Facilitation Skills for Delivering Workshops and Leading Events

Within your role on campus, you might choose to facilitate workshops or events. Facilitation is a skill that you will build and develop with time and practice. If you are just starting out, be patient with yourself, and try to arrange to co-facilitate with someone who has experience. Learn from them.

Facilitate means to make (an action or a process) easier.

Facilitating is different from teaching. A teacher is meant to be a subject matter expert; we expect our teachers to know what they are talking about! However, the role of a facilitator is a different role than that of a teacher. As a facilitator you don’t have to be an expert. You don’t need to know everything; you are there to facilitate and support the group process. Depending on what you are facilitating, you are there to support the group members to tap into their own self-determination.

Exploring Your WHY as a Facilitator

If you have chosen to be a facilitator, this section is an opportunity for you to explore your reasons for facilitating and getting clear on your WHY as you do this work.

Understanding why we do something – including facilitation – is so important. As we’ve talked about already in this module, we are more motivated and effective when we are clear on our WHY or our purpose. Also, participants will be more engaged in your workshop if you are excited about the work.

Grab a notebook, sit in a quiet place, and dig into the following questions and prompts. It may take a bit of time to go through them. The main point is to reflect on them and consider what they bring up for you; don’t feel that you have to answer everything. Refer back to this throughout your time facilitating and notice changes in your answers and perspective.

  1. This is the vision I have for the participants of the training (collectively and individually):
  2. I will commit to develop my leadership and facilitation skills by:
  3. The following are some of my unique strengths and abilities:
  4. Starting something new can be uncomfortable. I commit to taking care of myself, while leaning into the discomfort. This is how I will take care of myself while I am facilitating:
  5. I always want to improve. No one is perfect, and I let go of any expectations of perfection. I will not allow my inner critic to boss me around. With great self-kindness, I choose to see the following as opportunities for growth in my journey as a facilitator:
  6. We each have our own facilitation style. I want to develop my own style. If I co-facilitate, I will be open with them about me–including my strengths and struggles. This is how I see myself as a facilitator:
  7. I am committed to creating a safe learning environment. These are some ways I will create a culture of safety (we will address this in the next section)

Creating a Safe Learning Environment

Any learning environment needs to be trauma-informed. Many people have had difficult and even traumatic experiences within formal education, because trauma-informed practices weren’t followed in classroom settings. As a review, please re-read the trauma-informed care module, this time through the lens of facilitation.

As facilitators it’s our job to create a safe container/space where participants can feel free to be themselves and sit with the discomfort that comes with stretching and learning.

The differences between an emotionally safe and unsafe learning environment can sometimes be subtle. Other times the differences can be substantial and noticeable. When we feel safe in a group environment, the experience is always profound.

Here’s a list of some actions facilitators can take to support a safe learning environment:

  1. Hold yourself to a standard of honouring each participant with unconditional high regard. This is true even – especially! -when you might find someone challenging or irritating to work with. If you find that someone rubs you the wrong way, it is important to reflect on why that is, identify your triggers, and create a plan for how you will support yourself to relax when you get irritated. (This is another reason why it can be helpful to have a co-facilitator.)
  2. Use the Core Values to shape the training. Read the Core Values before each session. Set some actionable intentions for the session based on the Core Values. After the session is over, reflect on how that went, and any opportunities for growth.
  3. Speak in a way that is calming to one’s nervous system. If you speak using words or a tone that is accusing or judgmental, it will cause people to get defensive. When people are defensive it triggers a stress response, and that decreases the possibility of connection and useful, productive dialogue. Shame spirals are so destructive, and they break down the safe learning environment.
  4. Don’t be afraid of conflict or push back. Remember from the Connection and Communication module that conflict doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, if a conflict comes up during a training, and you have worked to create a safe container, it can be a great learning opportunity. Review the section on conflict from the training, and the section on “Debate vs. Dialogue.”
  5. Lead with questions, not answers. Embody the Core Value of curiosity. We want to facilitate a positive group experience; we are not there to be experts and have all the answers. This doesn’t mean that we avoid answering questions people have, presenting the material, or sharing our personal learnings. Just keep in mind that adults learn better when they are self-directed, so leading with questions supports that kind of learning.
  6. Challenge your own assumptions and biases. Reflect on the Categories and Containers module. Remember that you have a worldview. You have biases and judgements, because you are human. When we are aware of them, we can create space to challenge them. You will find yourself needing to challenge yourself often throughout the training.
  7. Let go of the need to be perfect. Model self-compassion. It’s important to have high expectations of ourselves when we are facilitating. We want to strive to honour the Core Values at all times. But we need to temper that with a sense of gentleness and fierce grace for our imperfection. You will mess up at some point. You might say something you regret. You may snap at someone. You may have a day when you feel off. It’s ok. Be gentle. You are learning. If you ruminate on it, you may get dragged into a destructive shame spiral.
    There is a profound freedom that comes with balancing high expectations with self-compassion and accountability. If you mess up, process it, learn from it, commit to applying your learning in the future, and let it go. Don’t allow the shame to stick around. If you need to address the group and apologize for something, please do that. That’s a powerful way to model accountability, and self-compassion. No one can be perfect all that time, and we do ourselves, the participants, and everyone else a disservice when we are unable to offer ourselves kindness for our imperfections.
  8. Normalize emotions. We are safe psychologically when we accept ourselves as we are. This includes accepting our emotions. The society we live in often encourages a detachment from our emotions. Talking about emotions is good and can create a safe container for people to really show up. This doesn’t mean that people need to spill everything. Remember that you are not a therapist, so workshops should not be group therapy. However, during check-ins, you can ask people to share a word that describes how they are feeling that day. Or after a presentation you can ask people how they felt about it. You can share some of your feelings, and even struggles. Your vulnerability will encourage a sense of safety for others in the group. Often when people share that they are nervous before a presentation, the very act of sharing that fact brings a sense of calm!
  9. Work with the group to create a Community Agreement. We will explore that in the next section.
  10. Begin each session with a commitment to supporting yourself. We will also explore that next.

