With over 25 years of experience in the HR, training and facilitation space, Ng Choon Seng needs no introduction. This month, “In the Flow” picks Choon Seng’s brain for his take on what it takes to be a great facilitator and what it takes
to have great dialogue with one another.
Tell me more about your career roadmap as a facilitator?
I’ve been on my own for 10 years now. Previously I was involved in corporate HR, training and in a field called organisation development (OD). It is a deep interest of mine to interact with people to see how to maximize their potential and harnessing the different views that people have on matters.
So after delivering numerous training sessions and implementing various OD interventions, 10 years ago I came out on my own into this area of facilitation. In 2004, I also got my professional qualification as a Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) with the International Association of Facilitators (
). Along the way, I also became a CPF Assessor for IAF in 2006. So for 10 years now, I’ve been helping to assess facilitators all over Asia.
How about your experience in the general HR sector?
I’ve also been involved in various HR roles – for example, compensation and benefits – but most of my time has been in the field of training.
In one of my earlier jobs, there was a fight between two staff members and I was instructed by my boss to terminate them with immediate effect. So as an HR officer, I had to escort the two chaps to their lockers to pack up their stuff and ensure that they didn’t leave with any company assets, escort them to the exit, and tell them to not come back again. That was something I didn’t enjoy as part of my HR responsibilities, which involved firing staff members. Certainly not a career path I wanted to pursue further.
Regarding focusing on training, I had friends who told me that you could progress only up to a certain corporate ceiling – at most you become a director of training, but there is always an HR VP above you. But I still didn’t want that title, so I still went into the training field even though the potential for growth is a bit narrower based on this perspective.
What is it about working with people that interests you?
When I left corporate, I had an internal tagline. Not the company’s tagline, which is “the heart of conversation”. My own internal tagline is “liberating the human spirit”. I realised that in Singapore we do a lot of self-censoring – for example, “this cannot be done, we cannot ask that question…” – so we actually censor ourselves before even asking a question or doing something. So if only we can uncensor ourselves, then we can truly liberate the human spirit within us. So in delivering my training, facilitation, coaching or any other tools, it is about drawing people beyond this mental or emotional barrier that’s limiting their potential and belief in themselves – it’s about “liberating the human spirit”.
How have you evolved as a facilitator?
The journey as a facilitator is quite universal for a lot of us. We all start out with tools – we all love tools. A common question amongst facilitators is “what tool did you use?” After a while, I realised that tools are quite meaningless in a sense. On the ground, how you connect with people is more beneficial and enlightening than the tools you use. So I’ve moved from a very tool-centric approach towards a very simple process. I always like to keep my processes simple. My friends tell me that that’s not very impressive, but it gets the job done. It’s moving away from tools to really connecting, creating, opening and maintaining the space for honest, heartfelt conversations. That’s the movement, from the science to the art and being of facilitation. That’s where my comfort zone is right now.
What advice can you offer to facilitators starting out?
One of the questions I always ask myself and other facilitators is how centred are we as facilitators? When you stand up, where is your centre of gravity? We always talk about helping others, but are we in a good place to help ourselves first?
In the plane, the flight attendant always says that in the event of an emergency or pressure loss, put on your oxygen mask first before you help someone else. Some people say it’s selfish, but if I am not centred, I can’t be of help to someone else.
Being centred means how self-aware you are of your mental models, personal biases, insecurities and worldview. It’s not about controlling them – because we can never control them – but rather how aware we are of all these things going on inside our head as we are facilitating. It’s a paradox of how do I listen to you and at the same time tune into what’s going on inside myself, which is hard to manage. Think of a cassette tape with two tracks playing at the same time and you are at peace and remain fully present with the two different tunes.
The challenge in group facilitation where there could be 5 or 8 or 20 people is how does a facilitator avoid being sucked into the energy of others who try to pull you down. For example, who is not being participative, who is being antagonistic and how do you not become personally triggered by all these things. It’s tough.
Have there been times when you had to grapple between delivering the outcomes and holding that space?
Yes, it’s always fighting for airtime, both of these outcomes – the tangible and intangible outcomes. For example, do people feel like they were heard, do they get to share their views. It’s a dilemma that I face: do I listen to you and at the same time how can I stop you and move on to the objectives we have in place? And there are cases where I drop the outcomes because of people’s emotions being articulated – people venting is actually a good outcome in itself. And the objective outcomes can come later.
Back to the magic of when do I make that call – that’s a tough question to answer. It’s courage and a bit of trusting your gut, but also not trusting your gut because sometimes we think that we know, but we actually don’t. How do you read what people really want versus what do you think they want. And how do you differentiate which is which. This can be iffy, but that’s process facilitation.
So what makes a great facilitator?
First, we differentiate between a trainer and a process facilitator: for a process facilitator, it is about neutrality. But we all have an ego to be mindful of. For example, if you call me a master or a guru facilitator, my ego may feel wonderful, but this ego state is not necessarily helpful. It has to be balanced with humility. Not that you can’t be a guru; the question is, can you be a humble guru? The more expert you are, the more humble you need to be, while ensuring it is not forced humility. People can tell if it is forced. They can tell that you know this, but you say, “I don’t know this”, and that looks false. I think it’s back to the same principle that you are the best teacher only when you are the best learner.
