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Everything I know about facilitation I could have learned from my cat

My wonderful and lovely cat, Gunter, is a terrific teacher, and upon reflection about how she has taught me to be with her, I realized that she knows just about everything. A wise soul, she is an Enneagram 7, a social subtype with a secondary self-preservation instinct. Her breed is main coon, and they are known for being super smart, more dog-like than cat-like, with high sociability. She is all of this and more. And this is what she has taught me about facilitation:

You can never have enough variety
With Gunter, she loves her food (only the best quality), but she also needs variety. Just like a self-preservation subtype 7 (her secondary subtype), she loves to make deals regarding food and greenies; greenies are her special kitty treats. After her monthly groomings, Gunter gets rewarded with her favorite wet food. By scratching on her scratching post and not the furniture, she gets her greenie. Gunter loves the known, but she loves the unknown even more. Offer her a sliver of salmon and she’s in heaven, but only for a moment.

Groups are like this, too. Food really matters; healthy, interesting, and enough variety to break up the days and create a comforting environment for supportive interactions. And never the same food every day, just to keep people surprised and curious. In addition, a variety of activities – not just lecture, not just repeated type group discussions – makes Enneagram programs come alive and keeps participants alert and engaged. The same is true for coaching. Use activities that stimulate the right brain as well as the left brain. Allow time for silent reflection. Use movement and somatics if you can.

Never underestimate your audience
Gunter is extremely clever, able to train us most of the time to get what she wants and needs. If we treat her like a regular cat, she gets offended and, as a result, more demanding of attention. Her mind moves quickly, often quicker than those of us who take care of her, so she keeps us on our toes. Sounds like a classic type 7.

With groups, and this is sometimes hard to gauge in advance, they do not like being taught that which they already know. People find this boring at a minimum, but it can also feel condescending or patronizing. No one likes that. Consequently, it is important for trainers and coaches to know in advance, if possible, what clients already know and then what you provide using that information as the starting place. And if you don’t know in advance, pay attention as you work with your clients and be able to adjust up as needed.

Be clever when needed
Some things are hard for Gunter, and these things can often take us by surprise. And we can’t really know this in advance. While she is very agile, she does not, in any way, like being told what to do, even if implicitly. Like the good 7 that she is, she is very quick and clever, but some things are harder for her and she gets resistant when she feels forced in any way to do something. For example, we bought her a beautiful ceramic water dish that spills out continuous filtered water. Gunter loves to drink from the regular faucet, so we knew she would love this new addition. However, we had also learned from experience that if she knew we expected her to love it and use it, she would not do so. As a result, we set it up in the kitchen and then totally ignored her new gift; not watching her, no comments about her, nothing. The result: Gunther used her new water dish after five minutes and now adores it.

I have learned with groups to understate the impact of activities. I do not say to them, for example, “This is a wonderful activity that goes very deep,” or “I think you will really enjoy this activity.” Participants have shared that when I say what they will experience, they silently resent me telling them what they will enjoy, find exciting, etc. They say that when I state that I expect something as an outcome, they are skeptical of this and often resist the experience, at least to some degree. Participants want to have their own experience! So when I understate an outcome of an activity or state an outcome in neutral terms, the participant enthusiasm accelerates and is greeted with far more openness.

Allow maximum freedom but set and maintain limits
Gunter likes her freedom, as in “no one has the right to limit me!” even if she has done something before – for example, getting supervised “outside” time with her best friend, Ella, a dog. Gunter would love to do this as often as possible and wants to do everything Ella does. But cats are not dogs (much to Gunter’s surprise and dismay), and Gunter, unsupervised is adorable but mischievous and would scamper quickly up a tree if she could. We give her 3 times for “rule violations,” and then she must come inside. She doesn’t like this but does accept that it is for her own safety. And she gets over it quickly, distracting herself with something interesting, as the 7 that she is.

Groups also like a sense of freedom and don’t like being highly supervised or being told what to do. It is so important to let participants talk longer than I might have planned if the topic is important to them. Similarly, participants might extend a 15-minute break to 20-minutes, but usually these informal conversations and interactions contribute to their learning. Sometimes, groups like to feel they have some degree of control over what they are doing and for how long. This is freedom.

But the description above does not mean participants have unilateral freedom at all moments or that they can do whatever they want whenever they want. In fact, participants appreciate boundaries and limits set by the coach or trainer. For example, if a 9 coaching client continuously talks around his or her core issues, a coach needs to be clear that getting to the point matters for the client’s own growth. Or if a 7 client is late for coaching sessions multiple times, they do need to have this called to their attention. In a training program, if the majority or participants are head center types (5, 6 and 7) and balk at discussing feelings for very long, the trainer needs to make the case and hold firm on the importance of emotional access if participants are to increase their emotional intelligence.

Think about what your animals might have taught you!

Ginger Lapid-Bogda PhD, the author of six best-selling Enneagram-business books, is a speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach. She provides certification programs for professionals around the world who want to bring the Enneagram into organizations with high-impact business applications, and is past-president of the International Enneagram Association. Visit her website: TheEnneagramInBusiness.com. ginger@theenneagraminbusiness.com

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