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Facilitating conflict

21 February 2013

A few years ago, when I was working in the Editorial Department at the University of South Africa, the university administration arranged for all the staff in the department to attend a workshop on “facilitating conflict”. The workshop was run by a “task group” whose task was to “facilitate conflict”. They wondered why we kept giggling.

This kind of misuse of “facilitate” came up for discussion in an English usage forum, where someone said.

There’s a notice up in a cafeteria regarding a change in hours, which the management says it’s required to make “to facilitate staff shortages”.

I mentioned this misuse of “facilitate” in an earlier blog post on Zemblanity and education, but it now seems to be spreading. Another poster in the English usage forum said

My eldest son was waffling about ‘conflict facilitation’ once and I asked if that was what a boxing promoter did.

Someone else mentioned that he was in a similar position. His job title was “Disaster Coordinator”, and he wondered if he might be promoted to “Disaster Facilitator”.

Of course it is quite important to coordinate disasters. It is really bad disaster management if you have a tornado, a flood and a fire at the same time. They should be so coordinated that they follow one another at decent intervals.

It got me wondering about the cause of this diseased language, and I suppose the root cause is that very zemblanity in education I wrote about before. Zemblanity is the opposite of serendipity. Serendipity is the faculty of discovering something happy or good or useful when one is not looking for it — by accident, in other words. Zemblanity is therefore the knack of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design, which seems to characterise much formal education nowadays.

How did “facilitate” come to be so misunderstood as to mean its opposite?

To facilitate conflict means to promote conflict. To facilitate staff shortages means to promote staff shortages.

I think what the university really wanted its task group to do was to facilitate reconcilation and conflict resolution, and not to promote conflict, as the title of the task group proclaimed. A boxing promoter is indeed a conflict facilitator.

So where did it all start?

In South Africa I trace it back to the early 1960s, when the Anglican Diocese of Zululand brought in an American priest, Don Griswold, to run courses in “group dynamics”, also called “sensitivity training” or “T-Groups”. In these courses a group of people of different backgrounds got together for a week and interacted with each other and were asked to observe their interactions, to give them some insight into the way groups function, and how human beings established and maintained relationships with each other.

These courses had a profound effect on the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. The groups were composed, as far as possible, of people who did not know each other, or did not know each other well. They came from different parishes, at opposite ends of the diocese. They were black and white, English-speaking and Zulu-speaking, rich and poor, lay and ordained, charismatic and non-charismatic.

And these T-groups indeed facilitated reconciliation between people of different backgrounds. The participants came away with a better insight into what made other people tick. They helped to deepen the Christian fellowship of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. Soon people from other Anglican dioceses began attending, and then people of other denominations. Similar courses began to be held in other places, in some places with a loose organisation to coordinate the training and maintain standards. Such regional groups often went by the acronym CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training).

In the training courses there were small groups of 8-10 people, and each group had a “facilitator” to help the group. The word “facilitator” was chosen carefully, with the meaning of “facilitate” in mind. The facilitator was not a teacher, a trainer, or a leader. A teacher or trainer or leader takes the initiative, sets the agenda, teaches the lesson. The task of the facilitator was to do none of these things, but simply to observe, and if the group really seemed to be getting stuck, bogged down, to help it through the difficult patch, and then withdraw again. The facilitator was to help to make things easier when they got difficult, and that is the essential meaning of “facilitate” — it is to make something easier.

When all this was new and fresh, it worked pretty well. The groups made discoveries about human relationships, often serendipitous ones, and unpredictable ones, because every group was different.

CELT was also careful about other aspects of language they used. They did not speak of “running courses”, but rather of “designing educational events” — in other words, not force-feeding teaching against peoples will, but providing a setting in which people could learn. But ineitably, zemblanity crept in. “Designing educational events” eventually became viturually synonymous with “running a course”, and just became a politically correct way of speaking about the same thing.

It spread beyond the church. Some people who had been facilitators at CELT events set themselves up as consultants to business management, and began to make a good living out of it. The methods and procedures were adapted to the business environment, but some of the terminology stuck, including the word “facilitator”.

But the term “facilitator” got detached from its original meaning, and became a politically-correct term. Just as teachers in schools have latched on to terms like “learners”, and, regarding them as politically correct, use them in circumstances where people are not learning (“Three learners on their way home from school were run over by a speeding car”), so people began to use the term “facilitator” in the same way — a facilitator was a person who runs courses, and if the course is on conflict, then the person must be a “conflict facilitator”, and their task must be to “facilitate conflict”.

That is my theory of how the term got distorted into meaning something like its opposite.

But those who invent or propagate such terms should try to think about what nonsense they are speaking.

There is a difference between a promoter and a facilitator.

The difference is that that a promoter is more proactive than a facilitator.

A conflict promoter incites conflict, and tries to start conflicts where there are none.

A conflict facilitator merely makes it easier for existing conflicts to grow, and tries to exacerbate them.

So a term like “facilitate conflict” demonstrates two kinds of ignorance:

  1. Ignorance of the English language, and the meaning of the word “facilitate”
  2. Ignorance of the educational principles that led to the introduction of the term “facilitator”

A conflict facilitator is a warmonger, that’s all.




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