How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

(image credit: http://www.ourspiritedlife.com/)

2 Responses

  1. Great – an “Eva out of the box” wisdom story! Thanks, Debbie

  2. […] How my bad French made me a better facilitator […]

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