I became interested in facilitation in my early 20s when I was doing my Master’s degree in Education and I developed a thesis on the difference between teaching and facilitating learning. From my own experience as a student and my early professional work in corporate training, I was aware of the difference between “the sage on the stage and the guide on the side” and was clearly attracted by the power of participatory processes to unleash collective wisdom.
In academic and organizational contexts, my work as a facilitator has been to create containers for learning and transformation. This role involves designing a process that elicits collective wisdom by creating the conditions for the group to come together and “holding space” to allow for emergence and to protect the integrity of the intentions beneath the work we came to do. Facilitation is more an art than a science and it demands deep listening and paying attention to what is needed moment by moment. The original design of a process hardly ever gets implemented and executed as originally conceived. Rather, that design becomes a guide which contains the initial ingredients for an unfolding dynamic that will be shaped by the group – by their actions and reactions, their ideas and emotions, their willingness to follow and to lead, their capacity to listen and collaborate, their comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, and their ability to set aside their personal agendas on behalf of a shared purpose. Group process is a complex dynamic, not controllable in technical ways. And when a group process brings forth the best of each individual and generates synergies through creative collaboration, we can experience the “magic” of emergence: the unexpected, surprising, and exhilarating outcome of minds and hearts coming together and creating something that no one alone could have created.
At the individual level, there can be a profound experience of transformative learning: unexpected insights, a shift in perspective, or a deeper reconfiguration of one’s identity that can only happen through meaningful conversation with others. After a powerful group experience, there could be a feeling of “no way back” – a radical and fundamental change that marks a new level of awareness.
There are many approaches, methods and tools that have been created to support transformative group experiences. One of the first ones I got to know and practice was the World Caféconceived as a simple yet powerful way to maximize interactions in a group and facilitate “conversations that matter.” The World Café is one of the methods used by the Art of Hostingcommunity together with appreciative inquiry, the circle way, open space technology and other approaches. The shared intention of all these methods is to enable collaborative leadership through conversations that create trust and authentic relations, facilitate learning, and support the creative exploration of possibilities and actions. This is akin to conversational leadership-- inspired and informed by the poetry and thinking of David Whyte.
In my collaborations with other practitioners I have come to understand that playing the role of the “host” in its purest form is not my strength. That is, I find it difficult to stay completely neutral to the work of the group. Instead, I have found my sweet spot at the intersection of host and guide, blending learning into my facilitation. I do not pretend to have the “right answers” or any answer at all, but I do feel a responsibility to share my views as they have been shaped by my education and experience. Because of my diverse background and expertise in systems thinking, I seek to offer perspectives that bring clarity and new understanding. If I see something that others in the group don’t see, I consider it my duty to bring it up. I am careful about not imposing my view. Following the ethic of social systems design, I seek to design withothers, not forothers, honoring the essence of a participatory process. I offer ideas and suggestions to the group and am always ready to let go of my own perspective to allow the group to decide what makes sense to them.
Sometimes this has been interpreted as if I am a facilitator with an agenda. So I had to examine if that was true. In that exploration, I became clear that, indeed, I have an agenda. That personal agenda is my internal compass that points toward a life-affirming and regenerative direction. At the same time, I am seriously committed to do anything I can to prevent my ego and personal needs or desires to be the ones influencing my interventions. My commitment is twofold: to truth and to the greatest good. Truth is not always comfortable. Truth sometimes comes from including the excluded. Sometimes it involves saying what is known but has not been expressed out loud. Sometimes truth emerges by connecting rationality with emotion or the personal with the collective. Truth disarm us and makes us vulnerable, imperfect, human. I see one of my roles as speaking truth with love. Saying what needs to be said, acknowledging what needs to be acknowledged, without judgement, without ill intent, and with love – as a means for healing and wholeness.
