The Facilitation Process

Notice how the Core Values show up in the following sections.

Be Prepared and Show up Early

Depending on what kind of group you are facilitating and how well you know the material, plan to spend some time preparing ahead of time. If you are not well-prepared, you could feel like a deer in the headlights if things don’t go as you expected.

You should arrive early to each session. You may have to set up the physical room before people get there and take care of things like making coffee or getting snacks ready. The way the room is set up makes a huge difference in the feeling of connection in the space.

When you are early, you also have time to get comfortable in the space, and relax.

Greet people as they arrive.

Power of Language

Words have power. Be aware of the power they wield and how deeply people can be affected by words. Notice how people are affected by language in the workshop.

As facilitators, we are aware of our language in regard to creating a sense of safety in the group. We want our words to be strength-based and to reflect hope.

We are aware of using people’s preferred pronouns. We remember to have people introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns, and ask people to include them on any name tags or place cards.

We take a decolonization mindset. We always remember to give time at the beginning of each session for a meaningful land acknowledgement. We are aware of how groups choose to identify themselves, and we use those preferred terms: Indigenous people, or First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.

We use inclusive language. Instead of saying something like “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys,” we say “folks.”

We are aware of avoiding stigmatizing language that could be triggering for participants. We choose to be intentional about avoiding words like “crazy,” “insane.”

We avoid words that create a hierarchy in the group.

When we mess up, we apologize, we say we will do better next time, and we move on.

We are also aware that words and language can mean different things to different people. When someone says something that could be open to interpretation (for example the words respect, or self-care) we ask the person to define what that means to them.

It’s Okay Not to Know

You do not need to know everything. It’s impossible to be knowledgeable on every single topic that could come up in a workshop. It’s expected that there will be questions that come up that you won’t have the answers to. Don’t make something up or share something you have a hunch about. It can cause damage to the group if you don’t own the fact that you just don’t know. When something comes up you don’t have the answer to, try the following:

  • Ask the group! Draw on the wisdom in the room
  • Look it up online or ask someone in the group to look it up
  • Tell people you will research it and get back to them

You Don’t Have to be an Expert

Participants are the experts of their own experiences. Always honour that expertise.

Create a space where that wisdom and experience can be shared. There’s always room for different perspectives. If someone states something that is a clear violation to the Core Values, it will be important to have a dialogue about that, as it could be a really valuable learning moment for the group.

Ask for Volunteers, Don’t Call on People

Many people had difficult experiences in school settings growing up. Again, we want to take a trauma-informed approach and create safety, and support choice. One of the ways we ensure safety is that we never call on people directly if they are not volunteering to speak. If you want to ask a question, put the question out to the whole group, not directly to one individual. If you want someone to help with something in the session, ask for volunteers.

Take a “popcorn” approach with everything. That means that people volunteer to speak up when they are ready, rather than going around in a circle. This is the case for check-ins and check-outs as well.

Create a Space Where People Feel Empowered to Take Care of Themselves

As a facilitator it is your role to guide the group process, to present material in a way that meets the groups varying needs, and to create a safe learning environment. It is not your role to take care of everyone’s individual needs. It’s impossible for you to do that. Don’t take it on. Everyone has different needs and wants (even around something like the temperature in the room). As a facilitator, you can model what taking care of yourself looks like, and constantly invite others to take care of themselves.

This is why it is important to open each session up with a dialogue about supporting oneselves.

You will give breaks according to the schedule, but if someone needs to take a break for a phone call, or some fresh air, then create an environment where people feel empowered to do that.

Time Keeping

As a facilitator it is essential that you are always aware of the time. Managing time can actually be one of the most challenging parts of facilitation, especially if you have a keen group of participants.