It’s not about you giving them or them benefiting from what you know. Instead, it’s about what can I do to let them get what they want from themselves. I once had a question: “Why do I pay you, you didn’t do anything…” That’s exactly when I know that I’ve done my job because they felt like they accomplished something by themselves. They may not understand why I do certain things, but I don’t feel hurt by their comments, I don’t take it personally. And I don’t need to show my clients that the participants did it because of me rather than by themselves. That’s important. The humility here is key.
Another factor is the curiosity mindset. When people say certain things in a facilitation session, do we immediately judge or react to them? Or do we ask ourselves why did he say that, what caused him to say that? When we are able to be very curious about many things about the person or the idea, more good can come out of it. He can be against you and ask something confrontational like “why did you lead us astray?” But instead of defending the approach or myself, I can ask myself what I did to cause him to behave in such a way towards me or feel that way. The curiosity mindset is an important attribute to have.
Of course it all boils down to the art of questioning. Questions can hurt. Questions can hurt yet bring about positive outcomes. It doesn’t mean that facilitators don’t ask direct questions. Facilitators need to at times ask direct and pointed questions. It is not to prove that I am right, but instead to help the person confront him or herself – not with a judgmental mindset, but with curiosity. So I think the curiosity mindset is closely linked to the questions that we ask and allows people to be more receptive to the questions versus a question stemming from a judgmental mindset.
The pace of life in Singapore is fast and it sure feels like a rat race at times. Any thoughts on how we can keep up?
Let me share with you another mindset – slow down to move faster. Here is a simple analogy: I am going out of the house and I can’t find my keys. I start hunting around or turn tables around. All I need to do is sit down, calm myself down and naturally the key will come to me. That’s a perfect answer – an example of slowing down to move faster. I am deeply influenced by Dr. Stephen Covey in his quote that “what gets buried alive comes back to haunt you in uglier forms later”. I think in our pursuit of fast, we tend to bury things alive, hoping that they will get done later, but in doing so they often end up taking a longer time or we face them in an uglier form because we didn’t deal with them when we needed to.
Recognising that the world today is not yet where it could be in terms of slowing down to move faster gives me the energy and passion to do even more about this. There is much more work to be done in this area – to help people believe in what they stand for, remove their limitations and self-censoring, have the courage to slow down against the norm.
I say this with hesitancy because I also have kids. What will happen if one day one of them says that he or she wants to learn art or quit school for three years? I guess I will support them regardless because I know that when I was 16 it was a different era. I believe that this is an important message for people to hear.
Something Obama said when he visited Hiroshima recently really resonated with me. He warned that technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions would doom us. We are in a fast-paced world where we don’t even say hi to people around us anymore. How many of us actually know our neighbours?
Here’s another illustration. In taking the widely known MBTI personality instrument, it is recommended that we complete the instrument at home – in other words, where we are relaxed and not thinking of work. Increasingly, I see people doing it at home, but it’s not accurate because they are just as stressed at home! In the 60s, doing it at home made sense, but now we bring our laptops and work back home and the lines are blurred. We really need to slow down.
At the same time, it is important to have a human anchor – taking a stand with a belief system and values. For example, my Christian faith anchors me. Regarding work, we’ve started this group called PODEX about the abundance mentality. The idea is that we are open to ideas, but at the same time we must be anchored by values as these give us strength to stand fast. That’s important. It’s not about following and chasing everything under the sun.
So in facilitation, it’s not about you not having a view. It’s about recognising that you have a view and not allowing it to cloud or influence the group’s decision. A lot of facilitators beat themselves up saying that they must remain neutral. It’s not just about remaining neutral. Recognising that you are biased is a good start – acknowledging that you are biased against something, that you don’t like this person, etc. The key is then to figure out how do I make sure that in a session I don’t allow this bias to influence my facilitation while recognising that I don’t like this guy. Versus pretending to treat everyone all the same, which is not humanly possible.
Another tip is to find another person to be a mirror. Not everyone can be in that “zen” or reflective state. So find someone to observe you, but this also means that you cannot be fearful of seeking feedback.
Over the years, have you had any champions or mentors who have influenced and shaped your own development?
Sure. There is Douglas O’Loughlin (at Civil Service College), who demonstrates the abundance mentality. Many years ago he created a video and made CDs for everybody. He could have sold it, but he gave it away.
Others whose body of work has left a mark on me include Marilee Adams (from the Inquiry Institute), Thomas Crane (from The Heart of Coaching ) and certainly Michael Marquardt (from the World Institute of Action Learning ).
Before we conclude, any final and parting advice to those in the trenches right now?
Do not underestimate yourself. Back to the self-censoring trap, I hear things like “I am too junior, I am too young”. Such thoughts aren’t helpful to you and you shouldn’t let them define you. Singapore is very small and there are a lot of fellow “sufferers” out there. I believe we have people who believe in giving and sharing. But it requires you to reach out to tell people that you need help, despite this being a difficult and vulnerable thing to do sometimes.
Great insights. For me, a key lesson from what you’ve shared is one of awareness and simply being at peace with not owning the spotlight. But it does come
back to a deeper sensitivity and mastery of how we respond to our own self-talk. We may not be able to control our own self-talk, but we can choose
what self-talk we respond to. Thanks again for celebrating the abundance mentality, Choon Seng.
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