Community Agreements

At the beginning of the first day, take some time to create a Community Agreement (CA). This is basically a set of intentions that the group creates together to ensure a safe learning environment. It’s best to keep this agreement strength-based. It isn’t a set of arbitrary rules, but instead a commitment to intentionally uphold the Core Values.

It might take a ½ hour to an hour to create this agreement.

You will likely need to give examples.

Explain the purpose: that this is to support a safe learning environment.

Explain what strength-based means in this situation. You may have to kindly, and compassionately support someone to shift their language to be more strength-based.

Some examples of common group rules (not strength-based). What we are aiming for in a Community Agreement. (strength-based)
No crosstalk We will choose to give our attention to the person speaking.
No yelling, or conflict. We will support ourselves when we are irritated or activated. If we encounter conflict we will calm down and address it with compassion.
No sharing of personal information outside the training space. We will respect all personal stories that are shared in this space, and we will treat it as sacred.
Don’t be late. I will do my absolute best to be on time. If I am running late, I will let the facilitator know.

Once you have created your Community Agreement, start every session by reading it. Make sure it’s posted where everyone can see it. Always ask if anyone has anything to contribute.

A Commitment to Support Myself Today

The purpose of the Community Agreement (CA) is to create that sense of safety within the group.

In addition to the CA, it is also important to ask the group at the beginning of every session what they will do to support themselves personally during that session. This is a chance for people to make a commitment to their own well-being.

Have easel paper at the front of the room, and scribe people’s commitments. If you are using an online format, you can use the chat, or blackboard feature. You are also a part of the group, so feel free to share as well. In fact, you can start off. Here are some examples of what can show up there, although let the dialogue be natural and come from participants themselves. Only share your own personal commitments.


A Commitment to Support Myself Today:

  • I will make sure I have coffee close by.
  • I will stretch when my body needs it.
  • If I am really distracted, I will take a short break to get some fresh air so that I can re-engage.
  • I will bring snacks, so I don’t get hungry.
  • I will be kind to myself.
  • It’s ok if I cry.
  • I will practice mindfulness.
  • I will keep my phone on vibrate, and only answer it if I need to support my kids.
  • etc…

In Summary

As a facilitator, creating a safe learning environment means safety and connection are always at the forefront of our minds. We must practice all of these things ourselves and make them a priority in each session.

Comfort, Sitting with Discomfort, & Growth

Depending on what you are facilitating, people could feel nervous or uncomfortable. In this section we will explore the ideas of comfort and sitting with discomfort.

Safety and Discomfort are not Mutually Exclusive

When people feel safe, they are more apt to move into discomfort and then growth. Discomfort and safety can co-exist.

Generally, we can say that most people prefer comfort over discomfort. However, comfort keeps us in our status quo. All growth requires some level of discomfort. Think of learning any new skill, whether that’s riding a bike, learning to cook, or learning watercolour painting. We must pass through discomfort to get to growth. There’s sadly no way around it.

As a facilitator it is important to talk about discomfort and normalize it. At the same time, we want to do everything we can to maintain a safe learning environment. It is not our job to take away someone’s discomfort, that would be like stealing away their self-determination, but we can support them to feel as safe as possible in spite of the discomfort.

comfort zones infographic, image description linked to in caption
[Image description]

For optimal learning in trainings, it is important to stay in the yellow and blue zones.

Within your workshops or trainings, there is a time and a place to be in the comfort zone. For example, checking in, ice-breakers, and even tangential chit chat are comfortable and can support a sense of safety. However, staying in the comfort zone suspends learning.

As the infographic above shows, a certain amount of time in the comfort zone is important, but no one can stay there forever and still experience growth. A certain amount of uncertainty is essential for growth.

The unsafe orange zone should always be avoided, though. Remember to always be working to create an ecology that supports safety, transparency, and choice. Set up the space so that people know they can take care of themselves when they feel triggered. Regular check-ins with your group is essential so everyone has a chance to share if anything needs adjustment.

Image Description

Comfort zone 

An infographic that demonstrates safe and unsafe zones using circles.

Safe – connected to the learning community and culture. From the most inner circle:

  • Comfort Zone
    • This is my normal: my status quo
    • I’m in control. I’m not challenging my ideas or learning anything new.
  • Discomfort Zone
    • Moving out of my comfort zone, does not feel good.
    • I have the urge to move back to what’s comfortable for me.
    • I decided to stick with it, even though it’s hard.
  • Learning & Growth Zone
  • I am challenging myself, and wrestling with new ideas.
  • I am learning into uncertainty.
  • I am engaging in wonder.
  • I am creative and innovative.

Unsafe – disconnected

  • This is too far out of my comfort zone.
  • I feel unsafe, I’m checking out.
  • I need to take some time away and rest.
  • My stress response is activated.
  • I need to support myself, and practice self-compassion.

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Media Attribution

  • Comfort zone by Jenn Cusick and Drawing Change is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 licence.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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