The Instant Facilitator

Apart from school debating and one lecture presentation, nothing prepared me for my debut as an instant facilitator.

I was an attendee for a computer user conference at the World Congress Centre Melbourne at Crowne Plaza. As part of the Queensland branch of the group, I had been asked to introduce each speaker and then ask for questions once they had finished. This was easy. Usually there were no questions and I wrapped it up quickly. Or with too many questions, I left everyone to continue the conversation out the door after the presentation finished.

Which meant I was completely unprepared for the last session of the conference.

Participants in plenary sessionFifteen minutes beforehand, I was taken aside and asked to lead. I almost went into apocalyptic shock. This was a plenary session. Me in the middle, five geek gurus on my left and several hundred system managers, developers, engineers and sales people in front of me. I was outgunned and more than a little overwhelmed.

And my preparation didn’t help either. I quickly scanned the names of the experts. I saw that one of them had worked on an previous incarnation of the currently popular operating system. That old clunker had a command called show stardate. I thought I could use that as my icebreaker.

I turned around and the fifteen minutes have disappeared in seconds. I walked to the podium. I waited for the geek gurus to sit. Then I wait for the audience to file in.  I made sure to keep my hands behind the podium. If exposed they would be glistening from sweat.

I introduced myself. Then the experts. I make my joke about the show star date command. And I die. I received a dirty look for my failed joke.

I had no choice. I had to go on. Then it didn’t matter. I opened up the session for questions. And then I stepped into a different space and time. I’m suddenly aware of who was asking questions and what they really meant. Every so often, I would take a question and then ask for more information. Or paraphrase the question back to them for clarity. Both I found helped the experts with their answers.  I’m not sure but I may have asked questions of them myself : I now know I tend to do that if no one else is asking.Andrew Whalan Facilitating

It worked brilliantly. I was relaxed. I even apologised to the man at the back dressed in black sitting in front of a dark wall who I couldn’t see too well.

It went so easily. Except I’d never facilitated before and had only spoken in public on one other occasion. So what happened?

The Spy I Would Have Been

Last night, I mentioned in passing that one of my favourite authors was John Le Carre.  Which began a discussion about Tinker, Tailor,  Soldier, Spy! After a lull, I mentioned that one of his books I most treasure is  The Russia House. When asked why, my answer became surprisingly pertinent to my role as a documentation writer, trainer and change analyst.

This novel is Le Carre’s farewell to the cold war. It’s a well-written anti-spy story with a unique plot.  It also is one of the best spy movies ever made.

It centres on a book publisher Barley Blair (played in the movie by Sean Connery) who is unknowingly given Soviet secrets stating that their nuclear arsenal is ineffective. That information falls into the hands of the British Secret Service who want to determine its truth. To that end, Blair is semi-trained as a spy and sent back to find out more. He ends up falling in love and plays the spies off against each other.

Yet Blair though an extraordinary character is not the reason I love and adore this book. It’s his handler, a spy called Ned (played by James Fox in the movie), a character who despite acting in the background dominates the story.

And its his relationship with Blair that fascinates me.  As a good operative, Ned  has done his research and is well-briefed about his agent.  But he doesn’t divulge what he knows. For Ned’s role is to ensure Blair gains his trust, tells him what he already knows and tell him what he needs to know.

Ned is first and foremost a listener.  To that end , Ned shows he has a open personality. His gift is to give away small secrets about himself so that others can share greater ones. His talent is so subtle that people tell him their truths without them ever knowing. And that’s exactly what happens with Blair.

Yet we only find out minor details from Ned about his life and background.  We never find out what Ned is really thinking until the end of the book. And then its too late!

Ned’s a man well versed in the art of listening. A man who knows the power of the quiet of silence.  Yet a man who knows how a few words can evoke many in return, enabling him to find out necessary and extra information. And that’s his talent And his job.

If I were a spy I would have been like him.  Fortunately, I confine my lesser talents to stakeholder management and eliciting information from subject matter experts.  I do work in that same way : proffering small amounts of information to elicit greater knowledge while excluding unnecessary context as far as possible.  Tasks at which Ned would have been incredibly adept.