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Exploring Intentionality Within Facilitation

David Fillio
Article Date:  May 19, 2016

Exploring Intentionality Within Facilitation

            Say you are observing a highly-experienced facilitator and they have invited a group of participants to accomplish the commonly used group initiative known as The River, in which te group is challenged to cross a section of ground, representing a metaphoric river, without “falling in” while utilizing hand-held “platforms” to stand on. The facilitator has implement varying goals and limitations within this activity, including: a time limit, no speaking, limiting the platforms for the group, and having to start over if a participant “falls in.” After several time-consuming and failed attempts from the group, this facilitator intervenes to offer the group a designated timeout and the opportunity for them to come to consensus to change a rule. At the end of this timeout, the group inquires for more platforms, and when provided with them, are able to accomplish the initiative in their first subsequent attempt. After you observe the activity and a very enthusiastic debriefing session, you ask the facilitator why they decided to implement the opportunity for a rule change? You are simply answered that the group had been having trouble communicating previously, and the facilitator felt the group could benefit from evolving the challenge, which ensued with the process of consensus. The facilitator also disclosed that only after choosing to offer the timeout and rule change, she realized that supporting the group in connecting the ability to form consensus with the experience of tangible success (crossing the river), proved to enhance their experience in the initiative. What appeared as a planned sequence of events, and a thorough debriefing of the experience, was hinged on a simple feeling guiding the decision by the facilitator in that brief moment! What processes guided this facilitator to implement such a change in the rules? Why did this facilitator believe they would benefit from connecting a communicative process of consensus with tangible success? How did the experienced facilitator make this look so easy?

            Within the process of experiential activities in Outdoor Education (OE), a critical and often complicated role belongs to that of the facilitator. Definition of this role may vary widely to individuals who are either facilitating or being facilitated in differing settings, yet it is often used without question in the field of OE as to what it means. Roles and styles of facilitation may vary across activities and settings, and as in the above example, the style, decisions, and forces guiding it may also change during an experience. Facilitation may be guided by prescribed, intentional actions, yet also at times it may also be guided by “gut” feelings of intuition. Experienced facilitators often seem to operate within each of these guiding forces at appropriate instances, and make the process seem quite simple, yet the dynamics within this relationship are often complex. A strong foundation of theory applied within practice will provide a facilitator with the tools to skillfully facilitate an enriched experience for participants. The following discussion will explore the literature of theory behind intention and intuition in OE facilitation, and provide a novel theoretical model for explaining this complex dynamic for facilitators to utilize in their foundation of theory to guide practice.

Defining Facilitation, Intention, and Intuition

            Facilitation has been widely explored in literature and identified as a broader field in its own respect (Hogan, 2002; Thomas, 2008), however its principles can be defined within the context of OE. Priest, Gass, and Gillis (2000) define facilitation as the process of providing the opportunity for others to change through reflection, as well as the use of specific techniques before, during, and after a learning experience. Within this encompassing definition are the nuances and variations of the professional role, whether they are a field guide in a back country wilderness paradigm, or an adventure therapist within a front country adventure challenge course. The definition also encompasses the use of varying techniques, decisions, or actions, which can be guided by nuanced forces of intention or intuition.

            Thomas (2008) defined both intention and intuition within the context of an experienced OE facilitator. This model can be considered the most recent and all-encompassing exploration of these driving forces in OE facilitation. Thomas (2008) proposed intentionality occurs as a process in facilitation when the facilitator is able to deliberately act, and also effectively provide reasoning for the action in the moment. In contrast, intuition occurs as a process in facilitation when the facilitator deliberately acts without an ability to articulate reasoning in the moment, but is still able to facilitate effectively. These definitions are important to note for being within the context of what Thomas (2008) terms an experienced facilitator. Being experienced infers the facilitator possesses the capacity to clearly articulate rationale despite not being capable of doing so when allowing the guidance of intuition, whereas an inexperienced facilitator may not possess such a capacity to articulate reasoning to the same extent, even if the actions are intentional and grounded in theory they have been educated or trained in previously. In the above narrative the experienced facilitator planned and introduced a highly intentional activity with several prescribed limitations of rules. During the ongoing assessment of the experience however, this facilitator recognized a force of intuition, intervened and offered the group with an opportunity to adjust a rule. Fortunately, this provided the group to proceed with an enriched experience and debriefing session after successful completion. The experienced facilitator was able to identify this afterward, and provided rationale for the decision, despite not having the rationale in the moment of intervening.

