A conversation with experiential facilitation expert Solomon Masala

Solomon will be speaking at our upcoming event — Control the Room: The 2nd Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on February 6th, learn more and get your tickets here.

Solomon Masala founded the Source Consulting Group to change the conversation around the misunderstood art of “team-building.” With over 25 years of experience in team-building and leadership development in almost every sector, his magnetic and kinesthetic approach encourages active learning.

Beyond his expertise as an interactive, organizational development consultant, he personally energizes through his love of rhythm. He is the first X8 Drums-endorsed rhythm program facilitator, as well as a Meinl Viva Rhythms Facilitator. He’s even produced and directed the Interactive Theatrical Experience: Za Boom Ba. As if that isn’t cool enough, he’s also the published author of two international classic rhythm education books, he has released three albums as a recording artist, and he is the inventor and designer of the world’s only legitimately-collapsible Twister Drum.

Solomon Masala
Solomon Masala

His breadth of experience and diverse background has yielded Solomon an astute understanding of facilitation, which he actively explores in his work. “I support individuals and groups in connecting in coherent ways around tasks, problems, and finding solutions,” Solomon said. “That’s where the initial passion comes from — being able to see human beings rock it together in a way that feels good to everybody.”

Recently, Solomon and I had an intriguing conversation about the art of facilitation, the power of a growth mindset, and the impact that the physical has when incorporated into facilitation. Read on to learn more.

Facilitating versus “Facilitainment”

According to Solomon, there is a distinct difference between facilitation and what he refers to as “facilitainment.” They are often confused and misunderstood. The distinction must be made and exercised to be a genuinely successful facilitator.

Facilitating, he says, is helping a group move through a process while allowing any necessary emotions to arise, but without losing sight of the ultimate goal. This means being prepared to help the group navigate any strong emotions that come up and safely and effectively leading the group back to the conversation.

Solomon at work.
Solomon at work.

The heart of facilitation is to connect people authentically and cultivate understanding and consensus.

Facilitainment, on the other hand, is driven by a surface-level priority of looking good or providing a “fun” experience, while neglecting the impact of the discussion and its effect on the room. This approach misses the heart of facilitation —connecting people authentically and cultivating understanding and consensus.

“If I’m supporting a group through a process, I need to have the capacity to hold what the authentic process needs to look like,” Solomon shared. “In other words, are people going to be challenged? Might there be anger that arises? Will people feel frustrated or discounted? If I’m going to facilitate the process, I need to be comfortable with those emotions and be able to help a group successfully and safely move through those emotions.”

Solomon at work.

The Body & Learning

For a facilitation experience to be experiential means that the team is fully immersed in something that has direct relevance to the skills they want to develop. Solomon says that this is a distinction that many people often confuse. “The facilitator needs to be able to debrief the experience so that the neurological connections between what we did and what I’m learning gets reinforced.”

A key component of experiential learning is somatic: what’s happening in people’s bodies as a result of the experience or their thought process. One’s feeling state has a direct correlation with the state of breathing, which directly impacts the entire nervous system. If individuals do not know how to breathe to relax their nervous systems (regulate), they are unable to engage fully and process an experience, because a core part of their brain is focused on “survival.”

Weaving physical awareness skill development into facilitation can yield more collective understanding and engagement.

Without first understanding how to be aware of one’s body and thoughts, individuals cannot bring their full cooperation to the meeting. Solomon says weaving physical awareness skill development into facilitation can yield more collective understanding and engagement.

Solomon at work.

Team Building, not Team Camaraderie

Both team building and team camaraderie are essential to team success, Solomon says, but they differ from one another. Team camaraderie encourages the construction and strengthening of relationships in a low-risk environment. Think: a team bowling outing or scavenger hunt for the group to get to know each other better and grow comfortable in their professional relationships. Unmistakably, this is a crucial aspect of overall team-building.

In team-building, the facilitator has a finer focus: to identify the specific skills the group needs to develop to progress its work and ensure that all individuals feel respected.

Solomon describes that real team-building should feel like this for the participants: “The communication process is effective and the work gets done in the best way possible. I know I have been successful at helping a team build when they begin to look back at processes and say, ‘Let’s do that again! We were successful in our collaboration and had the skills to break through conflicts or challenges. And, we had a sense of mutual understanding and inclusivity. We also dealt with power imbalances that showed up.’

That is the result real team development produces, much different than camaraderie. In essence, a team rope course (unless utilized by a facilitator as a tool for facilitation) may help the group build a sense of belonging and connection. But, it’s unlikely to support the team in solving problems together like proper team-building.

Soloman uses fun methods
Soloman uses fun methods

Complexity and Discomfort

One crucial aspect that Solomon brings to teams is the concept of complex systems thinking. A group is a complex system where many facets affect one another. Individuals come from different perspectives and backgrounds, which influence their viewpoints and participation in the meeting. Therefore, it’s beneficial to tell the group from the start that there will be areas where individuals feel uncomfortable, and others will feel comfortable, but probably not all at once.

“If we’re prepping the team for a process, we should facilitate to help the team remember: there are going to be elements/moments of the process where everyone will feel discomfort on some level. That’s the nature of a complex system — there are natural co-existing differences and they are not necessarily at odds (though they may seem to be if people are dis-regulated). As a facilitator, I want to help each person recognize the moments they start to feel uncomfortable, and I want to provide real tools for them to ‘regulate.’ When we can create enough safety for the facilitator (and the participants) to be able to acknowledge, and/or name the discomfort, then know that they have tools to support themselves and each other through it, we help teams deal with the complexities inherent in groups of humans working together.”

By acknowledging areas of discomfort as they arrive and naming them, the group can better support and understand one another. The facilitation process is not linear. There are multi-levels and multi-dimensions of conversation and awareness happening at all times. Reminding the group on the ever-present complexity aids in a more productive process.

Kryptonite for facilitators

Solomon’s ultimate facilitator’s weakness? Groups that are unwilling to engage in a growth mindset, he says. But when he approaches such a situation, he uses education to overcome it. At the first sign of a fixed mindset, Solomon enlightens the group about what growth mindset is — liberating, empowering, and motivating versus a weariness to attempt change or growth — and provides an example of it so that they may experience it for themselves.

Dealing with difficult people is likely to happen, especially in a setting of fixed mindsets. Solomon advises to remain focused on the cause, rather than become offended or threatened by the biggest naysayers in the room. The fact is, the meeting is not about the facilitator. It’s about the group and helping them reach their goals in a peaceful and coherent manner.

It can be easy to feel attacked as a facilitator in certain situations. Still, having the ability to slow down — your mind, breath, and nervous system — will allow you to navigate the conversation productively. “Often, when you’re comfortable letting that naysaying voice speak, you create a breakthrough across the whole group. I try to hear, ‘What are they communicating?’, ask them questions, and get curious about their needs.”

The following are a few of Solomon’s strategies for dealing with naysayers at the moment:

  1. Ask yourself, “Why do I do this work, to begin with?” The process of asking yourself this question and arriving at the answer will ground you in the room.
  2. It’s essential to keep your brain in an executive function area while submerged in a challenging situation. “I want my nervous system to be relaxed enough so that my neocortex stays online,” Solomon says.
  3. Don’t separate yourself from the complex system or group before you; you are part of it. Use the practices that work for you to remain open. “That can look like mindfulness or yoga practices. When it’s unpleasant or uncomfortable, breathe and try to find some level of relaxation.”
  4. Identify the challenge and actively work on being comfortable with that, rather than automatically switching to “survival” mode, or being on the defense. Own the room while also holding space for others.

Want to hear more from Solomon? Please join us for the Control the Room 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.