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foxwizard ☾

🎭 Do you serve your client—or their context?

This is a trick question I was asked at the end of a fabulous conversation on the alchemy of group facilitation with Myriam Hadnes on her podcast. I answered it correctly—but it’s the one thing that, in hindsight, I wish I had elucidated upon further. The rest of the podcast was an utter delight.

You can listen to the podcast here—we tour many topics pertinent to masterful facilitation. You can also watch me in conversation with Myriam here. I don’t tend to watch many videos myself (I prefer listening to podcasts whilst in commute)—but I know videos are a favoured kink for many.

Anyhoo, the actual question raised at the end of the conversation was in the context of group facilitation.

Do you serve your client (the one who hired you)—or do you serve the group?

The correct answer is: the group.

But do remember: your client is part of the group. Serving the group serves them, too. If external mercenary wizard-facilitators simply served their clients (and not the group or team the client is a part of), then a few things will likely happen:

  1. The group won’t trust you. The group will no doubt know their leader’s intentions. If it was all straight-forward, there would be no need for a facilitator—so there must be some complexity at play. But if it is clear to the group that you are only there to parrot your client’s intent, it is likely the group will simply “play the game” with you. They’ll say all the right things and bluff their way through the dance—but it will be surface-level. The responses and contributions will all be tolerably “correct”. There will be no surprises. The facilitation will run smoothly, and everyone will be polite and all-too-ready to acquiesce to the perceived desires of the client who hired you. Any challenges will be performative, and within the bounds of The Script. It will all be “nice”. Too nice.
  2. Nothing will really change. In serving the individual client—rather than the group—you will not surface That Which Needs To Be Said. You will not confront the exquisite tension of the Conflicting Values and the Hidden Commitments holding them back. You will not make room for paradox or shadow. And, in your sycophantic desire to please your client, you will not flirt with the profane or taboo. You will not allow for transformation to occur—you will simply perpetuate the default; another forgettable footnote in a tedious chapter begging for movement.
  3. You will be an “underwhelming success”. Your client will say “thanks, that was great, I really appreciate it” and the group will say “thanks so much”. You’ll nod and smile and linger, wondering why you feel hollow inside. As if you have just somehow been a puppet in some sort of predictable propaganda pantomime. A farce. You’ll be left pining for more than the banality of mere incrementalism in your work. Your facilitator-mind’s eye will flicker back to the micro-expressions your hyper-acuity flagged—that grimace from the quiet one, that eye-roll from the older one, that scoff from the sharp one, that felt-sense that certain topics were forbidden—and you’ll forever wonder: what might have happened if we went there, and explored what was behind that? What might have emerged, if we had but tended to the needs of the group as a whole?

You email the client the next day, saying that it would be great to “catch up” sometime to discuss the day, and what next steps might be. Your client says, “sounds good, let me get back to you”. But they don’t: you were a tool and you have served your purpose. That box has been ticked and they’ve got work to do.

But your client is frustrated, too. No matter what they try to do, nothing seems to change. The group doesn’t seem to listen to them, or they don’t quite “get” the strategy or the vision. They’re not showing initiative, or asking the right questions. It feels like unnecessarily hard work for the leader, and they feel so alone in their struggle. And lo! Even when they bring an external facilitator in to help, it just feels like more of the same. Yet they know—they know—that something is missing. Something creative and subversive. Something... dangerous. What’s holding us back?

I’ll need to brief the next facilitator better, they think to themselves. Or maybe I should just do it myself?

Or maybe... they could hire a benevolent trickster character as your next facilitator. Someone who might bring a deft blend of weaponised naïveté and refreshing perspective to evoke that which seeks to emerge and be known.

Groups need tricksters, fools, jesters, rogues, wizards, shamans, etc

Tricksters invert paradigms. They are the antidote to stagnation. Fools are the wisely naïve. They ask the dumb questions others fear to. Jesters speak truth to power. A lot of truth is said in jest. Rogues question convention. They pick the locks, circumvent obstacles, and find the better way. Wizards bring intelligent magic. They make complexity and mystery navigable. Shamans open new ways of seeing. They bring new metaphors to coordinate by.

... and so on. My point here is: if you hire and groom an external facilitator to act and behave exactly as you and your team do—don’t be surprised when nothing changes.

And if you are a facilitator who aspires to bring about Transformational Change™️—don’t aspire to fit into the mundane. Bring the magic they secretly crave!

🤫 Psst: the following is for existing & potential clients

Okay of course I had to say that “I serve the group”—it’s how we can get them to trust me! But of course: you are, first and foremost, my client. And so I will always preference your wishes.

We’ll do a deep briefing before any offsite or event I facilitate for you, discussing what you seek, your strategic imperatives, and what you suspect might be needed in order for the group to shift.

But do note: the clients that I work with are, for the most part, mature enough to know that they have their own blind-spots, too (as we all do).

The reason we gather together is to sense-make and cohere—so that we may collectively coordinate amidst complexity with greater efficacy and ease.

Sometimes, conflicting values or interpretations are revealed. Sometimes, interpersonal tensions are surfaced. And sometimes key assumptions are questioned, and found wanting.

But always it is better that these are known—lest they sap the ability for you to collectively progress through complex challenges. And always, it is better that these are processed openly and warmly, as a group, in a psychologically safe manner (rather than it being on you to manage individually/politically). 🧡

// Where to now? //

Thanks for being here · I’m foxwizard (aka Dr Fox)

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