitator, that inner voice can become your best friend, guiding you as you guide others. 

If we park the tai chi metaphor for a moment, what we’re really talking about here is communication. Communication of any kind is an exchange: a giving and receiving. An effective facilitator knows this and learns to centre themselves so they become an exchange hub, allowing the group’s various expressions to flow through them. The added benefit of you being centred is that others will sense it and will then feel safe to communicate what’s most important to them, thus contributing to the desired outcome. 

While you may not want to put on some silky pyjamas, go to a park and get your chi flowing, you can readily adopt the principles of tai chi and make your next facilitation experience a piece of (martial) art by finding and maintaining your centre.

If you’d like to learn more about the art of human-centred facilitation, Huddle Academy is running a course on 27-28 November. Places are limited, so click below to find out more and book your spot... 

https://learn.huddle.academy/p/human-centred-facilitation-melbourne

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