Standing in the Fire: The Inner Art of Facilitation

(Originally posted at

Facilitation is too often an underrated art. Both the practice and its practitioners are often characterized with some disdain as all process, no substance. Yet, everyone knows facilitation is necessary for tough meetings when the room is expected to bristle with tension, and a lot of skill will be needed to get a good result. Larry Dressler has written a book about the inner experience of the facilitator stepping into those highly charged meetings.

Standing in the Fire won’t give you a new method for handling a group or a model process for problem-solving. Instead, the book goes deep inside the human being who’s up front responding to the moment-by-moment action and trying to make it work.

Larry Dressler is a successful facilitator with years of experience, the sort of practitioner who makes you wonder: How did he do it? But he sets aside that question in this book and goes instead to a more basic one. Who is doing it? He brings the work of facilitating down to the most essential thing of all: knowing who you are. After all, methods don’t make meetings work, people do. And to help people get where they want to go, a facilitator has to make dozens of spur-of-the-moment decisions that are completely responsive to the needs of that particular set of individuals. To pull it off, facilitators have to understand their own anxieties, fears, pride and preoccupations that pull attention away from the group.

The hardest work is recognizing the internal messiness of being human and managing the constant tension between one’s own internal triggers and the needs of the people in the room. To help you master that inner work, Dressler has inventoried all the issues he struggles with when “standing in the fire” of tough meetings and offers a set of principles and practices about how to prepare for the challenges of self-mastery.

Instead of assuming the stance of the all-knowing wizard and plunking down the hard and fast rules for success, he frankly lets you know that it’s just as hard for him as it is for anyone else. As he says: “ are some thoughts from someone who is still trying to figure out how to make this work.”

Many of the same things that trip me up in practice and in my ongoing interior development trip me up in the fire of meetings -- unrealistic expectations of myself, self-doubt, a desire for immediate gratification, a need for control, and self-blame when things are not going as planned. I have come to learn as much about myself during the lapses in my practice as I have in the practices themselves.

One of the most important principles is learning about the emotional triggers that affect you in everyday life. Dressler suggests listing each one, identifying the feeling it sets off, the bodily sensations that are part of the reaction and any associations from the past that it brings to mind. By cultivating awareness of these purely personal reactions, you can learn how to spot them instantly during a meeting and separate them from the choices you need to make for the group at that moment.

This practice also helps you stay with group interactions in every moment rather than have your mind distracted by personal preoccupations. One common danger that Dressler brings up is the anxiety and frustration that can occur when you attach more importance to following your own design for the meeting than following the energy of the group. By staying with the group, it becomes possible to help direct their energy in productive ways rather than get into a confrontation with them over their unwillingness to stick with your scenario.

Similarly, keeping an open mind to see creative possibilities is essential when the group participants themselves may be shutting down, refusing to listen to points of view different from their own. To stay open to all the ideas circulating in the room, it's essential to know when you're starting to shut down in response to a comment that goes squarely against your own beliefs.

Many books talk about the importance of professional distance, neutrality and objectivity as if it were an easy matter to ignore your own reactions, but Dressler describes the hard work demanded of a facilitator to keep practicing this form of awareness.

He also emphasizes the need to stay with the core values that provide a basic sense of identity and purpose. Clarity of purpose is an anchor at those moments when a group seems to be coming apart. You need to be able to stay with that "higher" principled self in order to help a group fulfill its own best purposes.

Some of this may sound too idealistic for many facilitative leaders and professionals in the public policy arena. They face constant political pressures, the cultures of control prevalent in many agencies, the exigencies of the contract bidding process that often determines whether or not a facilitator is hired, the complexity of relating the decisions of a group to the constituencies its members represent - and a host of related constraints. In that context, the principles of Standing in the Fire may seem too much like therapy or spiritual practice, and a lot of professionals absolutely refuse to go there.

But no matter how resistant to Dressler's approach a practitioner might be, anyone who manages high-pressure meetings knows exactly what he's talking about. Every facilitator has those moments of anxiety, ego, intimidation, outrage or bias that can color and distort the immediate decisions that have to be made in the fast-moving action of a turbulent group.

Larry Dressler has opened his experience in a remarkable way to share the practices that keep him going in this demanding field. As he says, the work of inner preparation is never done. It's hard to imagine anything more basic to good practice than the presence and awareness a facilitator brings into the room. You need to look into yourself at least as hard as a group does. That's a practice worth learning.

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