How to Facilitate Learning & Development With Authority

Tim League opened Alamo Drafthouse Theater in 1997. He loved cinema, yes. But, he also wanted to eliminate everything he disliked about going to the movies. He wanted his customers to be transported into the world of fantasy. For that, League’s staff kicks out at least 150 people annually – those who talk or text during movies. These people then leave seething voicemails!

Here, League protects two things: the purpose behind why people come to the theater, and the experience they have. His staff facilitates this, just like we would for a workshop. But, some consider this approach authoritative. We disagree. Quoting Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs, such facilitation demonstrates ‘generous authority’.

Think of the time when you noticed cliques in your workshop group, and didn’t break them up. Or when facilitating a team meeting, witnessed blame games, and didn’t intervene. The impact? A missed opportunity to transform group dynamics, and create a deeper experience.

We don’t nip these behaviors in the bud, because we want to be non-invasive. We don’t want to ruffle feathers. We let things slide. During LATE NITE ART, we struggle with this when participants use their phones - it takes away from their presence.

How do we find the middle ground between lax facilitation and domineering facilitation?

Facilitate with a strong presence, because you hold the learning space.

But, do it selflessly for your participants, from a service-based mindset. Use your influence to achieve the group's collective outcomes.

Here's how:

Don’t be afraid of rules.

Any facilitated gathering can be an alternate reality – a portal. One that has the capacity to transform. For that, you need rules that define how people interact. This can include tangibles like ‘avoid using phones’, to intangibles like ‘be open to new perspectives’ or ‘avoid put downs of self and others’.

We call them ‘guidelines for our experience’. Partners for Youth Empowerment, an organization I’ve worked with, calls them ‘community agreements’. The Feast, a global dinner gathering for innovators, has named it ‘the oath’. You can get creative with it.

Such guidelines when shared from the beginning, create the social norms for the group. When violated, you can reinforce them. It decides the quality of interaction. Since these agreements are temporary, participants get on board, even if it challenges routine behaviors like checking phones, or avoiding difficult conversations.

Don’t assume that connections just happen.

As Priya Parker says, “one measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-participant connections than participant-participant connections, and ends with those tallies reversed.” But this doesn’t happen organically. We have to facilitate and push for it, even in the face of eye-rolls and groans.

Meaningful connections form the DNA of LATE NITE ART. For example, we ask participants to rotate “one seat to the right” after every question, pick up a brush, and answer the next prompt with a new partner.

What may feel forced, actually helps people belong in a group: structured connections helps strangers comfortably meet; pre-designed questions provide safety for people to take the risk of showing themselves. Advocating for such connection equalizes participants, and creates room for real change. 

It’s okay to push people into discomfort through generous authority. You’re facilitating for their needs. When working on trust, inclusion, or innovation, we need to at play our edge. Everything is good only in moderation. You’ll know when you’ve gone too far. Remain relatable. Remain generous.