Happy in Chaos
You gotta be happy in chaos to be a good facilitator.
- Facilitating from a mountain farm
- Facilitating seminars
- Skills of good facilitators
- Take home lesson
When we last visited with Ed in his hometown of Morrilton, Arkansas, it was a week after the biggest snowstorm in over a decade.
Mentioning a picture of his daughters in a sleigh on the front page of the paper produced this response, “Two years ago the paper would have printed pictures of accidents and problems resulting from a big snow storm. Now, it’s really changed. But what I really hoped for was a close-up of my daughters, but they liked the sleigh.”
Ed had just returned from facilitating a session in Vermont where he was really inspired by the participants. “I’m getting paid to inspire them and I’m end up inspired by them.” He is “paid to do the inspiration. Words are just empty. What you really leave behind is enthusiasm. Help them to feel they can do it.”
Ed says he is a teacher and a farmer. He jokes in his seminars that he chose that combination because farmers don’t work in winter and teachers don’t work in summers. So you do both and you shouldn’t have to work at all. His farm produces hair sheep (sells breeding stock and maintains the registry for the breed) and honey for wholesale and retail markets.
Q: How did you get started in this?
A: In 1980, had a degree in agricultural education and came to the Heifer Project International. He came to HPI headquarters in Little Rock to apply for a job in Cameroon. One of these interviewers suggested he should look into interviews down the hall being held for another job. At that time, he interviewed for an “odd job”, where in a year’s time he was to justify keeping the organization’s 1200 acre ranch. He helped to establish it as a learning center “International Livestock Center”. An outreach to volunteers and students became the central structuring point to the program. A variety of learning experiences, both formal and informal, of various time periods were available. The second structuring point was that the ranch needed to be self-supporting. The raising of livestock, processing and selling had to cover the costs of operating the ranch — and this in turn was important to the educational outreach component. The ranch also began to be a place where innovated and new enterprises could be created and developed by the entrepreneur.
Ed took over the 1200 acre HPI International Livestock Center at Perryville with the mission of making it an asset for HPI instead of a drain. He turned it into a people place and put HPI into the education business.
In the first step, he used volunteerism as a tool to build the educational activities where regular, everyday folks could become involved, feel productive, do something worthwhile. Then in step 2, he made a farm of it so it could generate income. He created business plans for each enterprise on the farm. Each must stand on its own merit.
After both steps were complete, the Center became a formal education institution. They began selling education, finding markets, creating a marketable product.
Ed worked with the Heifer Project for 11 years until competing tensions convinced him to leave. There was some resentment building over the success of the livestock center — it had become more than asset to the project, but also a symbol of what the project was. Not something that the leadership of the project wanted. He had been working with the Center for Holistic Resource Management, which had become a client of the Livestock Center. 1991 he made the transition to conducting HRM seminars and left the Heifer Project. In 1992, the Centers for HRM downsized and a good portion of the seminar leaders went private rather than moving to New Mexico.
In this transition year before going on his own, he had begun to realize that “delivery wasn’t quite matching the needs of the groups” he was working with. In some ways then, it was fortuitous that he went on his own and could develop the seminars as he saw fit. Ed would be developing his technique and skills for the next seven years till the present.
Ed is flexible in how he teaches HRM, but a large majority of his “classes” are three-day seminars that participants pay $1,000 a piece. He reports that he likes to work with communities over a period of two years, and works with up to two communities at a time, but at different stages (one community is one year in, when Ed starts to work with the second). For each seminar participant, he offers free consulting for the following six months and invites people to call him. He notes that very few do so, which is the main reason he can offer this service.
Ed notes that people attend his seminars for one of two reasons. A majority of the seminar participants come for “pain relief”; they have significant problems before them and are in trouble — looking to the seminar to help them out. Some come because they are “conference junkies” — they are interested in learning opportunities. Ten percent come because they are “just that progressive”.
Q: Why do people come to his seminars?
A: “Pain relief.”
Over 50% have a significant challenge. A few (<10%) are just progressive innovators and want to be ready for change. Some just like to go to trainings in the winter, but are not innovators, out front.
His seminars are “parachute work.” “The most expensive and least effective education there is.” Every time he does a seminar, he’s looking for a group with whom he can establish a long term relationship (e.g., a two year contract). To establish this long term relationship, he’s looking to make contact with a particular type of person in his audience.
