This isn’t a book of what I know…it’s what I’m trying to learn. -John Heider
A number of years ago, I participated in a 270-hour facilitator training that was based on the book, The Tao of Leadership by John Heider. What really attracted me to this course were both the experiential format and the intensive weekend retreats each month, culminating in a final weekend when the master facilitator and author would join us.
To give a little perspective, when I took this nine-month course, I was a different person. It was early in my career and I was trying to prove to myself and to my profession that I was worthy, competent, and qualified. For me that meant being well-versed in all the latest and greatest concepts, theories, books, and models I could get my hands on. I attended conferences, joined professional associations, wrote articles, and got certified in every assessment imaginable. I was trying to project an image of competence and success to others. What I really needed, however, was to convince myself.
As the course got underway, it immediately felt different from other courses I had taken. First, instead of being held in a classroom setting, it took place in a group therapy room in a converted old house. And instead of chairs or tables, we sat on the floor with pillows. Did I mention the meditation music and incense? Yep, we had that too. But probably the biggest surprise for me was the realization that we were to be not only students, but also subjects as well. We’d be practicing our facilitation skills on each other, in front of the whole group, and then we would receive feedback from the instructors and the group on how we did.
Perhaps it was performance anxiety or nervousness or perfectionism—or maybe all three—that prevented me from fully engaging and volunteering for the facilitator role whenever the option was offered. I took copious notes when someone else facilitated, but I never felt competent enough to put myself out there, let alone open myself up for feedback. I just couldn’t do it. Too much to learn, too many notes to go through, and frankly, I just wasn’t comfortable. In hindsight, I think much of my anxiety came from watching how flawlessly the instructors seemed to be when they were demonstrating for us. It was like watching an artist transform an empty canvas into a work of art. There’s no way I could do that without notes, a teleprompter, and a prayer, I’d say to myself.
As the months went by, opportunities passed for me to facilitate in front of the group. Everything I had learned was in my head at this point, but I was unable to put it into practice. Then the John Heider weekend came—and everything changed.
I had never met John Heider before, but I had created an image of him in my mind based on his book, his work, and the admiration that the instructors had for him. I recall imagining a deity-like figure with long hair and a beard, dressed in a flowing robe—you get the idea. As silly as that sounds, you can imagine my surprise when the actual man emerged from a beat-up Toyota Celica. I saw a slightly out-of-shape person wearing a T-shirt and wrinkled pants—and smoking a cigarette! Instead of coming right in, he stood outside his car and finished off his smoke. When he finally came in, the instructors greeted him and introduced him to the whole group.
My first real impression of John changed the moment I shook hands with him. He was a very large man, with a gentle gaze and a big smile. His eyes radiated love, making me want to tell him my whole life story in an instant. His subtle charisma was so welcoming and safe.
Once in the group room, John planted himself in the middle of floor, looking like an American version of Buddha. He smiled and gazed around the circle, bypassing any formalities or introduction, and said, “Who’d like to work with me?”
Immediately Tamara raised her hand and joined him in the center of the circle.
I pulled out my notepad and pen, ready to record everything.
“Tell me what you want me to know,” he says.
Tamara seemed to be struggling with her words, unable to talk.
John continued to smile, making her feel like the most important person in the universe. He was in no hurry and willing to wait. He was as present as a person could be with another.
Tamara started to cry.
John leaned in gently and asked her what the tears were about.
“I’m so sad,” she said. “My husband left me and I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”
“I can see you are hurting,” he said. “Tell me more.”
She proceeded to explain the fight she and her husband had that led to the ensuing break-up. Her tears kept flowing. John stayed right there with her in the most caring way, yet without consoling her.
He leaned in again. “Can you point to the part of your body that is hurting the most right now?”
She touched her stomach.
At this point, something transformational was not only happening between John and Tamara, but for me as well. Without noticing, I had put my pen and paper down, and for the first time in this program, I was completely present with what was happening in front of me.
John, still smiling, asked, “If your tummy could talk right now, what would it want to say?”
Immediately my eyebrows raised up. Tummy? Are you serious! This guy’s a master!
Seconds later Tamara began talking and opening up. John then skillfully facilitated a dialogue between her tummy and her heart. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—and it was working! Within the next 10 minutes Tamara worked through her intense emotions and was smiling and radiating positive energy.
“How did you know what to do next?” someone asked John afterward.
“I didn’t,” he responded. “I just stayed present with her and created the container for her to do her own work. My questions merely came from a place of curiosity. You need to remember it’s not about directing someone’s process; it’s about being with their process. It’s about creating a space for them to guide themselves. When you are thinking about what to do next or where to go, you are back in your head and you’ve made it about you. Facilitation isn’t about you—it’s about them. How can you be present with another if you are thinking about what to do or how to do it? All the information you need is right in front of you. Pay attention.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was like he was talking directly to me.
He went on to say, “You need to learn whatever you need to learn and then let it go. You can’t bring your notes, your books, or your ego in with you when you are working with someone. You simply bring yourself, your love, and your curiosity.”
I jumped in, “But what if you don’t know what to do?”
“Again, that would be about you. It’s not about you.”
“Okay,” I said, “so what do you do when you don’t know what to do?”
He smiled. “I let the client guide the conversation. I ask questions. I don’t push, I don’t pull, I simply hold a safe and loving space for them. Trust the process!”
At that moment it all sunk in. I thought I needed to be the expert. I thought I needed to have the answers. I thought the success or failure of a facilitated conversation was on my shoulders. It’s no wonder I was having such a hard time facilitating. I had put all of the burden on me.
At that moment, with John Heider, I became a facilitator. Granted, it took me until the final weekend of a nine-month course to get there, but it was well worth it.
I was facilitating a problem-solving session with a corporate team when they got stuck. With all eyes looking at me to help them get unstuck, I said to the group, “Looks like you’re stuck right now. What do you need to do to get past this?”
After a minute of awkwardness, one member threw out a suggestion which led to another member’s suggestion. Before they knew it, the group was off and running again. At the end of the session, the group was happy with their work and high-fiving each other as they left the room.
I smiled, knowing how proud John would have been with my facilitation.
Before leaving, I sat down for a second and looked up to the heavens and thanked John for everything he did for me that day back in facilitator training. I couldn’t have done it without you, old man!
As I turned out the lights and headed home, I recalled the inscription John had written in my copy of The Tao of Leadership. It said, “To Greg. Just Do It!”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head.
Rest in peace, John Heider!
* From Geese’s book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese, by Greg Giesen