The art of facilitating, by Joy Collins

Like all of us Wellspring bloggers, I have a “day job” – mine being a professional facilitator and trainer in Corporate America. Last week at the end of a leadership series I was teaching, one of the leaders came up and told me a horror story about a previous, botched leadership series she had attended at her company. Apparently the trainer created an exercise where all the leaders shared private, very personal stories from their past.  This trainer then in subsequent sessions continued bringing up this woman’s story, to the point where the leader finally left the class in tears. My client was expressing relief and gratitude that my leadership series was so much more affirming, helpful and targeted.

I can sympathize with this leader, and also have an inkling of what that other trainer was trying (miserably) to accomplish. CONTACT. As the famous mother of the self-esteem movement, Virginia Satir, so eloquently wrote,

I believe
the greatest gift
I can conceive of having
from anyone
to be seen by them,
heard by them,
to be understood
touched by them.

The greatest gift
I can give
to see, hear, understand
and to touch
another person.

When this is done
I feel
contact has been made.

Who wouldn’t want this? How do we create this type of authentic connection in our Wellspring groups, while respecting people’s privacy and right to remain silent? Clearly that original trainer had attempted it in a terrible, nail-on-the-chalkboard way.

In one of our early Wellspring groups I took at risk, and it could have gone either way. I/we were fortunate. At the time, fairly early in the church year, a participant shared a great personal difficulty during the small group check-in. Our Parker Palmer inspired covenant would have suggested I nod in sympathy and move on. But my heart told me to do something different. As a liberal, I don’t usually take advice from my conservative Christian sister, but I could hear her voice in my head. I turned to our Wellspring participant and asked if she would be interested in the rest of us praying for her situation over the next two weeks? Now for my sister, this would have been a no-brainer, but for an intellectual group of Unitarians? I worried I had overstepped my bounds. Were those nails I was hearing on a chalkboard? After a very long moment, the participant said she might like that. And then offered to email us a photograph about her great difficulty. By the time we got around the room to listen to the rest of the check-in’s, two more participants asked for specific ways the group could hold them in their thoughts. It was a turning point for our group, and moved us beyond being primarily a study group – to that place of deep, Satir-like CONTACT. We all felt it.

In the other Wellspring and small church covenant groups I have facilitated, the “contact” came sooner or sometimes later. Contactpic It never comes in quite the same way. Hence the “art” of facilitating. There are tips, but no formulae. If I go too far in pushing, I’d end up with a situation like the leader leaving the room in tears. If I don’t nudge slightly, that opportunity for deep human connecting might not happen, especially in our intellectually laden UU small groups. What has worked for you? When and how was that magic of “contact” created? How much of this can a facilitator influence? What is simply the universe at work?

One Response to “The art of facilitating, by Joy Collins”

  1. Great post and questions, Joy! A few weeks ago my spiritual director asked me how I pray with other UU’s in small group and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond…we’ve laughed, cried, hugged, joked, but…your words about contact though hit a chord with me. I also have felt sometimes, even as a facilitator, that the group works together to create that point of contact. Thanks for this. –terri


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