Facilitation, Motivation & Mindset, Practitioner, Reflective Practice, Thought

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July 29, 2020

I help heart-centred practitioners, who work in challenging education and community settings unlock their resilience so they can show up with presence and integrity – without the burnout.

I run the Thriving Facilitators Membership which offers an affordable way for practitioners to reflect on their practice and to connect with like-minded heart-centred practitioners with the aim for thriving over surviving. We meet regularly for coaching and reflection on topics relating to facilitation, wellbeing, and our development as practitioners.

Im excited that tomorrow we are beginning a new bookclub in the membership! This will be an opportunity for us to explore on a deeper level some core understandings around our human experience. For our first book we are reflecting on The Relationship Handbook by George Pransky. It is aimed at personal relationships, but it’s deeply relevant as we know that relationships feature in ALL of our lives and work.

This book offers a different way of considering relationships that could impact on our facilitation practice; especially working with groups who are experiencing difficulties in their lives.

Im going to share one idea from the book: that of low-mood and high-mood approaches and explore how this might be relevant for facilitators and even in the prevention of burnout.

Low mood approaches

George Pransky identifies that the dominant approach to relationship therapy tends to be a low mood orientated. I’m sure you will recognise this model. A couple arrive with difficulties in their relationship which is causing unhappiness between them and the therapist works with the couple and their problems. The emphasis is about working on the problems and locating its root cause with the understanding that the couples relationship will be improved. This model is based on the idea that we need to work hard at our relationships.

Pransky outlines that such processes (and variations of this approach) tend to be low mood oriented in that they focus on and stay with problem and difficulty the result of which can generate low spirits and negativity in both clients and therapists. He advocates a fundamentally different approach – one that that can seem counter intuitive in its challenge to the dominant approach to dealing with and resolving problems. When I first came across this approach I found it challenged my practice (it seemed that everything I approached was problem based). I feel this understanding changes everything in terms of how I see my human experience and the possibilities for wellbeing*.

High mood approaches

In contrast to a low mood approach which focusses on the content of a problem or difficulty (or the seeming root cause), a high mood approach To relationship therapy invites a couple to consider what connects them.

A high mood therapist might also draw attention to the nature of thought itself, share how mindset and mood distort our thinking, and that this can change moment to moment.

Through understanding how the content of our thinking is a construct of thought, we can see how certain mindsets and moods generate insecure thinking. A couple can then understand how insecure thinking generates ‘problems’ than incompatibility.

In this vein the ‘root’ of a problem is the nature of thought itself and the insecure thinking that results. This understanding can be transformative for relationships that are caught up in blame and victim narratives and the shift from focussing on difficulty can instead generate empathy and new insight.

A high mood approaches therefore fosters optimism, respect and warmth rather than focussing on struggle. For example, these qualities can be fostered as they are noticed by the therapist. Pransky argues that this approach creates more possibility that couples might leave sessions closer with hope that a fresh start might be possible.

What’s this got to do with facilitation?

It struck me that facilitators approaching practice in challenging settings, particularly when working with those who may be troubled or experiencing difficulty, are often caught between low mood and high mood approaches – both in the content of the work and/or in the attitude or feeling towards the work by the facilitator.

For example, like the couple therapy session, the content of a workshop may focus more on delving into and exploring problems or emphasise the fostering growth, joy, and connection. (Those are extremes to capture the different emphasis of approaches).

The former, could lead to fostering low spirits and negative outlook at the expense of wellbeing, strengths, and growth. But this depends on the kind of facilitation, the direction of the work and where the participants are at. Similarly, how a facilitator sees the work they undertake (whether problem based or not) could also be influenced by a high mood approach of low mood approach.

Simply put if facilitators tends towards see their client group as troubled, vulnerable, or ‘broken’, they will see them through a ‘low’ lens and this can leak into the focus of the work.

As always, its about what we choose to see in any circumstance – the lens we apply will affect how we work, and this will be influenced by the thinking (and conditioning) we bring, and, importantly, our consciousness of our thinking.

Academic / reflective practice can also be low mood orientated

In a similar vein I also realised that academic analysis that is problem focussed can also foster low-mood thinking over high mood thinking. I was an academic in Higher Education for 24 years and for much of this I was focused on teaching and researching the challenges of facilitation practice.

Likewise in my book on Facilitation and other publications, I explored the role of the facilitator working in dilemmatic spaces and identified the emotional challenges and difficulties of the work.

‘Academic’ analysis of my practice focussed on problems and dilemmas

Reflecting back, I see that my facilitation work, teaching, and writing was also focussed towards problem and dilemmas. I got stuck into the problem at hand and, in the name of critical reflection, I encouraged my students to investigate the challenges of facilitation and the problems of practice. I problematised everything including my own practice.

My intention was critical reflection (and teaching others to be critical), and I was doing this to invite curiosity about what was happening between facilitator and participant. But was this a low mood or high mood approach? A bit of both I think.

I am not suggesting that we should avoid looking problems. Reflecting back now, a critical, and analytical approach might be more high mood orientated when I approached it in the following way;

  • I wasn’t afraid of looking at difficulty, dilemmas or challenges (and I encouraged others not to be afraid also) because there was an optimism underpinning this thinking and a belief in the potential transformative possibilities of the work – for clients and for practice brought about by a new understanding or insight.
  • I was also interested in drawing attention to the construction of narratives in order shed new light on the experience for both communities and facilitators.
  • I was interested in the discomfort of the facilitator and about being able to sit in this, because I knew that we didn’t need to be afraid of the human experience.

