Facilitating In-Between Spaces

What happens in the in-between spaces is equal parts interesting, challenging and downright scary. It’s a venture into the unknown, and for many that’s an inherently frightening prospect. It’s difficult, in that there are more possibilities, options and opportunities than there are certainties. And it’s interesting, because that’s where all the learning and growth happens.

First, of course, we have to want to grow. If we’re honest, that’s a challenge for many of us. We like what we know. We are comfortable with the familiar (in large part because it’s familiar). When we step out of our comfort zone, we tend to want to refer back to a place of stability and certainty as quickly as possible.

If we’re going to create a truly new and different future, though, we need to be comfortable letting go of what we know, where we are and how we operate. In the context of liminality, that involves moving through the preliminal stage. We need to step away from where we have been, break with our past status and behaviours, and open ourselves up to a new way of operating.

The challenge is that this usually isn’t a one-time proposition. We simply don’t let go and fully commit to a journey of transformation. We vacillate. We prevaricate. We waffle. We step away, and when the change gets to much, we revert back. We get stressed, and we go with what we know and what is comfortable. We fall into old routines, and find ourselves back where we were.

If this is a challenge on a personal basis, it’s even more complicated when we try to do this in groups. And it’s particularly tricky to get groups to transition together. One of the greatest challenges of facilitating is guiding a group out of their collective comfort zone, and getting them to stay there long enough to explore what that might mean and what a way forward might actually look like.

This is an inherent challenge when managing organizational change. It’s a factor when planning a significant yet uncertain project. And it’s absolutely a complication in thinking about and planning strategy. All of these conversations are about defining and realizing a new future. Envisioning and imagining that future requires being willing to confront and challenge the present (and the past) and to imagine a way of being in the future that can be radically different.

Facilitating in the in-between spaces requires finding ways to not just guide the group, but also to address and manage how individual participants are experiencing the conversation. Success involves getting the individuals and the collective to manage the transition in as reasonably parallel a process as possible.

A recent strategic planning exercise I facilitated provides a good illustration of the challenges involved in helping a group to navigate the in-between spaces. They were a diverse group. Some members had been part of the group for a while, while others had just joined. There was a mixture of hopes and ambitions for the organization, and therefore for the session. While a subset of the group hoped for an ambitious and stretching plan to emerge from the discussions, others were much more comfortable with the status quo.

What this sets up in the room is a great deal of tension. There are differences in experience, expectations, hopes and fears. As a facilitator, my job is to engage with all of them as individuals, but also to guide them as a group. Doing that successfully is a balancing act of planning and flexibility, of formal process and informal responsiveness, of managing group dynamics and individual participation.

One of my core philosophies as a facilitator is that we will go where we need to go. That’s not to say that a meeting is unmanaged and unmitigated chaos. There is always a plan, and a hoped-for outcome. But the plan is flexible, and the outcome is not preordained. There is an intended path for the discussion, but there will be tangents and tributaries. Sometimes the group has to be allowed to meander, before they are willing to move forward.

There is a school of thought (I use that term generously) that a facilitator’s job is to know the answer in advance, and to guide the group to a preordained conclusion. That has never been how I’ve seen the role. More specifically, it’s not facilitation; it’s manipulation. It’s an easier and safer process for the person running the meeting, I suppose, but it’s not a meaningful conversation, nor is it one that is going to inspire buy-in or commitment from the participants.

The difference—and it’s an incredibly important one—is in how the conversation gets approached. Designing a meeting or interaction that allows for meaningful exploration of the in-between spaces involves knowing the questions that need to be answered, not already knowing the answers to the questions. It involves being confident and clear in guiding the group, while still recognizing that it is their conversation, their content and their conclusions.

My recent example provides an incredibly useful case study of what this looks like. Some members arrived with well defined views of what they thought the outcomes should be; they wanted to answer the questions before we even began. Others had general ideas, but were open to what specifics might emerge. And a few approached the conversation with open minds; they were open to what would emerge.

Thoughts about process, however, were more than a little different. The participants in the session were all relatively experienced. In their work, many specialize in process, and all of them have a healthy understanding of it. Several work as facilitators. To put not too fine a point on it, they were all process geeks. So each came into the session with their own sense of their preferred tools, optimal approaches and expectations regarding the structure of the meeting.

The consequences of all of this has the potential to be fairly intimidating. The facilitation challenge is a significant one: you are being asked to guide senior people, with strong views on results, and even stronger views on approach, on a collective journey that gets them to leave aside their preconceived notions and engage with the people that are present and the content that is at hand.

The ideas of liminality that I introduced last week provides a useful framework for thinking about how to approach the challenge. And each stage—preliminal, liminal and postliminal—plays a role in framing the overall conversation.

As we’ve already mentioned, the preliminal stage involves letting go of our current status and place. It is about breaking with the past in order to allow for a new and different future. That’s not just about letting go, however. There is going to be anxiety and fear about leaving what is familiar. There is going to be resistance in letting go of what people know, and has seemingly worked for them in the past. Doing so requires specific acknowledgement.

What needs to be built in and addressed is an explicit acknowledgement of where we’ve been. That’s not just about identifying what isn’t working or broken, as a justification for why we need to shift approaches. It is also about acknowledging what has been successful and effective. We need to acknowledge what has worked, and what continues to work. Being able to build on what we know and where we have been can provide a basis for possible future solutions (although that isn’t necessarily preordained).

