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Global Flipchart #15

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May 2019
| Global Flipchart #15

Facilitators: Priests or Labourers?


Interview by Bruno Selun, CPF

Priya Parker is a facilitator and mediator. Her first book, The Art of Gathering, came out May 2018. It bursts with candour, hard-earned wisdom and practical advice, and should be on every facilitator’s bookshelf. I spoke with Priya about the ethics of our profession, how to educate our clients, and how she keeps her edge as a facilitator.

This interview was lightly edited for legibility. A longer version is available here.

Priya, thank you for giving this interview to the International Association of Facilitators. Your book makes a strong point that any gathering needs a purpose. This may be obvious to facilitators, but do clients understand this?

The biggest challenge with clients is to commit to having a purpose at all – let alone a good purpose. Leaders who aren’t necessarily trained facilitators confuse category with purpose: ‘What do you mean we don't have a purpose? It's a workshop!’ We need them to understand that’s the activity, and that the activity is not the purpose.

You write that good purposes are ‘sharp, bold, meaningful’. Are all facilitation clients ready for this?

I think the biggest client pushback is wanting to do everything. Wanting to maintain options. They fear letting go of something they think they care about. The breakthrough usually happens when I convince them that, if they have too many purposes, they’re diluting all of them.

What should we do differently, if anything?

I think that internally, we don’t own our power in these moments with clients. When we don’t educate clients on what is the best practice, we also demean the field. When we just say, ‘Yes, I will facilitate whatever you give me,’ we’re weakening the field.

Part of keeping the field with integrity is to think of ourselves not as labourers but as a priesthood, helping people understand how sacred it is to bring people together.

It’s coming in and asking, ‘Why are you bringing people together? How could this be generative? What is this group avoiding? What is the gift in facing it? What are the power dynamics in the room? Are you trying to shift those dynamics? How does the hierarchy of your group perpetuate the problem you’re trying to solve?’

How do you keep your edge as a facilitator?

The first thing is to keep facilitating. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy for facilitators who’ve published books or white papers to just talk about their ideas forever.

Second, I keep my edge by taking on clients and problems that I think matter to society, and who try to figure out questions I’m also trying to figure out.

What important conversation should our profession hold next?

What are the ethics of facilitators as a field? Five or seven years ago, Facebook was a very prestigious client. Today, if Facebook is being criminally charged in multiple countries for their role in perpetuating authoritarianism or enabling killings, what are the ethics of facilitating for them?

Another conversation to have is: In ground rules or similar processes, are there codes we should insist on if we are going to go into the room together? Another book I read recently was White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. It has a fascinating passage about how the U.S. norms of ground rules perpetuate a disproportionate weight on people of colour. What are our core assumptions when setting up a space that may perpetuate systemic inequality?

You can find Priya at her website, and on Twitter and Instagram – where she loves receiving inspiring facilitation stories.