At the seminars, Ed is looking for “the right person”, someone who is “able and ready to change”, and has a “good profile” and is a “good example” for the others. He notes that the right person is someone he “clicks” with and “something stands out” about them — to make them good for a long-term project (a.k.a “main project”). This person also has leadership qualities in the group. They are someone who listens and speaks the common language of the group. They have excellent communication skills and their interaction with others encourages participation and investment in the group. The right person is also someone who becomes “excited by it” — HRM.
He’s also looking for: a “good profile”. A person who’s situation that would mean something to others who’d look at it.
“There are a hundred different ways to find them.” It boils down to some chemistry gets going, something just clicks with them.
Ed says that while group organizing is not the main purpose of the seminars, he prefers to see it happen. Group organizing allows individuals to help each other continue the education process within a peer group setup. This reinforces not only the lessons of the seminar, but is fundamental to the teachings of HRM.
Ed jokes that he has dreamed of having a seminar that consists solely of break-time, but as it is, it is important to have breaks so that there can be discussion, reflection and more informal and valuable sharing between participants. Ed installs “feedback loops” in the seminars, enabling him to get a sense of what’s happening with the participants.
One of the problems with standard Holistic Resource Management (HRM) training is too much theory, philosophy. Not near enough practical, day to day, concrete applications. Engagement and buzz tells what people are interested in.
“It’s hard to get honest feedback from farmers. They’re too polite.” The best feedback comes in informal situations later. Then you get comments like “way too much thinking for me.”
Engagement is also another tenet of his techniques/modules — again, to see what people are thinking –where they are at in the seminar — “what is coming out of their heads”. Later, Ed will say that it is important that people hear their own voices in the group setting, particularly early on. About three fourths of participants, in Ed’s experience, are intimidated by groups settings and speaking to a group of people. Ed sees his job as making it as easy, comfortable and successful for these people to speak as soon as possible in the seminars. With a relaxed and welcomed environment, intimacy has a better chance of being expressed. This somewhat seemingly simple outcome having people hear the sound of their own voices — is invaluable to the success of the seminar.
Ed says that there are other ways of doing introductions, but this method has evolved into an effective means of establishing a working and workable atmosphere. He is not comfortable with formal introductions and greeting circles.
Ed notes that in responding to such feedback as “way too much thinking for me” and “not enough practical stuff”, he is interested in having the first and third day indoors and the second day spent on a farm.
The seminar’s structure varies with the group and it is important to Ed that he is flexible enough to construct a seminar that meets the group’s needs and interests — that it is applicable/appropriate to the group. However, the modules of the seminar are fairly consistent for all of them and they are based on HRM teachings.
The basics of HRM:
- goal setting
- Decision-making, testing decisions against the goal
- Practical applications of biological and financial planning.
- Then how function as a group and interact with the community.
The first half of the first day involves the entire group in a goal-setting process. Decisions and testing decisions. Practical applications of biological and financial systems and how they can work together. It is to be as non-threatening and non-partisan as possible. The goal is to create a “learning center” of the group participants, as peer group learning is one of the best ways for people to learn, retain and be innovative — people are really social learners. When each person is a part of each other’s management team, a farm’s operations will be better off than if it is just one person. “In rural America today, farmers have become/encouraged to competitors. At the end of the seminar, it is Ed’s goal that each person sees each other as a collaborator.” Only a peer group can be realistic in expectations, tends to more honest, and business-based. Weak-link analysis.
Structuring seminar, he uses the “Argentine model”, which he learned of from Chuck Francis (NE) For the longer term relationship, Ed tries to encourage development of a type of group along the lines of the Argentine Model. In this model,
- Hardball evaluation and analysis, really cutthroat “weak-link-a-thons”
- Social with families after hard stuff.
Peer group forms for the purpose of being part of each other’s management team just as if you’d hired an outside consultant. Participants invest in an informal group which provides:
- Uses weak link analysis.
- Everyone has much in common.
- No one is using all the resources available,
- HRM helps us look at all the resources.
- Each has a weak link.
- Chance of me finding it are low.
- Chance of you finding it are high.
Goal of Argentine Model is to lead participants to want to move around to each others’ farms and do some good.
One of first goals for the group is to create commonalities between everyone in the group. Some of the principles that build on each other: no-one is using all their resources; ‘with all my abilities I can’t see it all — that’s why I need everyone’s perspective’; no matter how good or bad our operations are working, there is always a weak-link and ‘the chances are better of someone else finding it are much better me’.
Whoever is organizing develops a simple series of questions leading people wanting to visit other farms? Identified enough and equipment enough leadership year-round they may call back for follow-up.
