Nimble Facilitation: How to stay on track while going off script with Rebecca Sutherns
Nimble Facilitation is a practice for this time and place. In a world that seems to find a new way to turn upside down every week, preparing for change and twists in the plot-lines of all areas of our lives and work is not just a good idea – it is quickly becoming essential.
But is it even possible to prepare for things we don’t expect?
Rebecca Sutherns will assure you, we absolutely can.
Rebecca is the author of Nimble: A Coaching Guide for Responsive Facilitation and joined Myriam on episode 65 of workshops work to discuss how Nimble is becoming more and more relevant, and how we can all learn to hold onto our plans a little less tightly.
This is a timeless conversation, but it feels especially relevant in our current circumstances. For any facilitator who has felt unsure, unclear, or undone by 2020, Myriam and Rebecca’s conversation will hopefully serve as a tonic.
What is Nimble Facilitation?
Rebecca found Nimble after a period of reflecting on her own work. “My experience was showing me that the skill that I was bringing into the room that I was finding most helpful – and I think my groups were – was being able to adjust and respond and adapt.”
“I think that represents a very high percentage of what goes on in a facilitated space”, said Rebecca, highlighting how the need for adaptability and responsiveness in workshops exists regardless of whether you are equipped with those skills.
Myriam wanted to drill down into what really makes a Nimble Facilitator, and what “the core skill” is “that you would teach in order to become a Nimble Facilitator?”
“Preparation. I think people think that being a Nimble Facilitator is about what happens in the room, but what I’m learning is that it’s way more about what happens before that.”
Rebecca was keen to stress that preparation doesn’t mean “making a very detailed facilitation plan”, but rather a combination of “awareness and anticipation”.
- Awareness of your own tendencies to over- or under-prepare
- Anticipating what is likely to happen in the room, because “there’s lots of reasons why things will go off the rails. Make sure your own lack of preparation isn’t one of them.”
Rebecca also stressed that preparation isn’t just about planning for what will, won’t, and might happen, but also at a more basic level. “Making sure you appear in that room at your best and doing whatever preparation you personally need to make sure your state is as positive and ready as it can be.”
“That”, Rebecca stressed, “is the kind of showing up that’s going to make in-the-room nimbleness more possible.”
Digging deeper into the tiers of Nimble preparation
Myriam was captivated by Rebecca’s explanation of Nimble Facilitation and how the pre-workshop work can be seen as more important than anything in the workshop.
“I hear self-awareness,” Myriam said, after Rebecca explained more about the inner work required pre-workshop.
And Rebecca was clear that the process of preparation starts at the most basic level – meeting essential physiological needs of hydration, sustenance, and rest.
Once you have met those physiological needs, you can move to looking at whether you have “done what you can to be ready – are we clear on the objectives and the process you’ve designed. Is everything at your fingertips?”
“More deeply,” Rebecca added, “there is a self-awareness around two things”:
- “Who you are in that space. Whether you are a highly-energetic facilitator or a more introspective facilitator and how your identity in the room, from a power dynamic point of view, will affect the room in particular ways.”
- “From a temperament point of view, to say ‘wow, I tend to be pretty spontaneous and that’s not helping. In this case, I should have been more scripted.’ Or vice versa – ‘I tend to be very scripted and therefore the best thing I can do is loosen my grip on that script.’”
“The more work I do in this area,” reflected Rebecca, “the more I’m realising that inner work is what allows you to do the outer work.”
Managing your clients’, your groups’, and your own requirements
“The more I do this,” said Rebecca, “the less tightly I need to prepare and the more flexible I want things to be.”
“And yet my clients aren’t always at that same point themselves and my obligation is not just to do what I need, but do what they need.”
Balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders is delicate work, but Rebecca was magnanimous in her reflections of this complex issue.
“Sometimes I’m providing more detail to them in advance to keep their stress level low because that’s part of the service I provide – it’s not because I need that, it’s because they need that.”
It feels like something of a universal truth, but Rebecca has found that honesty always works best to manage the needs of all stakeholders.
“I find myself saying things like: ‘I will provide the agenda you’re asking for. Here it is. The likelihood of me following this agenda is low.’ And that will serve all of us better.”
As much as anything, Rebecca believes “it’s about preparing them, giving them the reassurance that I am as prepared as any human possibly could be, but that the extra value I add is by saying: ‘if this isn’t the most helpful thing to do, we will try to do the most helpful thing and we won’t know what that is until we get in the room’.”
One caveat Rebecca introduced was that, though she “might be willing to provide them with high detail if they ask for it,” she will often request that they do not share all of that information with the group. “What goes out publicly to the group is not the same as what I do and what the client gets.”
Learn more about Nimble Facilitation
Nimble Facilitation feels like a timely consideration. In a world that is shifting on its axes so often that it’s difficult to tell up from down, a degree of flexibility and preparation for the unexpected is like a life raft amidst the storm.
If you want to explore Nimble Facilitation in more detail, Rebecca’s interview on workshops work is a great place to start. You can also learn more about her book, Nimble: A Coaching Guide for Responsive Facilitation, in the episode if you find yourself wanting more.
“What I like about how you describe Nimble Facilitation”, summarised Myriam, “is that it’s a combination between mindset and skillset. It’s this middle ground where it’s neither one or the other.”
“Isn’t that always true?”, Rebecca replied.
You can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “workshops work” or stream the episodes on workshops.work.
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