Manipulation is mostly a word used for negative purposes. To be manipulative is somehow to be clandestinely scheming, to be attempting to influence the behaviours of others for reasons unknown to them. It suggests the manipulator has a covert agenda, is trying to be clever with events in a way that undermines the freedom to act of others. When people say they feel they have been manipulated it suggests a feeling of being abused, of being imorally treated.

Manipulation though is a term that is neutral in its essential meaning. An osteopath may manipulate your joints in order to improve your back trouble. Manipulation of something can free it up, release it, move it to a better place.

Manipulating a situation – a conversation or set of events to your own personal advantage in a way that undermines others is clearly a negative use of manipulation. Manipulating someone’s knee joint to ease pain or help to heal an injury is clearly a positive use.

Am I manipulating you now, as the writer of this article, and you, the reader? Am I trying to facilitate you learning or improving your understanding or something, with good intention? Or am I trying to draw you in to read further, with the eventual outcome that you will buy my book, like me more, or even book my professional services? Isn’t all facilitation just another kind of manipulation, unless I reveal upfront what all my hidden intentions are?

What if my hidden intentions are all good? What if I take you down certain paths of thinking and questioning in order to bamboozle you, for for the well intentioned purpose of taking then along a new road to where you will arrive at a deeper and better clarity on this topic? Is that kind of manipulation a mental version of the osteopath, who manipulates with your permission, even unto pain, for the greater purpose of being able to walk upright again?

Most facilitators of personal or organisational development would not like to be described as manipulative. They’d describe their “facilitation” as a process of helping people to help themselves, to reach a goal, to identify a path – indeed to achieve something either set out clearly at the start, or discovered along the way. Facilitators make the path easier, they help people get to where they want to go, or to identify the want in the first place. Some facilitators will be more convergent in style working with a clearly laid out target, goal, and even route to get there. Others will be more emergent, and facilitate the “whatever”, allowing and helping the road to form, the goals to appear, or even other processes to be experienced that aren’t about goals and maps.

When you see an osteopath, you literally put yourselves in their hands – a dependency is created, and that dependency rests on trust. To allow someone to cause you short term pain in order to remove longer term pain requires a trust in that “facilitator”, who will manipulate you physically in ways you don’t understand (unless you are well read or qualified yourself to an extent). There is an unspoken agreement that the manipulation is freely accepted.

Can the same be said for a facilitator of personal or organisational development and change? Is there an unspoken agreement between participant and facilitator that, when needed, the facilitator will, in a sense, “go underground”, will manipulate the process in order to achieve a good outcome, without you, as participant, fully knowing what is happening or what you might be going through? Can you reasonably be asked to engage in a group exercise, or an individual activity, by the facilitator, where you just passively “go with the flow” because you trust the skill, intentions of the facilitator and probability of a positive outcome that makes the manipulation worthwhile? Is it okay to suspend your critical faculties for a while and put yourself in the hands of the facilitator?

Of course, that is what many one-one, group and organisational sessions and workshops are all about. The facilitator in many cases is manipulating, but there’s a clear assumption that this is permitted by all present, and that the process and enactor is trusted.

So, facilitators often engage in “good” manipulation.

“We were put into pairs and asked to close our eyes. We then had to see how much of the other person’s face we could remember without opening our eyes. I wasn’t sure at the time why we were asked to do this and felt a bit uncomfortable. I realised later how much of the person’s face I couldn’t remember and later concluded I don’t observe as well as I should.”

“At the start of the workshop we all had to stand in a circle and say our names and make an animal noise that best reflected our personality…”

The difficulty that can arise in group sessions in organisations is that the trust is often assumed too quickly and readily, or is “given from above” by a more senior person who has commissioned the facilitator, and not the people in the room. Some people trust and give permission to be manipulated very readily. Others don’t, and many agree because of peer pressure, fear, or because they don’t feel that saying no is allowed, or don’t know how to say no in a group. The yes-sayers will feel mostly facilitated in a good way. The others will feel, or will soon suppress the feeling that someone is doing something to them that they feel pressurised into doing, that they don’t fully understand, and would rather not be doing. In these cases the facilitator will be doing the equivalent of manipulating the shoulder joints of a patient who is too scared to walk away, and too frighten to ask what is happening to them and, most importantly of all, certainly has not given trust.

It is here we start to enter the realms of what I call “facipulation”. Facipulation is a practice of facilitators where bad manipulation is dressed up as good manipulation. Facipulation is manipulative facilitation that serves the process of facilitation itself (and possibly the goals of the facilitator) more than serving the receiver or participant who is in a state of usually suppressed refusal, confusion and mistrust, often colluding with the process for a number of already mentioned reasons.

There are some phrases I often associate with facipulation which can, in many cases, be a sure sign or symptom of it being in operation. They are:

“Getting someone to…”
“Getting a group to”
“Get them to a position where they…”

The watch word here is “get”. Getting, in this sense, is a very manipulative word, and very evocative too. It evokes the images of someone people “go to” do something without their full conscious awareness of what they are doing. The facilitator always justifies this on the basis of already assumed or agreed trust and permission, and also because their intention or motive is “good”. “You’ll thank me at the end”.