People come in the door to the seminar with their heads full of what they just left. Let them stay there. Trends and Consequences is a good transition because it puts them in the role of expert on their town. He assigns small groups a decade and asks them what happened in you county during that decade (40-50s, 60-70s, 80-90s) and what were the consequences of what happened?
Start as easy and as “close to the door” as possible (start off with where their needs came from). Introduction — pair up with someone they don’t know and have to introduce each other based on one of two questions that Ed poses. (What would you keep if you could only keep one thing? If you only had $100 , what would you spend it on?) Introduction can NOT include their title, and should reveal what is unique about their operation. Illuminates values, but more importantly everyone gets to hear their own voice right away and meet someone new. This usually reveals more commonalities than people ever expect at the outcome — “this person thinks like I do”. While the introductions are going on, Ed is tracking key words, which he uses later during the values-clarification process in the afternoon.
Then there’s Trends & Consequences, which gives everyone an informative role and allows everyone to be an expert in some way. It’s an exercise that also brings out the history and sense of place for a community of farmers.
After this, it gets a little more specific, sophisticated. Value-clarification, why questions, why are you there. What is motivating the decision-making? And how do you make your decisions? Starts with a flip chart where he’s written the things they said in the morning during introductions. “Here’s what you said are your most important values”.
Trends and Consequences in morning, values clarification in afternoon. For latter he begins with flip charts he prepared from morning, with key words scattered all over it. “This is what you said are your most important values.”
Leaders identify themselves. They emerge and take over the class. Successful means interactive as possible small groups, designated leaders emerge and are successful in both the in-door and the out-door environments over the three day seminar. They have a natural ability to see on land and connect back to the people and have enough experience to be credible.
Local leaders emerge on the first day. But on the second day, on the farm, you really sort them out. You find the people with natural abilities on the land and to connect with people. On the farm, you’ll see the natural people skills and whether they have experience enough to be credible. Some folks are very wise, but folks don’t pay any attention to them.
Ed says that when people tell him “Ed, you wrecked my sleep last night”, then he knows that some change/transition is happening — Ed owes this to losing one set of assumptions and starting to take on another, and/or dropping the denial and illusions that they had about either their business or their family or even their own values.
Ed says he knows when the “group is cooking” because it is “buzzing”. The participants are “loosened up, they have dropped their protective body language and their bodies are opening up and they spend decreasing amount of time between thinking and speaking.”
His seminars are set-up to be a series of three seminars of three days each. By the 3rd seminar, Ed notes, half of the original group is still together, but they are trusting and accepting each other. When it’s really good, they bring their accounting books and “open up their books to each other”. The competitive attitude (that your neighbors are your competitors) is about 90% of the energy in the room on the very first day. By the end of the seminar (the first or third?), the atmosphere and attitudes have changed to that of your neighbor as collaborator (about 75%) — and are starting to consider working together in some initial ways, such as marketing efforts and fieldwork.
He tries to get collaboration and competition balanced. Trying to get to 50/50 collaboration/competition. You know you’re getting there when they start showing their vulnerabilities.
By the third seminar, half of the original group is there, but there are a good number of new people as well.
You gotta be happy in chaos to be a good facilitator. The good facilitator is adept at managing chaos, seeing order and possibilities in mass of conflicting desires and impulses.)
Q: What’s it like to be a facilitator?
A: Ed says that he feels like he is “winging it”, but that his seven years of experience have given him confidence despite “not knowing the next word after the introductions”. Upon further discussion, Ed reveals that he can’t know the next word, since being flexible and responsive to the group means letting them inform him of what he should do next. In fact, the introductions are designed to reveal what is on the minds of the participants for the reasons that brought them to the seminar are often reveal here. He note sthat he has “the modules for the seminar clearly in my mind and I know every group will need to use them.” “That’s the flexibility factor — it’s like a dance — I live in terror where it might not come to me.” By using the modules and reading the group’s interactions, words and “buzz”, Ed gets a “sense of what they are ready for or not.”
Ed says his work is partly sales. Gotta find the customer’s hot button. What motivates them, what are their needs. His job is to get folks fired up. Turn on the green light for them thinking about possibilities. They realize they are not using all their resources. Turn the atmosphere positive, upward, “blow oxygen on it, so a fire comes up.” Bring in story of omeone who took a risk helps here. Jump into stories. “Your job is to create atmosphere. Atmosphere is contagious.” A good facilitator has to have the spirit in them. Can’t fake it. Before trying to lead someone else, you have to have your own experience base, your own stories. He’s thrown away all hypothetical situations.” “Set an attitude” “Put on a mask which is postive, generous and if you wear it enough, you’ll be positive and generous.” You want to create an atmosphere in the group so that participants know they will be stepping out of the negative and into a positive atmosphere. Then they’ll want to come back.
