Facilitator choices

Clients’ nonverbal behaviour
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The video in my last blog, The Tree of Wisdom, resulted in some fascinating observations, comments and questions from Maarten Aalberse. Martin’s observations focus on facilitator choices, and this blog is my attempt to address Marten’s points.

1. MA: Thank you James, very interesting and instructive. Watching it brings me also back to my ambivalence about writing notes. This woman used a lot of gestural « language » which is difficult to mirror (if already we are able to perceive them while we are writing) and which IMO have only been minimally mirrored by Penny.

For the most part, we aim not to “mirror” the client’s gestures except when we want to make one or more the centre of attention. Instead we occasionally select a symbol and ‘point’ to its location in the client’s inner landscape. This can be done physically (with a gesture, head- or eye-point) or verbally using the client’s words for a location e.g. “over there”. (For those new to the idea of perceptual pointing see Pointing to a New Modelling Perspective.)

2. MA: My impression is that this is about a difficult choice as facilitator : do we prioritize the exact words the clients uses, at the cost of not being able to feed back the exact gestures, or do we prioritize the expressive gestures at the (at least potential) risk of not being able to feed back the exact words ? Quite a conundrum, too ! 😉

I agree there is always a choice about what to pay attention to since we cannot attend to everything. I consider it a selection process. My metaphor is a funnel. At any moment I can consider dozens of options as a facilitator and yet I end up doing only one of them. Luckily, which specific behaviours we attend to may be less important than the quality of our attention and how we respond to what we notice (cf. Time to Think by Nancy Kline).

At a general level, I pay attention to: pattern; divergence from pattern; surprise; structural logic; idiosyncratic ways of organising experience; salience; directionality; opportunities to ‘go live’; etc. (see REPROCess Modelling Attention, Attending to Salience and The Role of Meta-comments [Link available soon]).

And it works the other way round. I’ve often said one of the key skills of a modeller is learning what not to pay attention to.

3. MA: I was also struck about her talking about needing to be grounded and only the sides of her feet touching the floor. Assuming that it would be useful to explore how she positions her feet, what would be the cleanest way of directing the client’s attention there?

I hadn’t noticed this interesting pattern – well spotted. How to reference it cleanly is a tricky question. As a rule, the client needs to become aware of a nonverbal as it is happening or immediately after. David Grove used to say this kind of information had “a short half-life” and if it wasn’t referred to while it was happening it would soon disappear. On the other hand, it rarely helps if the client becomes self-conscious (and inhibited) as a result of pointing to an out-of-awareness behaviour.

So, timing is everything. I tend to wait until a good opportunity presents itself – and if it doesn’t I let it pass. I assume there are always many ways for a client to achieve what they want/need and rarely is any one way vital to their desired outcome. Generally, I’d rather the client surprises themselves rather than I surprise them by my awkwardly pointing out a nonverbal of which they were blissfully unaware (and which inevitably interrupts whatever they are doing and whatever they were going to do next).

However, if I really felt it to be in the client’s best interest (and not just to satisfy my curiosity) I would probably ask several questions about “grounded” and the “ground” in the hope that the client’s attention would go to the area of her feet. If it did I might ask:

And is there a difference between [mirror sides of feet touching the floor] and [mirror feet flat on the floor]?

Then I would decide if the client’s response was sufficiently salient to make continuing along this pathway potentially more valuable than choosing any other option (see Vectoring and Systemic Outcome Orientation). What I would definitely not do is push the idea if there was little interest from the client or something more salient emerges.

4. MA: My impression (to be tested) is that there is a relevant relationship between worrying and what she does with her feet and legs, and my hope would be that it would help her « grounding » by exploring this (presumed) relationship.

I appreciate you clearly owning your own impressions and hopes. I agree that “grounded” is important for the client since she spontaneously refers to it at three different times in the sessions (lines 46, 68, 168 of the transcript). For me the question is: is the relationship ‘salient’ (i.e. not only is it “relevant” but is it more relevant than anything else the client might attend to)?

Determining the relative relevance is, as you say, a conundrum. One that can never fully be solved where individuals are involved since we can never test two possible options independently. Once we have gone down one pathway we will have automatically ‘contaminated’ the result of going down the other path. It is always a minute-by-minute judgement. And rather than my internal process being some algorithmic decision-making, I suspect it is more a context-matching process (see Making Complex Decisions Rapidly [Link available soon]).

A feature of clean approaches is their aim to stay close to verbal and nonverbal behaviour, and make choices which are largely based on the client’s information – what is said and done – with minimal interpretation. We take clients at their word. I can tell from the comments of observers of our demonstrations that this is far from common. People think they are making minimal assumptions, but without training most people have a limited awareness of the degree to which they impose their models, opinions, intuitions, etc.

It’s worth remembering that no two facilitators would ever facilitate a client in the same way. Fortunately there is no need to. There are usually dozens, if not hundreds, of ways for the client to get value out of a session (clean or otherwise).

5. MA: But I guess we’re not in « lite-land » anymore, then?

Probably not. One of Penny and my aims when designing the ‘lite’ version of Symbolic Modelling was for the process to imperceptibly morph during a session into more sophisticated ways of working with clients and their metaphors (see Stochastic Tinkering and What If There Is No Change?). Interestingly, the more we use the lite version the more we have made it the guiding template within which we work. Even when we segue into more complex ways of working cleanly, we continue to trust the lite template (including the PRO model) to guide our decisions.

Thanks for your input, Maarten.

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