So much of my initial experience as a facilitator came from my studies in systems thinking and design and my ongoing interest in transforming education. Facilitation is about fostering interaction and participation; meaningful conversations for a common purpose; learning, collaboration and coordinated action. Through dialogue, active listening, and a curios orientation, groups could explore topics from multiple perspectives and gain deeper understanding or come into agreement about a decision or path for action. Learning was always a central component of the process: either its principal objective or part of a design process to define a future direction for the group. I would describe the process as primarily intellectual: scholarly, informed, and creative because it connected different ideas and generated new ones. And yet, primarily a cerebral process, fully expressed through language – oral and written communication. Groups would sit for hours, in circle, in small groups, maybe go for a walk or continue their exploration through meals and coffee breaks, but without much attention to other ways of knowing, without much attention to their body, or to the place or setting where their dialogue was occurring – even though in many occasions the location was astonishingly beautiful. The contrast from formal education in which students would sit in a sterile classroom and passively receive instruction or from traditional academic conferences in which the program was a series of keynote speakers and paper presentations in a hotel ballroom was enormous and refreshing. Groups were energized, engaged, and there were profound learning and breakthroughs in people’s thinking. I was indeed facilitating transformative learning experiences.
But there was something missing and I wasn’t aware of it. My first experience of a way of facilitating that went beyond intellectual dialogue was when I was invited to an eventin Wasan Island, Ontario on the topic Creative Place-Making: Recovering the Soul of Place. The questions that guided the very open-ended and self-organized inquiry were connected to the role of place in transformative learning and leadership. The group that came together was delightfully diverse. Educators, researchers, consultants, managers, designers, visual and performing artists, and healers with rich backgrounds and multicultural life experiences. This in itself was new for me. Most of my dialogue experiences, even when international and multicultural, were with groups of researchers and scholars whose mode of inquiry and common language was academic discourse. The contributions of the artists and healers to the experience in Wasan Island allowed us to connect heart-to-heart almost immediately. In this blessed place, only our common humanity was present and our differences were like the colors of the rainbow that came together to create beauty and joy. We learned together through sharing and listening, laughing and crying, walking and meditating, painting and creating, dancing and finding our still points. I believe we took a step beyond transformative learning into the land of healing: a return to wholeness and a re-membering of — belonging again to— the sacredness of place, of community. The flow of activities throughout the days we were together was the result of the stringing of the beads of experiences that each one of us brought to the group. Each participant has a chance to facilitate. Our time together consisted of going around the circle experiencing everyone as a facilitator so that by the end of the week everyone had the opportunity to facilitate 2 hours as a way to share their work and inquiries. When it was my turn to facilitate I used the four directions of the medicine wheel as a framework to invite guidance from the elements and all our relations to inform our dialogue.
Since then, I have reclaimed the fact that I am a spiritual person, and I bring this dimension of my experience to my work rather than keeping it as a personal practice. When I facilitate, I try to listen to an intelligence beyond my own knowledge and understanding. I have come to recognize that much of what I say and do is an expression of a wisdom that comes through me and not from me. Although I grew up Catholic, I have also learned and integrated the teachings from many spiritual and wisdom traditions and I am reconnecting to my indigenous roots. My thinking is very interfaith and I am fascinated by the spiritual implications of the new sciences – such as we live in a conscious, living, interconnected universe. When I facilitate, I pay attention to my intuition and somatic experience as sources of guidance. I pray and meditate before holding space and guiding a group. I ask for support so that I may be of service to what needs to emerge.
When groups are diverse or when there are tensions, competing views or priorities, or big egos, the process may not end in coherence. It is powerful and beautiful when it does, but I have come to recognize that conflict and breakdown are necessary learning experiences before we can come together harmoniously. I have learned to accept and embrace breakdown as an inevitable experience on the path towards breakthrough. In the big picture, every group process is an iteration that brings forth invaluable lessons, even healing, that allow us to go deeper and further in the next attempt.
