Heron’s modes and dimensions

John Heron used to work at the University of Surrey, where he set up the Human Potential Resources Group. He was one of the first people to identify the skills that are appropriate for group facilitation, and ran courses in facilitation and counselling skills. Over the 25 years of his working and writing life he developed and modified the original framework that he used, and the compilation of a lifetime’s activity in this field is published as:-

The Complete Facilitators Handbook, by John Heron

He was originally concerned with one-to-one interactions and then towards the end of his working life concentrated more on group interactions. He was interested in two main facets of the facilitator’s role.

The first facet is the intervention that the facilitator makes to enhance group process and learning. Originally, he thought of these as bi-polar – on the one hand the interventions that are essentially receptive and accepting and on the other those interventions that are more active and assertive. He called these two groups facilitative (receptive, female, ying) and authoritative (active/assertive, male, yang). As his thinking developed he broadened these categories and applied them to the facilitation of groups. He ended with six dimensions of facilitation. These are:-

  1. The Planning Dimension. This is the goal-orientated, end-and-means, aspect of facilitation. That is, it is to do with the aims of the group, and what programme it should undertake to fulfil them. The facilitative question here is: how shall the group acquire its objectives and its programme?
  2. The Meaning Dimension. This is the cognitive aspect of facilitation. It is to do with participants’ understanding of what is going on, with their making sense of experience, and with their knowing how to do things and to react to things. The facilitative question is: how shall meaning be given to and found in the experiences and actions of group members?
  3. The Confronting Dimension. This is the challenge aspect of facilitation. It is to do with raising consciousness about the group’s resistances to and avoidance’s of things it needs to face and deal with. The facilitative question is: how shall the group’s consciousness be raised about these matters?
  4. The Feeling Dimension. This is the affective aspect of facilitation. It is to do with the management of feeling within the group. The facilitative question is: how shall the life of felling within the group be handled?
  5. The Structuring Dimension. This is the formal aspect of facilitation. It is to do with methods of learning, with what sort of form is given to experiences within the group and with how they are to be structured. The facilitative question is: how can the group’s learning experiences be structured?
  6. The Valuing Dimension. This is the integrity aspect of facilitation. It is to do with creating a supportive climate which honours and celebrates the personhood of group members; a climate in which they can be genuine, disclosing their reality as it is, keeping in touch with their true needs and interests. The facilitative question is: how can such a climate of personal value, integrity and respect be created?

These six dimensions interweave and overlap, being mutually supportive of each other. He holds that each one has in practice an independent identity which will claim the facilitator’s attention. They need to be distinguished from each other in thought and action to achieve effective facilitation. Yet they also need to be interrelated continuously in their application: they are to be distinguished only in order to be woven into an integrated mastery of the learning process. The challenge is to keep an eye on each dimension, and organise them all, over time, into a well-balanced whole.

These six dimensions answer the question of what the facilitator should do. The other main facet of his interest was an attempt to answer the question of how the facilitator will achieve these. What will be the relationship, particularly the relationship of power, between the facilitator and the group. He calls these the three modes of facilitation:-

  1. The Hierarchical Mode. Here you, the facilitator, direct the learning process, exercise your power over it, and do things for the group: you lead the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group. You decide on the objectives and the programme, interpret and give meaning, challenge resistances, manage group feelings, provide structures for learning and succour the claims of authentic behaviour in the group. You take full responsibility, in charge of all major decisions on all dimensions of the learning process.
  2. The Co-operative Mode. Here you share your power over the learning process and manage the different dimensions with the group: you enable and guide the group to become more self-directing in the various forms of learning by conferring with them. You prompt and help group members to decide on the programme, to give meaning to experiences, to do their own confrontation, and so on. In this process, you share your own view which, though influential, is not final but one among many. Outcomes are always negotiated. You collaborate with the members of the group in devising the learning process: your facilitation is co-operative.
  3. The Autonomous Mode. Here you respect the total autonomy of the group: you do not do things for them, or with them, but give them freedom to find their own way, exercising their own judgement without any intervention on your part. Without any reminders, guidance or assistance, they evolve their programme, give meaning to what is going on, find ways of confronting their avoidance’s, and so on. The bedrock of learning is unprompted, self-directed practice, and here you give space for it. This does not mean the abdication of responsibility. It is the subtle art of creating conditions within which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning.

These three modes deal with the politics of learning, with the exercise of power in the management of the different dimensions of experience. They are about who controls and influences such management. Who makes the decisions about what people learn and how they learn it – the facilitator alone, the facilitator and the group members together, or the group members alone? The three modes comprise a higher order and political dimension which runs through all the basic six dimensions.

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