Evolution of Valuing Intention and Intuition

            There are societal values that evolved within the last century that favor the concept of intentionality in facilitation. These derived from values placed upon leadership and management of industry, and later the values placed upon the replication of best practices. The 20th century brought about a societal emphasis for autonomy among workers, and the empowerment from highly skilled management in the realm of industry (Hogan, 2002). Managers who intentionally empowered employees to be more creative and entrepreneurial were valued over those operating within a top-down paradigm highly emphasizing a strict chain-of command, which by the aforementioned definition can be construed as a highly intuitive form of industry practice.

            The 20th century also experienced the emergence of a system and societal value being placed upon evidence-based and best practices (Hogan, 2002). Within the field of OE, this is exemplified through the advocating for a higher level of treatment fidelity. Treatment fidelity has been defined as the process of supporting whether a practice or intervention is applied as intentionally planned through programming with consistency and precision (Tucker & Rheingold, 2010). An understanding of treatment fidelity in the individual can be considered an important aspect of competence (Tucker & Rheingold, 2010). Advantages of having consistent and precise programming are that it can be documented, replicated, and contributed as quantitative data supporting efficacy, and toward subsequent establishment of such treatment as an evidence-based practice (Hogue et al., 2008; Tucker & Rheingold, 2010). Evidence-based practices are not only valued for their ability to be replicated, but also because they are valued by stakeholders, investors, and policy-makers who support the funding of programming (Gass & Young, 2007).

Application of Intention and Intuition in Practice

            The distinction between what an individual intends to act upon, and what is unintentionally guiding action was also explored in cognition and psychology throughout the 20th century. Argyris and Schon (1974) developed a paradigm that encompassed intentional and unintentional values guiding an actor’s behavior, and termed these values espoused theory and theory-in-use. The underlying basis of this model was exemplified in the phenomenon that individuals do not necessarily follow through with actions that are derived from the theories they value and adopt consciously. Espoused theory is defined as the worldview that an individual adopts and believes their behavior is based within, while theory-in-use is defined as the values that are implied within their behavior as they act, and are not always congruent with their worldview. Theory-in-use is believed to often drive behavior and action through a process of defaulting, and therefore can be inferred to be intuitive despite espoused theory actions that are consciously valued and intended. Thomas (2008) suggested a facilitator facing unexpected deviation from previously-planned outcomes (which implies a high level of intention and expectation through their espoused theory), will operate under principles of theory-in-use (implying the reactive operation of intuition) unconsciously. Thomas (2008) cautioned this can be risky for an inexperienced facilitator when being driven by their theory-in-use, as they may not only be practicing without deriving their reaction from grounded theory, but this may result in a counterproductive or potentially harmful experience for the participants. Thomas (2008) derived the definitions of intention and intuition within facilitation largely from this theory.

            While there are certainly benefits and values within the use of intention guiding action, there are also notable limitations when it is practiced overtly. Brown (2002) identified one important limitation in the overt use of intentionality in facilitation techniques of OE was that of the facilitator as a gatekeeper. Following the facilitation of an activity or experience, OE literature supports the process of debriefing as a reflection and opportunity to solidify learning from the experience through processing (Gass, Gillis, & Russell, 2012; Priest, Gass, & Gillis, 2000). While this technique of facilitation can be integral for participants to reflect, process, and apply what they learned from an experience, common techniques such as circular discussion and turn-taking being overtly directed by a facilitator can at times be detrimental to the overall discussion and contribution of content by all members equally (Brown, 2002). Monopolizing certain topics and direction of a discussion, while important for emphasizing certain aspects at times, can also potentially provide limitations to a debriefing experience by hindering the evolution of a more organic and meaningful process for the participants in the learning experience.

            Intuition, like intentionality has been explored as a phenomenon in psychology and cognition throughout the history of psychology literature. In contrast to intentionality however, the empirical exploration of intuition has been quite limited (Dane, Rockmann, & Pratt, 2012). Claxton (2000) explored the concept of intuition and defined it in six forms that manifest in the practicing facilitator: expertise, judgement, creativity and problem-solving, rumination, sensitivity, and implicit learning. These are all suggested to occur to a facilitator in differing extents and instances, and can guide one’s decisions and actions without a reasoning or process of intentionality. Gass et al. (2012) also identify the importance and use of intuition guiding ongoing assessment before, during, and after the facilitated learning experience. It is suggested that intuition should be embraced in developing hypotheses, and that hypotheses should be considered fluid, flexible, and adaptable for clients where they are at in the treatment process. Dane, Rockmann, and Pratt (2012) concluded the use of intuition in guiding decision making is more likely to be appropriate and justifiable for professionals who are of a high level of expertise in a specific domain. This supports Thomas’ (2008) emphasis on the importance of an experienced facilitator utilizing intuition, as they may have a stronger foundation of theory from which they can apply to their ongoing practice without an ability to articulate it in the present.