In the session, I consciously did this by breaking up the design of the meeting. We began at the end of the first day with an assessment of where the group had been. We surveyed the successes and challenges, the accomplishments and the disappointments and the expectations as well as the concerns. We spent time reviewing and acknowledging what had come before. It provided an important guidepost to navigate away from, but one that was still visible to the room.

The next day was intended to focus on the future. That gave people an overnight period to reflect (at least subconsciously) on where they had been and what that meant. It also allowed them some comfort of understanding the past, and recognizing that there were practices and capabilities that could still be leveraged.

From there, the challenge is actually entering the in-between space of exploring what is possible. And the challenge here is that the possibilities are potentially endless. That’s good, from the perspective of opening the door to creative solutions and opportunities. However, not every avenue can be explored, and not every tangent is a useful one.

This is where facilitating in the in-between spaces places significant obligation on the person guiding the conversation. The insights of the liminal stage are important here. The initial concept of liminality was an anthropological one, exploring rituals of initiation and rites of passage. The hallmarks of this stage, as we talked about last week, were formality, structure and the importance of strong guidance from a place of wisdom.

Those concepts can and—in my view—need to be leveraged in working through the liminal space of a conversation. The focus of this is two-fold: exploring what the future can look like, and managing for the change and preparing for what it will mean to live in that future. The facilitator needs to keep both of these in mind. More importantly, they need to encourage the group to stay in a place of liminality—open to new possibilities—while exploring ideas and concepts that might be difficult, challenging or at times downright scary.

Structure is key to this. In facing a room full of process geeks, I acknowledged that they all no doubt had their own process expectations, and that an internal narrative of “I wouldn’t have done it that way” was a very real possibility. I asked them—and frequently reminded them—to “trust the process.” Allow that the process as designed will allow them to have the conversations they need to, and get them to results and decisions that are meaningful.

Trusting the process is different than trusting the person. For starters, it keeps ownership of the conversation where it belongs: with the participants. Asking the group to trust me would make it easy for them to abdicate their role, and place a lot more expectation on me to give them the answers. That’s not what I’m there for. My role is to guide them in their conversation, and allow them to work through figuring out answers that make sense and work for them.

The other side of that is recognizing that as a facilitator, the role is to be the voice of wisdom guiding the group through the liminal space. It’s their experience that matters, and their conversation that is important. But the facilitator is the one with the obligation to get them to the spaces that allow them to have that conversation. As a facilitator, you have a tremendous amount of power and influence in the room. That needs to be used judiciously, but it also needs to be exercised confidently.

Specifically, it’s easy to be sensitive to when the conversation is getting uncomfortable. The safe approach would be to steer away from the discomfort and get back to a place of safety. But that’s not what the liminal space is about. We can acknowledge their discomfort. We can ask questions about it. We can get them to express why they are feeling it. We can get them to illustrate—sometimes quite literally—what it looks like and what it means. It’s our job to guide them through the exploration and to challenge and confront the difficulties that they encounter, not to steer around them and pretend that they don’t exist.

In essence, we need to be comfortable calling out the metaphorical elephant in the room. We need to see the elephant, point it out to the group and describe it. We need to explore just how the elephant got in the room, and the strategies that will allow it to leave. And the wonderful and delightful thing is that when we do this well, once it has been observed and addressed, the elephant very often gets up and ambles out entirely of its own accord.

The last essential part of facilitating the in-between spaces is providing a clear structure for the group. In the messiness of conversation, it’s easy to confuse speculation, exploration, discussion and decision. The conversation is going to roam from the past to the future and back again. Some things will be explored and abandoned. Concepts that were left alone earlier will come back. Ideas that made no sense on their own will synthesize with others to produce something new and interesting and possibly workable. Our job is to keep track of all the pieces, firstly, and provide an underlying structure for the group to make sense of them.

In the context of planning, that can take several different forms, depending on the conversation. What we’re doing, though, is highlighting and being clear about each option being considered, and what makes each option and consideration different. We are identifying and labelling the buckets that contain the unique ideas that have been identified and explored by the group. We need to maintain clarity around what each option or concept is, the possibilities it represents and the barriers that need to be tackled in addressing it. There are several approaches to doing this. We can draw pictures of the option. We can give them names. We can develop scenarios and stories.

What we are doing—and what we need to be conscious of doing—is building waypoints that make the journey visible and create resonant meaning we can come back to when necessary. That allows the group, as they continue to stay in a liminal space of exploration and preparation for change, to put an option down for a period of time. They can let it go, knowing it has been defined and labelled. They can allow themselves to explore different perspectives and different opportunities. They know the ideas they have already explored are well formed enough that they will still be there when they are needed.

This is where the journey really becomes interesting, because when the group does come back to an earlier option, they will often see it with new eyes. It may still be viable, or it may now no longer be relevant—or at least, not as relevant as they previously thought. They will ideally be more sensitized to the challenges of the option, as well as the possibilities that it offers. It has enough form and structure to withstand being taken apart again, critiqued and—where appropriate—reformed into something new and more workable.

Facilitating the in-between spaces is unquestionably a challenging role. In my view, that’s what makes it interesting. Embracing the ideas and concepts represented by liminality also offer useful insights into making the process manageable. The stages of the liminal journey provide a framework for planning the conversation. The features that define each stage provide guidance about what needs to be accomplished and how we might guide the group in exploring that stage. Most importantly, liminality reinforces the need for strong guidance and the form that guidance should take. We inspire trust in the process, so that the group can in turn own their results.

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