Facilitating with Spirit is, for me, surrendering to be an instrument of a greater wisdom that can come from a collective consciousness, beyond the intelligence gathered in the room, and to support the unfolding of something that has been part of the great mystery of life and it is ready to come forth through a group. Facilitating with Spirit is not about producing pre-defined outcomes, forcing consensus, or making people happy. To the contrary, it is stepping into ambiguity and feeling all the emotions that come with uncertainty and the unknown. It is inviting our full humanity – our light and shadow – to the process. It is responding to what is present in the hearts and minds of the group and letting go of expectations. It is trusting that we know more than what we know when we are not together. It is being open to emergence.
Facilitating with Spirit requires bringing non-Western perspectives to the work and reintegrate indigenous perspectives. As a Mexican woman , I’m reclaiming the knowledge from my indigenous lineage and blending it with my academic and professional background. As we trace our roots to the beginning of time, we all have the same ancestors, we are one human family. From this perspective, Westerners can also reconnect with rituals and practices that come from traditions that may now feel foreign to the ways we have come to accept as normal. While cultural appropriation is always a risk, if we approach this knowledge with respect and integrate indigenous practices with purity of intention – with a deep desire to serve and participate in the healing caused by our forgetting these ways – then I see amazing potential. For example, there is a difference between participating in a sacred dance from an indigenous group as a fun or entertaining activity vs. seeing it as a way to honor that culture and as a gateway to connect to their wisdom and tradition. I have not been formally initiated in any tradition, and yet, I feel that life itself has been initiating me over and over again. I have participated in ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage from different traditions, and I have facilitated ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage designed from my intuition and guided by my sense of what is needed, possible, and appropriate.
Joseph Campbell articulated the archetype of the hero’s journey… those who have returned from a journey seem to be more akin to facilitate with spirit.
Spirit shows up in my experiences facilitating in multiple ways. Once it was present in the ease and flow that brought a group together to accelerate systemic transformation, at the individual, group, and global levels. We convened changemakers who shared our vision to create a society that nourishes all life and to explore collaborative possibilities to magnify our impact. The funding came together and the first innovation lab was the most beautiful and powerful experience of collaboration I have ever had. The word most frequently used by participants to describe the experience was “magical.” Spirit was present in the humility and open-heartedness of participants and their willingness to bring love to the fore of our work. The success of this first lab propelled us to design a second one, bigger, more ambitious. Spirit was present in the breakdown, in the absolute crushing of our egos that for a moment thought we had it figured out. It was also present in the amazing lessons that came from the conflict among the team of conveners and facilitators,mwhich forced us to take a closer look at our motivations and priorities, and in the radical contrast with the first event. One insight that has stayed with me (and continues to inform my work) was that what was missing in the second event was the “feminine” – in the attempt to attract investors and business leaders, we favored rational and action-oriented activities and we played down or removed elements that were relational, creative, or reflective. In retrospect, the overall experience provided by these two opposing events gifted me with a felt sense of the full spectrum of collaborative work and reminded me that there is no light without shadow, no up without down. While I could have thought of the first event as success and the second one as failure, I came to see them in relation to each other as complete: exactly what I needed to move to my next venture. Welcoming and preparing for this full spectrum is wholeness.
