The Joys and Pitfalls of Co-facilitation

My facilitation career started with co-facilitation. I was invited by Chris Taylor to run the People Planet and Purpose Open Programme at Oasis. It seemed an excellent idea. I had been thinking of changing jobs and co-facilitation would give me an easy way in a new path, without much pressure of handling every decision on my own.

Now, three years into that journey, I realize how blessed I was to have Chris in my life and introducing me to the co-facilitation world. In the last year I have co-facilitated workshops in Brazil and Mozambique with other professionals and the experience of working alongside different people has not been as smooth as before.

Given that co-facilitation is very common, I feel sharing the lessons I learned along the way might help others in their decision of what, when, how and with whom they should co-facilitate workshops. Besides the obvious advantage of sharing the stage, and thus the weight, of holding a group of people together, for me, co-facilitation three main joys and pitfalls have been:

1. New (good) ideas and activities: We all have been exposed to different environments and we each bring a pool of resources into co-facilitation. At the Planning for a Responsible Leadership workshop in Brazil, I was positively surprised how a new colleague, who I had never worked with before, was aligned with my way to approach the design of programmes. We both had an inquisitive mind-set and first discussed what we were trying to achieve at each phase in the agenda to then select the most appropriate activity for it. In this case, co-facilitation was a two-way development opportunity for both of us. She got to know the Oasis’ Seven Stage Model, which I always use in the design of my work; and I got to know a self-assessment spider map tool that can be used in conjunction with a profound piece on listening by Rubem Alves. Borrowing and adapting ideas and activities from other co-facilitators is definitively a plus of co-facilitation.

2. Support when your energy drops: For a variety of reasons our energy can drop during workshops. We might have had a bad night of sleep, have been going trough difficult phases at home, have just received sad news, or simply have a bad cold. Recently I found myself in this last case. From one day to the next I started feeling awful, I could feel my eyes watering, it was difficult to focus and I was starting to mix words, saying mind instead of heart and vice-versa. I know that when I get to the stage of mixing words something is not right with me. Besides acknowledging it to the group, I also let my co-facilitator know about it and he was there to support me. I took a paracetamol and got better as the day went on, but knowing my colleague was there, and could step-in at any moment in case I could not carry-on was a relief. I’ve been equally sick when facilitating courses by my own before, and the participants certainly did not take as much out of it as they could have if there was a co-facilitator. Knowing that you don’t have to be 100% in the room is an invaluable aspect of co-facilitation.

3. Honest constructive feedback: The old saying that “we learn by doing” could not be more correct for co-facilitation. The 70:20:10 Model also advocates for learning through experiential learning. In this sense, co-facilitation gives you a unique opportunity, as not only you do it, but you can get instant feedback from another peer that was in the room with you and can have a different take on things you did well and things you could have done differently. For example, once a year, Chris and I co-facilitate a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Governance module for MBA students abroad using the Oasis Whole Person Learning approach. The approach is innovative and challenging, thus it does not please all our students. Last year, we had significant negative feedback from the group. We then discussed what each of us could have done differently and adapted the programme for this year’s group. The small adjustments we put in place meant we got a much better feedback from the students. The capacity to assess what went well and what didn’t go so well is certainly one of the joys of co-facilitation.

However, it can go wrong and it does! Here are three pitfalls that I experienced in co-facilitation over the last year:

1. New (bad) ideas and activities: Every coin has two sides. New ideas and activities can be good for some, but they can also be bad for others. It is important we try not to make choices which may have a negative impact on a certain group. Just because your co-facilitator suggests an exercise that he/she had done before, it does not mean it will work for every case. This happened to me in one of my workshops. We had to change the programme overnight due to demands that emerged during the day, as often happens in this kind of work. It was late at night; I was tired after a three-day field trip and one-day of large group facilitation. I knew we had to change the programme, but I was not able to think properly, so when my co-facilitator suggested an activity I had never heard before, I simply had no energy to make a quick risk-assessment if it would work or not, let alone to suggest anything else. We applied the activity in the next day and it went catastrophically wrong. Participants were fed-up and we spent double the time on it, which meant we did not get to the outcome we wanted at the end of the day. This then led to a series of delays in the programme and derailed the decision-making process we had envisaged to take place in the workshop. In hindsight it is easier to pinpoint the mistakes. If I am ever in this situation again, I will be much more careful on what I say yes to and I will also negotiate breakpoints in any new activity to assess if it is going well or if other intervention is needed on the spot.

2. Taking too much floor space: Even the best-intentioned co-facilitator can impact negatively on a workshop. In one of my Responsible Leadership workshops, I agreed to co-facilitate the morning section with a colleague, who had more inside knowledge about the group and their company’s development plans. If my colleague followed the agenda it would have been fine, but he went on and on and talked four times longer than what he was expected to. This meant the whole agenda had to be readjusted with one hour and a half less time than scheduled. Overrunning is normal if people have too much to say and don’t have the capacity to synthesise the messages. Sometimes, people also overrun because they decide to go deeper in a particular discussion. Looking back, and knowing my colleague the way I know now, I should have realised overrunning was a risk. If I find myself in this situation again, I would make sure that we had a solid agreement beforehand about the maximum time the other co-facilitator can speak to each item of the agenda.

3. Giving messages in the wrong tone: Last but not least, one of the pitfalls I found was to be in a room with a co-facilitator that has a totally different style than mine and which can lead participants to a confrontational position. For example, I had a colleague who turned out to be quite authoritative and who was constantly telling participants off with a “parent-child” attitude. Since the Whole Person Approach that we use at Oasis puts emphasis on personal responsibility to learning, there was a clash of messages. While I was saying: “You are free to do the exercise in the way you want and you will be responsible for the consequences of your choices”, my co-facilitator was saying: “You should do this exercise this way”. There is no right or wrong and both approaches can be used in different situations, but not at the same time. The different tones and messages meant the participants got confused and the response was sub-optimal. In future situations, I would discuss the boundaries of the instructions with my co-facilitator, as one should not come in and give contradicting messages to the facilitator holding the activity, no matter how good-intentioned they may be.

In summary, if you have a chance to co-facilitate, go for it! However, be aware of the pitfalls and try to have a mitigation plan if things go wrong. Co-facilitation is like dating, you only find out if there is chemistry between you and the other co-facilitator if you try it.

And like dating, you should have an exit strategy if you find out the other person is not really as cool as you thought they were.

*Note: This Blog was originally published at Oasis.

Gustavo

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