Here are some things to keep in mind regarding time management

  • Know how much time you have for the topic you are covering.
  • Check the time throughout your session. Time passes quicker than you think!
  • You may have to pivot in the moment if something is taking longer than you thought. Be flexible and willing to cut something shorter. You might have to cut out a whole activity.
  • Have extra activities that you can pull out if you end up having too much time. Simple reflection/dialogue questions are great for this!
  • If you are co-facilitating, make sure your session doesn’t eat into your co-facilitators time! It is so hard for your co-facilitator to have to adapt to less time on the fly
  • If you are short on time and you want to pose a group question, you can say something like, “I’d love to hear from 2 more people.”
  • If the group is on a tangent unrelated to the topic at hand, you will have to redirect them. You can always jot down the tangent topic on an easel paper and when you have extra time, you can address it.
  • Know that group activities always take longer than you think. If people have to physically gather in different rooms, work together, come back to the main training space, and present to the larger group–that will take a good amount of time. Prepare accordingly.
  • Keep your instructions clear.
  • Start on time, and end on time.

Be OK with Silence

It’s very easy to want to fill up all the space with talking. Be ok with silence–even a couple minutes. If you put out a question to the group and no one answers right away, give them time. People need time to think and process. Some people will need more time than others. It may feel awkward for you, but the group will appreciate the time, and your patience.

If people are particularly quiet, you could try an activity, or small group to wake people up.

*Note: If you are doing small groups, always lean towards groups of 3, that way if someone isn’t feeling up to talking that day, they have the option to remain quiet. In a group of 2, they don’t have a choice.

Remember the acronym W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking). If it’s just to fill the space, take a breath and allow the silence.

*Also note that some neuro-atypical learners will not be vocal. It’s important to be accepting of that. We won’t know who is neuro-atypical and who isn’t, so we treat everyone the same.

Be Clear with Instructions

When you are explaining steps for group activities, try to be as clear as possible when you explain the steps. It’s very easy for people to get confused when hearing instructions. Consider having the instructions written on a white board if possible. If not, ask if anyone needs clarification before people leave to move into their small groups. It’s much trickier to sort out instructions when people are already in small groups.

Learn People’s Names and Pronouns

Always have name tents and name tags. Preferably for the whole time, but at least for the first few sessions. It’s important for you to learn people’s names, and it’s important for others to also learn them too. People feel valued and accepted when others know their names.

Have thick, dark markers for the name tents/tags so they are easy to read. Some people like to have stickers and fun things that people can add as well.

You will also want people to include their preferred pronouns right on the name tent/tags.

Avoid Sharing Stories that can be Triggering to Others.

Ensuring that the safe space is respected, we must avoid telling triggering stories that talk about details of traumatic events. This will need to be clearly defined and spoken about in the group. Instead, we can use more general words to describe what happened and talk about how we felt in that season of life, rather than sharing details of situations that could be triggering.

Responding to Questions

When someone asks a question in the group, it’s important to repeat or paraphrase the question back to them. That way you are making sure you got the question right.

Answer the question or use the group to support you to answer it.

Then ask the person if that answered their question.

Be Prepared: Challenges will Come up.

If you and your co-facilitator have done a good job of creating a safe learning environment (community agreement and support document), you have created a safe container to deal with potential challenges.

Remember in the Connection and Communication module, we talked about how conflict doesn’t have to be a big scary thing? This is also the case when challenges come up in a workshop. If you’ve created a safe space, you can feel more equipped to deal with challenges. The most important thing you can do is to calm your own nervous system, so that you can respond to the challenge, instead of reacting to it.

Co-facilitation is preferable because you will be extra equipped to deal with potential challenges. For example, if someone in the group is triggered and needs to talk to someone, one of the facilitators can go support them.

You can also create a supportive community, where participants support each other if they are triggered or upset.

Triggers, Trauma, and Different Perspectives

Remember that pain and trauma live in the body. Not everyone feels that pain in the same way. Always facilitate with a trauma-informed approach and know that other people’s trauma is different from your own. You can’t possibly know everyone’s pain or triggers, but when we take a trauma-informed approach, we are far less likely to unintentionally trigger someone.