My analysis was higher mood when it was about hope and transformation and the productive possibilities of working with difficulty.

But having said all that, I realise that my reflections also led to the creation of self doubt and worry on my part as a practitioner. At times instead of looking at what I was doing well, or what was emerging in these moments I overly looked at my failings or what didn’t work.

I didn’t realise it then, but when I was doing this, my assessment of my practice had tipped into a low-mood, or deficit approach. There was a fine line. I realise this had happened when;

  • I spent hours and hours delving and critiquing and over analysing.
  • I took my work personally, and then I became fearful.

What do you think?

So what about your practice? I’d like to pause for a moment to invite you to reflect. I wonder:

  1. Do you see yourself as a low-mood practitioner or a high-mood practitioner? [or do yo slip between the two?]
  2. How does low mood / high mood thinking play out in your practice and in your personal life?
  3. Are there contradictions between what you do in your practice and you personal life? For example your practice is ‘high mood’ but your personal life and relationships are ‘low mood’? or visa versa?
  4. Do you intend to be a high-mood practitioner but secretly feel that your clients problems are insurmountable and therefore this leaks into your work?

Low mood practitioners risk burnout

And here’s a final, crucial point I want to share with you. Apparently the burnout rate for low mood orientated therapists (according to Pransky), is high, often four to five years in that career. These professionals are extremely committed and dedicated and as Pransky says ‘willing to feel down in order to do their jobs’. I resonate with this point. I work with front line practitioners who often feel ‘brought down’ by their work and the plight of the vulnerable communities they serve.

Does that sound familiar?

A while ago now I wrote in various academic publications (including facilitation book referenced above) about the challenges of emotional labour for the facilitator/arts practitioners and public sector worker (nurses, police, teachers, youth/community/social workers).

I outlined how there is an expectation that people in these sectors give huge amounts of themselves in the service of their job and there can be a cost to peoples wellbeing. We only need to look at the statistics to know that burnout is high in the helping professions. [see here for some links on burnout by Mental Health professionals.

I’m suggesting an alternative to a low-mood approach in this discussion. We often assume, because burnout is high in these sectors that this is because of the sector/circumstances.

It’s true that public sectors (education, health, community) are under funded and such provision survives on problematic neoliberal principles. These circumstances are not conducive to wellbeing and adequate working conditions.

Low mood thinking can contribute to chronic stress

But I realise now that our wellbeing and resilience is not dependant on external circumstances but rather, made up of thought. I believe that low mood thinking can contribute to chronic stress, and that this is potentially detrimental to our mental health and overall wellbeing. But we also have access to many other mood states in every moment including higher mood thinking and we always have access to resilience.

When we are in a higher frame of mind we are able to be creative, and resilient and from this place are more capable to act to change our circumstances. This higher state is not synonymous with context but it can influence and be influenced by our practice – how we show up, the lenses (or glasses) we use, and what we propagate in our minds and in our conversations with others.

Are you willing to feel down in order to do your job?

So are you willing to feel down in order to do your job? I recognise that this is potentially controversial. Many of us feel that our difficulties are caused by our circumstances. But I’d love to invite you to be open to another way of seeing, and reflect on the subtle shifts that can be made through opening up the possibilities of what is possible when we are open to all of our states of mind even in difficult and challenging situations.

I believe passionately that it is possible to show up compassionately in challenging settings without burning out

Knowing that our experience isn’t personal and that we always have access to wellbeing can help us show up resiliently and in a curious and compassionate way.

A high mood understanding of our resilient capacity can help us navigate conditioning and the moment to moment ups and downs of our human experience and ultimately will help to mitigate against the fear of burnout.

Often we have been conditioned to think that we are victims of life events. So many of us need support and connection with others who are having similar experiences to help us to realise our resilience and to point us in the direction of our wellbeing. Thriving Facilitators is designed to support practitioners in their facilitation practice as they show up with heart-centred presence in challenging settings.

If you are interested in the Thriving Facilitators membership and wish to be informed about when it opens next, please sign up to my mailing list below.

Alternatively you might want to join my FREE Facebook group called Thriving Facilitators Community. In this group you will get insights into thriving and facilitation practice.

I also have space for a few 1-1 clients, so do contact me here would like to work with me.

I’d love to know your thoughts, you are welcome to post below!

[Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash]

*(Note: I am still working out how this understanding shifts all aspects my practice such as my belief in mediation and restorative processes but thats for another blog)

About the author 

Sheila Preston

I am Dr Sheila Preston, a transformative practitioner with over 23 years’ experience in education, community settings. I have trained and supported hundreds of socially engaged artists and practitioners. Now I help brilliantly courageous practitioners who are working with communities who are experiencing difficulties in their lives and/or who work in challenging settings* These practitioners are committed to working in a heart-centred, relational way with vulnerable or hard to reach communities. I help these amazing practitioners get out of survival mode and THRIVE so they can lean into their heart-centred practice, and lead social change without burning out! I am committed to finding affordable solutions for on-going coaching or support for practitioners which is why I developed the Thriving Facilitators Membership. *settings such as, prison and probation, schools and universities, pupil referral, day centres, SEN settings, mental health, health care, social services, neighbourhoods.

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