Top 3 Elephant Lessons for Facilitators

by New Church Starts

by Christie Latona, Path 1 Mentor Coach and Consultant; facilitator, and entrepreneur

Some of my favorite animals in the world are elephants. It has been that way ever since I rode one in India when I was six. Since that time, I smile each time I encounter an elephant metaphor in change management, leader development, and group dynamics theory.

Here are my top 3 elephant lessons for facilitators.

1. Don't Allow the Group to Ignore the Elephant in the Room.

Can you imagine being in a meeting room with an elephant and pretending as though it wasn't there? Yet my guess is that we have all attended meetings where the looming big issue doesn't get addressed as safer, smaller and "controllable" issues are ticked off the list one at a time. In a church planting stakeholder meeting elephants can be anything from "lack of trust in the planter" to "misunderstanding of the mission field" to "mismatched expectations for the plant project itself" to "unhealthy behavior on the part of the partner congregation." A facilitator must have the capacity to sense whether or not there is an elephant in the room and the courage to name it if need be. One of my favorite elephant-surfacing questions for a group: "Is there any one thing that, if addressed, would radically increase our ability to collaborate and succeed?"

2. Help the Group Discover How their Individual Experiences are Aspects of a Singular Elephant.

The ancient story from India goes something like this: six blind men go off to experience an elephant so that they might learn more about its nature. As they approach, each one shares what they "see." The man who approaches from the side concludes the elephant is like a wall. The person who approaches from behind feels the tail and determines an elephant is like a rope. In like manner, the tusk become a spear, the trunk seems like a snake, the leg like a tree, and the ear like a fan. Each person is convinced that their personal encounter with the elephant is the TRUTH and everyone else's experience is mistaken. People can only describe what they experience from their particular perspective. Facilitators need to honor this and then help the group reach points of convergence so they see how their perspectives are connected to the perspectives of others. There have been times in facilitation when I have had to paint the picture of the "elephant" so that people could see how their viewpoint is connected to the viewpoint of others. Not in a linear way, but in a core-truth way. For us in the church planting world, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission provide such a core truth to which all agree.

3. Harness the Power of the Elephant to Serve the Change.

In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers describe why change is hard using the metaphor of an elephant ride. Our rational mind is like the elephant rider, our emotions and passions are represented by the elephant itself, and the path represents the steps we are asking people to take in order to make the change. I highly recommend this resource to anyone seeking to facilitate change! The big idea for facilitators is to understand that rational approaches are no match for approaches that engage the emotions and passions of those in the group. Planting new faith communities involves some really big changes for many of the stakeholders. When momentum or commitment seems to have waned, it is time to check on the state of the elephant. Here are some high-level tips from the Heath brothers on how to motivate the elephant (with commentary by me in italics):

1. FIND THE FEELING. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something. It isn't enough to know that unless we plant churches the UMC will die. Or unless this church gets planted the number of people who don't have a relationship with Jesus will continue to grow. The groups that make great progress are comprised of individuals who connect their personal purpose and passions with the feelings associated with the need for change.

2. SHRINK THE CHANGE. Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant. Shrinking the change is really about asking for a simple behavior that, over time, produces tangible results.

3. GROW YOUR PEOPLE. Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset. Our sense of identity is rooted in our personal and collective answers to some simple questions my colleague, Paul Nixon, uses in consultations with teams strategizing about new church starts: Why Jesus? Why the church? Why the UMC? Why now? The growth mindset is about helping people understand and handle the fact that change will be CONSTANT and MESSY.  

So whether the elephant represents a large issue, a collective understanding or our emotional minds, excellent facilitators know all about how to handle and respect the power of the elephant. Without paying attention to these three things, leading groups to collaborate in accomplishing something greater than themselves becomes a cumbersome task.

If you think learning facilitation skills might be important in your context or if you are considering becoming a Path 1 Recommended Coach, join me for the Facilitation Intensive on October 18 and discover strategies you can use to guide stakeholder expectations and decisions everywhere you go.

This blog references the The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe on the Constitution Society website.