My Transformational Journey through Facilitation Finesse

At the first session of the certification program, I was perplexed. “What do you mean, there are downsides to being the organized, goal-oriented member of the team who reliably gets us through the entire agenda on time?”  

This was the first a-ha moment I experienced after embarking upon Voltage Control’s Facilitation Certification program in early 2022. There would be many more throughout that fun and sometimes arduous 4-month journey! 

I was not a facilitation novice. For 20 years, I’d been leading both professional and civic groups. I led women’s empowerment and skills-training workshops, educated community members about family violence, prepared professionals to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and utilized my facilitation skills in anti-racism organizing spaces. I’m one of those people who find it energizing to engage audiences in conversations on difficult topics. How do you support a friend who’s in an abusive relationship? How do you help prevent sexual harassment in your workplace? What are the benefits of organizing in community rather than acting individually? For me, working to create an environment where people feel safe enough to open up and truly listen to one another is tremendously gratifying. Knowing they’re walking away with a stronger understanding of a complex issue and feeling motivated to act for good – priceless.

 I came to the facilitation certification program thanks to a burgeoning partnership between Voltage Control and my then-employer The SAFE Alliance. Tragically, Voltage Control had recently lost a dear coworker to domestic violence and decided to approach us at SAFE for guidance on learning to identify abuse early and help other companies to do the same to foster safer workplaces for everyone.

Learning to be Flexible

So there I was, a seasoned and confident facilitator equipped with strong listening skills, patience, and the ability to engage my audience while also sticking to the agenda and keeping time. (This I wore this as a badge of honor!) Well, it quickly became apparent, thanks to the Facilitation program, that perhaps I had not been driving quite the impact I was intending. It turns out some of my facilitation ‘superpowers’ also had their dark side: for example, strict adherence to time and ensuring the narrow goals of the session were met also meant that I struggled to be flexible enough to embrace what was emerging from the group in the room. Rich, thoughtful discussions were sometimes cut short, where allowing them time to blossom would have better served the needs of the people in that room that day. I was also operating with a fairly limited set of facilitation tools. I was not yet equipped with those that would have helped me address the messiness that inevitably arises out of groups feeling safe enough to have complex conversations about difficult topics.

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Discovering New Facilitation Tools

I welcomed the opportunity to further hone my facilitation skills and meet other folks in the field, but in all honesty, I didn’t expect the experience to be the game-changer it was. It opened up a whole new world of applications for ‘facilitation’ that I had not considered, as well as a panoply of new tools and approaches. Our cohort was a diverse group of professionals from various industries and roles, both novices and experienced facilitators. In addition to receiving instruction from a highly qualified and personable team, I appreciated that we were given the opportunity to give and receive peer feedback, get paired up with different cohort members throughout the program, and supplement our learning through excellent asynchronous elective courses. My highlights included discovering the Liberating Structures framework, dipping my toe into process (vs. training) facilitation, and being exposed to new ways of thinking about gatherings: for instance, creating temporary alternate worlds with generous rules and having a laser focus on purpose. Thank you, Priya Parker, for this gem:  

“Purpose is your bouncer.”

I began applying my newfound facilitation approaches and skills immediately, learning from trial and error which ones were better suited to which contexts. To foster greater participant engagement at our sexual harassment prevention trainings with community businesses, I redesigned sections of the curriculum to allow more space and time for reflections and ideas to emerge as work teams discussed how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in their workplaces. At team meetings, I sought to include everyone in our conversation by trying out new kinds of openers and prompts that were designed to bridge the gap between us in virtual space – no small task considering very real COVID fatigue in early 2022. This was exciting! I was seeing positive outcomes. For instance, I remember how surprised I was to find that learners had better outcomes in some sessions where we had pivoted in the middle of the training to prioritize one agenda item over others, in response to the group’s clear interest and need for further exploration. These “wins” certainly encouraged me to continue experimenting, taking risks and pushing past my feelings of discomfort (detaching from a strict agenda) in the different facilitation environments I was a part of.

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Taking Facilitation to the Corporate World

In the spring of 2022 – as we were approaching the end of our cohort – I made a significant career transition away from non-profit advocacy work and into corporate training in the high-tech sector. Although facilitation is no longer a part of my everyday role, I quickly identified opportunities to apply what I’d learned, starting with offering to support our team’s collaborative strategy-building efforts. Having spent over two decades in the non-profit arena, I was having to learn corporate lingo and adapt to a very different culture, but that je ne sais quoi I was bringing to the table as a trained facilitator -approaching groups with a wholly different mindset (informed by my experience of holding space and prioritizing diversity and inclusion) and equipped with shiny new tools – proved to be an effective and welcome approach in this culture too.

A few months later, I partnered with a coworker to introduce relationship-building exercises to a newly restructured and fully dispersed global team. We sought to shine a light on the elephant-in-the-room awkwardness of the exercise itself: gathering a diverse group of people in the hopes of building a ‘safe space’ for conversations about resilience amidst a generalized sense of doom and gloom permeating the company with layoffs on the horizon. The response was positive overall, and we’re continuing to integrate a variety of activities and exercises wherever possible, to help the team ‘gel’ as we work collaboratively on projects while also navigating very real uncertainty.

If I had to qualify my experience with the Voltage Control facilitation certification program in one word, it would be Gratitude. I am grateful to the Voltage Control faculty and folks in my cohort for sharing their gifts of experience, approaches, tools, guidance, and support. Whatever the future holds, I am more confident in my abilities and able to identify broader applications for my facilitation skill sets. 

To my facilitator siblings out there – whether new to the game or seasoned practitioners – I say get curious and invite opportunities to explore the vast range of applications and tools for your trade. The world of facilitation is a fascinating one where we contribute to driving meaningful connection and collaboration – something we can all agree is much valued and needed in this day and age.