Mastering The Push And Pull: Why Only Some Facilitators Are Really Helpful

Sep 10, 2019

Trainers and facilitators are worlds apart when it comes to what they set out to achieve. The former sets out to help learners develop skills in a certain area; the latter helps to guide a group to reach consensus. The trainer has a session plan. It’s a straight line from A to B. The facilitator has a focus question. The group may arrive at consensus by spiralling or zigzagging towards it. In fact, nobody knows what ‘B’ even looks like yet. We only know we’ve reached ‘B’ when we arrive. Not all great trainers are great facilitators.

There are fundamental skills and concepts that facilitators must master in order to guide the group, to maintain their energy and to encourage them to continue up the hill towards their destination. One of crucial concepts is mastering what David Sibbet calls the ‘Push and Pull.’

If you’re familiar with basic physics, you’re most likely aware that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This basic law also governs the flow of energy in the group.

Pushing creates ‘pushback’ We want resistance but not too much. It can be constructive and destructive. Some actions that create resistance are:

  • imposing certain structure/templates
  • putting words in people’s mouths
  • making suggestions
  • offering ideas
  • using an authoritative voice
  • judging ideas
  • moving physically into the group
  • taking sides
  • asking leading questions

Pulling creates a vacuum for involvement and inclusion by drawing people in to fill the void. The effectiveness of the pulling is impacted by how open-minded and receptive the facilitator is. Pulling could happen accidentally or intentionally. Despite it requiring substantially less effort, it can be just as powerful as pushing.

Some examples of how facilitators can pull are:

  • showing genuine interest in the group’s suggestions
  • letting the plan all fall apart
  • writing down what people say exactly
  • listening and not immediately responding
  • moving away from the group to allow them to interact
  • keeping quiet
  • losing your though
  • improvising structure and process on the fly
  • asking open questions

The more mindful we are of the group and the more we’re able to pick up cues (both verbal and non-verbal) the better we become at deciding whether to push or to pull. With practice, we become attuned to the group and their needs. Remember that one of the sub-goals of facilitation is to provide people with options. If you’re able to incorporate pulling and pushing into your own natural style, then you’re well on your way to helping the group be most effective.