Another Spirit-full experience was when I was the sole facilitator for a gathering of 300 members of an international women organization, coming together from 11 different countries, to discern the future direction of their Institute for the next 7 years. Because this was a religious organization, the integration of spirituality into the planning and facilitation of the event was a given. I facilitated the team that planned the event. For almost 2 years we went through a process that bonded us as “sisters” – we connected our inner worlds with the outer work that we were brought to accomplish, shared from our most vulnerable experiences, cried, laughed, danced, prayed and shared meals together, and we never turned away from conflict, instead, we embraced our differences and worked through them to become stronger and clearer. Our team experience was full of grace, and our work was blessed. The actual event lasted 11 days and the design used ritual to facilitate the transition of the group through different stages. I used Theory U (as developed by Otto Scharmer) as one of the frameworks to guide the process to a deepening stage of presence that would enable the alignment of hearts and minds amidst the multicultural voices and complexity of the different realities and circumstances that affect their choices for the future. The process included prayer, dialogue, silence, creating a collage mandala, and discerning. In contrast with a conference or other learning event, this group came together to set direction for their future. So rather than an open-ended and exploratory process, the design had to converge and lead the group to consensus. During the working days, there were notes and artifacts generated at each table and materials were collected and processed by a team of writers whose task was to synthesize or sense into what was emerging for the whole group. Their syntheses were shared back to the group in multiple iterations of feedback to arrive to a guiding document for the many decisions they would have to make in the following years. Some of the issues were controversial: there were opposite perspectives in the group sometimes influenced by the risks and different realities from women in different countries. Was it possible to come to consensus? The only way forward was to embrace paradox: otherwise the issue would become fragmented. Before going to bed, after a full day of facilitation when one of these hot polarizing topics was present, I prayed for support to find a way through. As I was in silence, a thought came to my mind: I had to share a personal story, an experience from my personal life that could exemplify how, through love, we can hold opposite views and still have a clear ethical position on an issue. People may be at different stages of acceptance or capacity to embrace differences, but from a spiritual perspective, compassion and respect for human dignity can give us the capacity to work with these differences. My personal story was intensely private. I think of myself as an open person, with the ability to share my thoughts and feelings, to be vulnerable, and connect heart-to-heart with others in a relatively easy way. But the thought of sharing this story from the stage in front of 300 women was very intimidating. I knew that in that room there were individuals who wouldn’t understand and would judge me. I also knew that my story would help and encourage others. “Do I really need to share this story?” was the question in my mind – and the answer was a resounding “yes” that brought tears to my eyes: tears of truth; tears of insecurity. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was hoping that something would shift and in the morning I would reconsider and realize how crazy an idea it was. Unfortunately, the feeling that I should do it was still there. So I did. In my opening remarks, as part of the recapitulation of the work we did the day before and before inviting a representative of the writers team to share their synthesis, I shared my story. I could feel the ripples of energy propagating across the ball room of the hotel as the audience received my message. During the break, I had dozens of sisters come to thank me for my courage to share and for validating their views or experiences. I also knew that there were dozens of sisters on the other side of the continuum who didn’t say anything to me but who nonetheless were offended and angry. The fact was that my story was a lived example of one of the difficult issues they had to address and they had to decide on their institutional position. The day before the issue was removed from the working document as they were not ready to make any collective statement. After my story the issue was brought back into the document and stayed as one of their priorities for action. Did I cross the line as a facilitator? Did I impose my personal agenda? Did I influence the group to take action? I had to sit with these questions. The one thing that I knew very clearly in my heart, was that I had no choice and that my sharing came from inner guidance that I couldn’t ignore. It was not easy, it was not comfortable, but I think it was appropriate for what was needed to support the work. And that gives me peace.
Facilitating with Spirit is about service to something larger than myself, and very far away from self-service. It is midwifing possibilities. It is embracing Mystery and saying yes to the wisdom that unfolds and is revealed in the silence between words, in the acknowledging smile from a stranger, in the beauty at the center of the circle, in the unexpected idea resonating throughout the group, in the felt sense of connection and communion.
This is what our ancestors used to do: to come together in council, to make decisions together – not only from their head, but also through their heart, and listening to the spirit guides to help them discern the best action for the health and wellbeing of each individual and their community as a whole. My experiences facilitating sacred spaces for collective wisdom gives me hope. The magic and beauty can feel disorienting at first since it is such a radically different way of operating from the ways of most organizations and institutions. And then, it feels so natural, so right. Maybe we are remembering. Maybe the way forward includes bringing forth the wisdom that we lost from the past. Maybe we had to forget, to get lost, to feel separate and alone, to feel afraid and in despair. Maybe we had to experience heartbreak and have our consciousness cracked open for us to come together as equals, with humility, with curiosity, and wide open to birth new possibilities.