Ed is a humble man, often stating that he’s just holding his breath until someone discovers that he’s “not really a facilitator”. However, we he’s giving his seminar he gives it 150% and is exhausted at the end. It requires total concentration and attention to keep the growing moving forward in ways that work best for them. For instance, it is important for Ed to use as much of the stories and information about the participants as he can to accomplish the modules of his seminars. Speaking with Ed in person about his work, he gives the impression of a quiet and reserved man, but as the conversation progresses, and we, the interviewers share more of ourselves and our viewpoints, Ed becomes increasingly animated and the conversation becomes an equal dialogue.
Ed will also say that he doesn’t know what it takes to make a good facilitator or principles of good facilitation, but when we start to talk more deeply about the seminars he has rich insights. “There’s no story better than your story”. “I’m making connections and coordinating stories”. “It’s your job [as facilitator] to set the atmosphere. If the groups does it, then you’ll loose out.” “Can’t fake it when you’re a facilitator leading a group requires credibility.” I don’t really use case studies and hypothetical situations anymore, I try to replace them with real stories (my experiences) and stories from the group.
When Ed is working, he’s at “150%”. I find that it can be major stress to run a seminar. “I’m at 150% when I work. It requires “mental discipline to be totally tuned to the group from beginning to end”
The job can be quite tiring, one has to like traveling and being self-employed. It has a good mix of being inside and outside. “I don’t work well at a desk.” Also: Ed has to “sell” his services.
Ed has mentored people. “There’s about “dozen out there now selling” The mentor relationship has been a good experience for Ed, “really, we learn together how to do it.” The Trainee approachs Ed and then arranges a seminar for Ed to teach. They need to sell the lesson and make the phone calls and after all that you’ll know the material. “It’s very hard work” arranging a seminar. We talk about funding the seminar, how much it will cost and how much to charge for tuition. The mentor and mentee both get paid (50-50). It’s still up to the mentee to create as many experiences as possible for both their creditiability level and for developing their facilitation skills.
(Ed is highly ethical and feels strongly that seminar attendees deserve the best facilitation as possible that will lead to long-term success and continued growth. Ed not only has faith that people can and want to work together (create a learning circle), but he has a deeper feeling for the group and the individuals in it. He repeatedly noted that he feels a responsibility toward the people that aren’t engaging and interacting with the rest of the group. His attitude toward the groups are expressed by statements such as: “People are naturally brilliant not dumb.” “Three people generating ideas is a better yield than one teacher or instructor.” “People have an innate ability to think outside the narrow.” “Don’t be surprised to discover that the person who has been quiet in the group has the best idea.”)
A good facilitator needs to have good “people skills”. This means “respecting their time and financial investment to be there. It means wanting and encouraging folks to talk”. It requires a sensitivity to “correctly respond to people.” “You’ve got to be able to listen to the words and between the lines.” It also means “not being judgemental” and “not making someone self-conscious.” A facilitator “starts with where they’re at”, keeping the seminar relevant to the group, such as farm operations and geography. Credibility is important not only so that people will be have faith that you are the person for the job, but also to assure them that they are OK and boost self-confidence during the entire seminar.
A bit like social work, need to enable group participants to feel OK and confident and prove to them that you are listening to them. Tieing their stories and comments together is one way to show this. Creating connections. The facilitator’s job is to help connect people’s abilities See the potential among participants, often before they see it they’ll be the last to see this potential. A propensity towards visioning.
Respond correctly, not too much, not too little. The harder you listen, your eyes are tired at night. Maintain control of the seminar’s atmosphere (keep it positive and supportive) and the focus. Keeping an eye on the big picture and know how and when to move on from a discussion. Ready to share personal experiences (just as much as you’re asking of them?)
What is your current local project? “Envision 20/20. We meet once a month in this “small enterprise region”. Two years ago there was two major businesses closed down, firing their employees. Envision 20/20 had just begun and began “infecting every business”. They owe a lot to Vaughn Grisham from Oxford. He is the primary motivator for their project. A group from the 20/20 project will be going to see him in Oxford and on to Tupelo. He has several communities he works with. The project has generated a lot of hope in building the community economically after some solid facilitation of community development.
Bottom line for Ed: you can’t train people to be facilitators, but can help them do a better job.