Always make compassion and empathy a priority. If you’re having a rough day before the training, consider taking some time to practice self-compassion before you begin. You are an equal part of the group. It’s important that you also take care of yourself when you are feeling triggered or overwhelmed.

You are not the teacher or a trauma therapist. Though you get to support the creation of the container for the safe learning environment, you also can’t control everything. You have limitations. Everyone will have different needs, and even a different idea of what safety means to them. You cannot meet everyone’s needs, and you cannot guarantee that people won’t get triggered in the training. This is why the invitation and expectation of self-care is so important. We can’t take care of everyone, but we can invite people to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.

Practice humility and offer generosity of assumption to others. We get into trouble when we start assuming that people are trying to get under our skin on purpose. What if everyone is just doing the best they can in any given moment? When we assume positive intent, we are generous with others, and it keeps us out of resentment, and more connected to the group.

Remember to create space for differing perspectives. People will feel less triggered if there is room for differences. But what do you do if someone says something that is just plain offensive, and people in the room are triggered? Since we have created a safe container, the group may address this issue in a constructive way. As facilitators we may still need to say something or guide the conversation. It’s important to remember that as humans we need to have a calm nervous system before we can engage in constructive conversations. If our stress hormones are pumping, we will not be able to listen properly. If confronted with an accusatory tone, or judgmental way, a person will get defensive.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t say something, but HOW we say it is very important. When people are defensive, their stress response is engaged, and they are unable to process what we are saying.

What are some ways that you can address an issue in a way that encourages constructive dialogue, and not defensiveness?

Encourage responsible sharing among the participants. Confidentiality is never guaranteed, even if it is talked about in the community agreement.  Because of this, it’s important to encourage participants to be aware of what they share. In essence, people should only share what they are comfortable having other people know about them. If it feels raw, and really uncomfortable to share, then it might be better not to share in the group setting.

Scribing and Easel Paper

Visuals can really support the learning process for people. Some training spaces have large white boards. However, if they don’t, make sure you have some easel paper and a stand with you. If you are online, use the chat and blackboard features. Check with your supervisor about supplies needed. It can be helpful to have a list.

You can use the paper to write down instructions for activities, and to record brainstorm sessions. It’s best to have someone else scribe for you. You lose momentum if you are facilitating and scribing at the same time.

Always record participants’ comments in their own words. If they say something really long, say “how can I capture what you said to record on the easel paper?”

Use multiple colours so the words are easier to read. Ask people if they can see the colours you are using (Sometimes red or orange can be hard to see. Blue, black, brown, and dark purple tend to be the easiest to see).

Don’t write in cursive, as it’s also harder to read. Words should be at least an inch tall, so that people in the back of the room can see (Of course if you’re in a larger room, adjust accordingly).

Spelling doesn’t matter. Just say it right up front! Erase any shame about spelling.

Brainstorming: Know the Difference Between Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is creative and free flowing. When we are brainstorming, for example, we are engaging in divergent thinking. Convergent thinking happens when we refine and work out the nitty gritty details of an idea. Convergent thinking must always come after divergent thinking.

The challenge when facilitating a flow of ideas is that people tend to want to move into convergent thinking too soon. For example, an idea gets shared and someone says, “we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work.” or “That is too expensive. We can’t possibly do that on our budget.” What happens is the flow of ideas stops, and it stops the innovation process.

It’s impossible to be both divergent and convergent at the same time. Therefore be strategic about when you choose to dig into the refining process.

If you are facilitating a brainstorm session, make sure to set it up so that participants stay in a creative flow. This might look like laying out some ground rules for the process that involve setting up two separate and distinct parts to the process – the first being a safe and open “sandbox” for ideas to be shared first without any judgement or evaluation, and then a second being a time of examining and discussing ideas that have been shared.


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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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