A Facilitator’s Perspective, One Mindset for How We Structure Space
My first job in DC was as a Program Manager. Every week I was responsible for designing and facilitating programming on writing and reading skills to eighth and eleventh grade students. In conjunction, I had a caseload of 25 students who I supported as an Academic Advisor. My job required me to be involved with whole families, and to create rapport with rightfully skeptical and reserved young people.
In the course of my time there, I was told that I had developed an unprecedented rapport with students, so much so that it was insinuated that I must be crossing boundaries. To manage this dynamic, my supervisor announced that the following year I’d have to work with a whole new group of students; the response of my rising seniors was to threaten not to return to the program.
I share this as a segue because my experiences and instructions as a facilitator have often been at odds with my instincts, and this led me to articulate and understand elements of how I approach facilitation defensively. I’d add creatively, but I want to acknowledge that some of my thinking resulted reactively, as well as melded diverse experiences and fields I’d been influenced by academically and personally.
When I transitioned from working within the lens of education reform, to being trauma informed, it became apparent to me that there was a lot of crossover to be experimented with.
Most significantly, an attitude towards the use of and development of community norms.
I use the phrase community norms as a distinction from group expectations or ground rules, because I see them as being different colloquially. Community norms answer one question: how have we agreed to engage while we’re here. They refer to behaviors, routines, and underlying priorities that drive group dynamics and choices of response and intervention. But they hold no water without facilitation commitments; the term I use to reference a complimentary set of intentions that I commit to modeling in my facilitation. Said another way, the way I facilitate that provides predictability, transparency and consistency. There’s an acknowledgement that community norms and facilitator commitments are in part aspirational, but they are articulated in order to define what accountability means here.
There’s a wisdom that supports allowing groups to construct their own norms, and I understand and support that on many levels. And yet what I also believe is that power imbalances create accountability imbalances, putting the onus on the person(s) with more control to introduce and maintain an accountability structure. The facilitator(s), as the person with the most information and the most decision-making power within a facilitated setting is the one who first normalizes the subsequent culture. They inform how participants show up, react to one another, and respond to risk and harm.
For me that means that there has to be a way that validating and noting harm is explicitly introduced as a norm, and participants and facilitators alike commit to being held accountable in specifically defined ways. Ways that are visible, referenced frequently, and not differently maintained or defined in the moment or unilaterally.
Safety is called out as a layered and not guaranteed characteristic of this space, and in so doing safety is on the table as a concept we are striving to create for one another and with one another, and individuals’ get to have that information before they consent to entering, and if and as they remain in any and every subsequent situation and interaction.
What links education reform and trauma informed principles together is the assumption that multiple things are relevant to define in the context of our unshared starting points. Community norms are the only introduced common ground that can be assumed as known and stated to all present.
If I were meeting a group for the first time as a facilitator, I would offer this as an introduction:
You don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me.
I won’t tell you that this is a safe space, because I don’t know what safety means or requires for you.
But what I can tell you is that this is a space that is seeking to be explicitly consensual, and our starting point is informed consent.
I would then share this list of developed community norms and facilitator commitments that are by starting point, offered with the knowledge that to engage in a learning experience is inherently risky, and to do so at varying rates and references in a public forum raises the visibility and stakes of our impact and potential to cause harm and be harmed. Much of this will feel overblown or abstract until or if it becomes relevant. And yet, the most effective facilitation happens before and after any group work as the preparation and reflection on use of self; the total range of tools, abilities, experiences and responsiveness needed to hold the room and the people in it, the medium of facilitation. How well did I read the room and integrate what I was reading? How prepared was I for my own triggers and other people’s triggers? Could I and did I translate relevant group dynamics? Could I and did I respond to harm that occurred? Could I and was I respectful at both initiating and yielding to boundaries set with me? Could I and did I remain present, regulated and communicative, regardless of my stress level? Could I prioritize culture over content?
Regrettably, the culture at my first job in DC drove me to leave after a year, and I didn’t get to maintain all of the relationships I opened. But the jagged nature of how my time their ended prompted me to put into language the foundation of how I still facilitate now, and how I’ve internalized a framework for practicing accountability and trauma sensitivity proactively in trainings and meetings.
I’m sharing below the community norms and facilitator commitments that drive that, and I hope they spur affirmation and areas of exploration in your own skillset and examination of needs as a participant or facilitator. What will become clear as you read is that they boil down to an understanding that this is personal, we get it wrong and getting it wrong has consequences, and what we really want to know is if any of this is for real. Can I consent to invest in my learning process, will I, and will I be supported?
· Challenge by Choice
Participants are given space to opt in to every opportunity and decision; we aim to stretch, invite, provoke, introduce and redirect without causing panic or using shame.
· It is safe to not know and ask questions; Take accountability for impact
Participants are encouraged to question, instigate, day dream, wrestle, experiment with framing, and engage one another. That is balanced by an inflexible commitment to not doing harm to each other. We respond to someone’s experience regardless of what we meant or didn’t mean.
· Question assumptions
· Accept non-closure
· Emotions have a place
· Set intentions
· Name your resistance
· Take breaks
· Name my point of view/lens
· Facilitate experience
· Offer breaks
· Allow for consent
· Offer information in multiple forms
· Accept multiple truths, experiment with multiple frames
The most succinct characteristic I’ve learned about facilitation is that it is more than aptitude, and it’s not a subject matter; facilitation is the barometer of how fully we succeeded at holding the space and the people in it. We are accountable each time as if it was the first time, and it is disciplined work. May we not take for granted how much the trust involved is downplayed, and may we get more comfortable with wanting to be more effective. Effective listeners, effective rebounders, and not super heroes or one person shows. Just the thing that sets a culture in motion, and aims for that to be positive and collaborative. Not just while it’s happening, but as we leave from here and return to keep reflecting.