gentle work: facilitation lessons

this past week has been an incredible week of facilitation and learning.

i started the week in petaluma california with a circle of community midwives and reproductive justice workers connecting around the places where their work aligns, overlaps, and could strengthen each other. it was hosted by groundswell, one of the few funders of both of these communities. it’s amazing to see how much nuance there is in and between these groups. doing work that is still largely misunderstood, doing work in isolation, doing work that has deep historical roots, doing work that is under near constant attack – that is the common reality of both midwives and reproductive justice workers. community midwives want to make the wholistic midwifery way of approaching reproductive and family health available to as many people as possible. reproductive justice workers organize to ensure that all people have access to everything they need in order to achieve reproductive and family health, with an emphasis on those with the least access. and yet these two groups are often not able to connect and do that work together. it was beautiful to watch the opening up, the reaching out, and the questions people were able to ask once they were talking.

the circle came up with a lot of ideas for how to deepen understanding of each other’s work. my favorite was the idea of an internship exchange, where folks would spend weeks immersed in each other’s work to learn what kind of issues, challenges and solutions are growing.

i then crossed the country to nyc to facilitate the board of the correctional association, an organization which has been entering prisons, monitoring conditions and advocating for incarcerated people’s rights for 170 years. the room was full of incredible stories of what motivates people to engage in the work, including people who had been part of the prison industrial complex as lawyers and judges at some point in their career, people who were formerly incarcerated, people working on specific issues of justice for women, youth, the elderly, etc.

weeks like this i feel deeply inspired by the groups i get to work with. and i just keep learning.

i feel more and more in love with the art of facilitation…and i’m already an evangelist so it’s getting to be a lot of love. i wonder who is facilitating through the government shutdown right now. i imagine teams of skilled facilitators sitting down with congress and moving people out of their boxes and through their hearts.

my style of facilitation has changed a lot over the years, as wisdom keeps coming from participants, co-facilitators, my doula work and my own spiritual growth. some of the changes i am noticing:

– i used to have a tight virgo hold on time and content, but i kept experiencing a sense of scarcity and dissatisfaction. people would enjoy themselves but not necessarily get to the deepest content. i have grown to trust each group i serve to know what they need to work on together, and use emergent design to let that knowledge come out. i am going to write a longer piece on emergent strategy/design tools i have learned, including the brilliant collective thinking from an amc emergent strategy workshop this summer…anticipate that! but basically i am learning that my work is not to control or guide, it’s simply to hold the space in such a way that the priorities come out organically, and so that as much truth as possible can come into the room. the sooner the truth comes in the room, the more time we have to advance the work and generate solutions and possibilities.

– i am often sitting at the intersection of two truths: people do the best they can in the present moment, and work moves better when the relationships between the people are strong and clear. these truths give a pace to my work. i am learning to assess what is actually possible for a group in the present, not what they once did or could do in the future. and then in the majority of cases, if they articulate that that best needs to be a little better, i create an opportunity to deepen the relationships. the deeper the relationships, the more space and time there is in the room, the less sense of scarcity the group experiences. then each meeting begins to feel like an ongoing conversation, not the last chance to get it right.

– having art supplies on the participants’ tables leads to a room full of creative minds engaging the content while they build play dough pipe cleaner stickered up masterpieces. i am sure there is some science as to why this results in more joy, laughter, playfulness, ease and openness in a group, but i don’t know that science. it just works.

– as i drop more and more into my body through my own Somatics work, i am able to feel the room as a circle of miraculous bodies, and get folks working from their wholeness, not just their minds. as the majority of communication is nonverbal, physical and energetic, it makes a massive difference when people can intentionally communicate with their whole selves.

– i used to basically transcribe each meeting as i facilitated. the result was tons of detailed content that no one ever looked at again. i have shifted my process such that i just grab the decisions, commitments and lessons. saves me time and leaves the group with one or two pages of critical notes that are easy to refer to.

the work used to feel almost impossibly invigorating. it would take so much out of me, i would leave a job spent. these adjustments, primarily trusting the group to get where it most needs to in the time we have, has made my work much more gentle. the collaboration with the room leaves a sense of collective satisfaction.

as with any aspect of life, the strength of the connection, the level of truth that becomes possible between the individuals, is what yields the long-term resilience that movements need in order to take on co-creation of a transformed future.

after days of this kind of collective work, i feel more excited about our future as a species. i see how people are working on all the many parts of this complex system, generating possibilities because they are willing to build with each other a next step. and then a next. and so on. there are so many places where that work is necessarily hard. i am grateful that i get to create conditions for the gentle work, the vulnerable work, the places where people can ease into their best selves and feel what it is like to open and simply be received, as is, whole, uncompromised.