All well and good if the participant has truly given that permission – a permission to go with the process unquestioningly, suspending their disbelief, and trusting someone to lead them somewhere potentially fundamental and life changing, who they may have only just met that morning, and, in some cases, in public, in front of a large group.

I’d suggest that “getting people” to do significant things, often in front of each other, without there existing authentic and deep trust and permission, for whatever good motive, is a precarious thing. A very risky thing indeed. It requires a sensitivity and skill that I often find scarily lacking in many do-gooding facilitators. Doing good and do-gooding are not the same thing at all. For physical manipulation, it needs a skilled and trained osteopath, or someone with hugely natural skill and community trust. An amateur can ruin your back forever.

There can be a number of reasons why facipulation starts to make its presence felt in a workshop or one-one session. Here are a few…

- the facilitator is in a conflict of interest between the required agenda of those who commissioned and pay for their services, and the human beings in the room, on the receiving end

- the facilitator simply isn’t confident enough in “emergent” facilitation and force fits a number of predesigned activities, games, exercises inappropriately into situations. They then try to manipulate events towards a desired outcome

- the facilitator is guilty of narcissism, and manipulates the session to end with he or she being seen in the best possible light with a good chance of repeat work. Here the hidden agenda is that the session becomes more about the facilitator’s needs than those of those in the session

- the facilitator is stuck in a “get them to” frame of mind, and their repertoire is always based on activities where participants have to go with the flow; the facilitator isn’t good at being open and honest with the hidden nature of many powerful activities and is reluctant to discuss underlying processes. Quite often facilitators who were once managers and consultants bring this frame with them into facilitation work\

- the facilitator is insecure and nervous in the group so creates a distance between themselves and the group, fearing to engage, to be open and vulnerable, becoming more akin to a conductor of an orchestra than a facilitator of a process

- the facilitator has a manipulative personality in their life as a whole, is not always well motived, and enjoys game playing, especially with other people

- the activities themselves are “inherited”, borrowed or copied and the facilitator delivers them too mechanically, by rote, making them unnecessarily rule-bound, with the underlying motives and “spirit” not owned, felt, or even fully understood

- the process has become too bound up with “mystique”, designed around a promised big outcome at the end as long as participants suspend judgement or critical faculties. Questioning, reluctance and even worry by participants are seen as spoiling, breaking ground rules, or even disruptive. Here the group starts to mimic a kind of cult, with the facilitator as guru, and the processes as “secret wisdom”.

Facipulation may be more or less conscious to the facipulator. What I am suggesting is that facipulation is okay if the circumstances and situation and “set up” can be seen as being akin on a psychological and emotional level to the kind of acceptance and trust that exists on a physical level between a client and osteopath, between an expectant mother and midwife. Facipulation is not okay, even if the motive is good, and has been agreed by senior people in an organisation, a family or group, if those participating have, either explicitly or implicitly, not given trust, and known that they are giving trust to, in full freedom and consciousness. No amount of ice breaking (especially if it is facipulative) and smiling from a facilitator will lead to a situation where this permission, trust and consciousness can be assumed for the whole process.

This article has attempted to lay some of the groundwork for the concept of facipulation. It’s been intended to share ideas and comments are welcome. A future article will look at how and when facipulation is appropriate and how to consciously remove the manipulative elements of facilipulation to arrive at a more authentic facilitation.

Comments most welcome!

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Paul I agree with the sentiments in your article: 'Facilipulation' is a dangerous thing and is practised either deliberately or unconsciously. The difficulty is that the group feel powerless and it's hard for anyone person to challenge the 'facilitator'. So I'd like to offer a solution to both situations (deliberate or unconscious). It's a 'tool' I taught myself several years ago when I found that groups didn't want to do what I thought was right (in terms of the process). 

I use something I call 'SPO': Summarise, Propose, Outcome. By Summarising where the group is at (in terms of the Task) - e.g. "It seems that you have a number of options to consider and several people have expressed a view that you need to consider certain factors when making a decision about which options to use". As I'm speaking I look round the group for nods of agreement or for someone to raise an objection (e.g. 'No, that's premature, we haven't identified all the options yet). In which case my Summary is wrong and I have the opportunity to change direction.

If the group agree with the Summary I then make my (process) proposal:

"So, I propose that you use a matrix with all the factors across the columns at the top and all the option in the first column. Then you can assess each option in terms of the factors. You could 'score' each option against each factor or perhaps use 'Yes/No' against the factor of 'Does it meet our values?' as this was so important to you all.

Again I am looking round the group for nods of agreement (or disagreement - e.g. "Maybe, but when we measure the options against: 'Are we able to do this yet?' shouldn't we be using: 'Ready/Nearly Ready/Not ready'?").

Often someone's interjection will add value to the process and gain buy-in from the others.

Then I can give the potential Outcome of using the tool: "It is likely that some options will emerge as better than the others and you will have at least reduced the number down to ones that 'pass' through the filter of the factors."

If a Facilitator adopts this approach it: makes them the servant of the group (but still with the option to provide an effective process. It also prevents them unconsciously make the group do something that they don't want to do. It also has the advantage of making the group share the responsibility for designing the process and in doing so maturing them in terms of process.

I hope this helps.

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