            Much like the previously identified limitations in the use of intentionality, the overt use of intuition can be risky for the practicing facilitator. Claxton (2000) noted the importance of facilitators understanding hypotheses are not to be misconstrued as the truth. This is subsequently emphasized with Gass et al. (2012) noting hypotheses should be flexible and adaptable. Misguided or misunderstood impressions and intuition can lead to unproductive or even a potentially detrimental learning experience. Perhaps in the initial narrative the facilitator was inexperienced, and still utilized intuition to offer the group an opportunity to form consensus around a rule change. Much like the experienced facilitator, this inexperienced facilitator was unable to articulate reasoning for this in the moment, but without experience and an understanding of group assessment and the activity forming consensus, facilitation of the debriefing may avoid the opportunity to explore the value of this process altogether. While this example of an inappropriate use of intuition does not identify any detriment or harm to the group, and certainly debriefing of an activity could deviate in any number of ways from the provided example, it is the inexperienced facilitator who missed the opportunity to identify a potential area of growth for the group by not having an understanding of the use of intuition. For a facilitator, it is important to remain mindful of what is guiding the act of practice, and how decisions can be made in the best interest of the participants in the learning experience.

Intention and Intuition: A Model

            As cited previously in this discussion, Thomas (2008) explored intention and intuition and defined them within the context of OE facilitation. Thomas (2008) also identified a potential paradigm in which they could be structured for the practicing facilitator; it was proposed that intention and intuition are opposing forces in a paradox of separate truths. Thomas (2008) concludes an experienced facilitator should strive to understand this internal paradox, and utilize their understanding of theory to decide when it is appropriate to exercise either opposing force in decision making and practice. Within this model, one could imagine these forces being in contention of one another on opposite ends of a continuum that has been illustrated below (see figure 1). With this model, one may question whether each force is mutually exclusive? In other words, is it possible to be intentionally intuitive, or conversely is it possible to be intuitively intentional? After all, if an experienced facilitator is mindful of their feeling of intuition, would they not be capable of articulating it is appropriate to allow their “gut” feeling of intuition to influence a decision despite not articulating why it is beneficial to the experience in the moment? Or conversely, might an experienced facilitator maintain course of a previously-prescribed experience that had rationale, but choose to simply because they intuitively believe they should during a moment of doubt?

            An alternative way to understand this model is that intention and intuition can be exercised fluidly and concordantly within the decision-making processes of facilitation, rather than mutually exclusive conflicting forces established against one another. It is suggested here that it may be possible and beneficial to recognize four respective stages of these forces to reach a facilitated outcome of an experience. A facilitator may: (1) remain intentional throughout an experience toward a previously-prescribed outcome with the ability to articulate reasoning in the moment, (2) intentionally exercise their intuition without an ability to articulate reasoning for the action in the moment, (3) intuitively exercise intention with an ability to articulate reasoning for the action in the moment, and (4) remain intuitive throughout an experience toward a novel outcome without an ability to articulate reasoning in the moment (see figure 2). These four stages of the forces guiding decision making in facilitation remain consistent with Thomas’ (2008) definitions of intention and intuition, as each of the four are incumbent upon the ability to, or to not provide rationale in the moment. In the initial narrative, the experienced facilitator was unable to provide rationale for the intervention in the moment, but was aware of the feeling of intuition, this would be categorized within the second of these stages.


            Within the processes of the OE experience, a critical, complex, and often difficult role belongs to the facilitator. An effective facilitator, regardless of their professional role or setting, strives to enhance and guide the participants within an experience toward growth and reflection (Priest, Gass, & Gillis, 2000). It can be considered artful to observe a skilled and experienced facilitator who is able to navigate appropriately between following an intended plan, and deviating from such a plan intuitively while assessing an experience in the moment. Understanding the interaction and dynamic between intentionality and intuition are critical for facilitating a learning experience. An experienced facilitator is implied to have a strong foundation and knowledge of theory in which they are able to apply in their practice, regardless of whether they may intuitively deviate from an intended plan without articulating reason in the moment.

             Intention became highly valued as a guiding force in management and leadership during the previous century and has contributed to the societal value for replicable evidence-based practices. Overt use of intentionality, however it can limit the opportunity for deviation from prescribed outcome and a subsequent valuable learning experience. Intuition can be very important in the use of guiding ongoing assessment and decision making, however it can also be risky for inexperienced facilitators who may not have a strongly-grounded foundation of theory in which to apply in their practice when unable to articulate rationale. Although Thomas (2008) opined intention and intuition are established paradoxically against one another as forces within the acting facilitator, a novel model for understanding this dynamic was deviated from these concepts and presented in this discussion for future exploration. Facilitators of all levels of experience may utilize this discussion and proposed model understanding the dynamic to further ground their understanding of theory in implementing future practice.


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