On not being the one who helps:

On not being the one who helps:
8th October 2016 Tim Malnick
In Presence at Work

The trap of trying to help:

Today I am a little raw, a little tender, and if I admit it, just a little embarrassed.

I facilitated part of a team away day session yesterday. My role was to help a newly formed senior team talk around questions of purpose, identity and future direction. The session went ok, I think. Possibly it went better than ok. I left the group halfway through their two day process, full of reflections and thinking. It was pretty hard to gauge feedback or the sense of how my session had been received.

And therein lies the problem, ‘my’ session. The idea that in some way the session was ‘mine’ to lead, to facilitate, to deliver, and, by implication, to be judged by. Systemic constellations work (this was not a constellations session itself, though my facilitation practice is always informed by that approach) reminds us that as soon as the facilitator takes on the role of trying to help the issue holder, they have already become sucked into one story, one way of seeing a complex systemic situation. And, noble as it may seem, the stance of consciously trying to help, is a subtle and terrible trap. Trying to help actually narrows our capacity simply to attend to what is. It hooks us unconsciously into choices, strategies and stances that may not be for the best.


Wanting to be seen to be helping:

Trying to help, has a close relative, a more insidious one of ‘wanting to be the person who helps’. Here, we try to help – in itself a closing down of the whole space of whatever is unfolding. But, also, we secretly want to claim the helping as something we have enabled, a personal accomplishment or victory of some sort. Yesterday, reflecting why the session did not go as I had hoped, did not seem to end with the energy I’d imagined possible, I realized after some time that it had – to my own mind at least, been just a little too shaded by me wanting to be seen to be helpful and valuable. Too much in service of my own agendas, to be fully, completely in service of whatever needed to unfold for the system as a whole.

This is a lesson I learn and am forced to learn, over and over again in my facilitating practice. It is painful each time to see the limitations of my habitual preoccupation with self. At the same time  it is always a beautiful and much valued wake up call to step beyond that. These little moments of embarrassment and disappointment are beautiful reminders. They become an invitation to surrender personal agenda and ambition in each and every moment in service of something greater – life itself, flow or the systemic whole.

This can be quite subtle. It is not as if I go into sessions with a flashing bow tie, a big pointy arrow saying ‘look at me’, and signed copies of my latest self help book (there isn’t one). I adopt on the whole a fairly low key approach. And much of that reflects a genuine learning of my craft over many years as well as my natural style. But, still, in the background, there frequently remains the ego chatter, the story around wanting to be the one who helps, and wanting that to be recognized, wanting to be valuable, impactful, impressive. It gets in the way; it distorts what I am actually able to enable in service of the group. The paradox here – by wanting to be the one who helps, by being in whatever way attached to this as an idea and future fantasy, I become immediately less free to do whatever is needed to actually help in the moment.


Trusting life beyond hope and fear:

There is another paradox.

I have come to realize over the years that whenever I come away from a session, feeling, as I do today, raw, heavy, clobbered and a bit embarrassed, it is never really about how the session went objectively speaking. It is not in itself necessarily a sign that participants did not in fact benefit, did not enjoy or did not learn from the session. I have learnt that the feeling, for me, is a message, from what we might call the Guardians[1] of awareness, presence and compassion. It is instantaneous feedback, that there was just a little too much of ‘me’ in my work today. A little too much preoccupation with self, and an over concern with the implications for ‘me’ of a session going this way or that.

As all the great Wisdom teachings tell us, true work, true service and true leadership eventually lies in action beyond personal hope and fear. Beyond secretly grasping at results – whether that relates to me looking good, or about the group I am facilitating going this way or that according to my preconceived story.

In a few moments yesterday I was able to simply be with the group, to be with whatever was arising for them. I could stay genuinely curious and open to what was manifesting, rather than being subtly but crucially distracted into preoccupation with my story of ‘my’ impact. In those moments something very alive started to flow. Greater than the sum of the parts, greater than the individual comments or stories of team members, a more coherent, integrated whole starts to come alive in those moments.

Increasingly I believe that that is always where the value of this work, perhaps of all work, truly lies. In a time when so much of our organization practice and discourse is deadening and separating, more and more I feel my work is about supporting spaces for life itself to flow more freely – between people and within people. I hope there was enough experience yesterday of a green shoot of life to sustain the group’s conversations in the hours and days ahead.

Whether it is, of course, as I learn over and over, is very much more to do with life itself, than me as facilitator of anything very much at all.



[1] Guardians are one of the nine aspects of Centre Edge work. See here for more.