For the past ten years, my work as a facilitator has primarily focused on diverse groups where multiple stakeholders need to come together around a shared purpose—often large international non-profits or multiple organizations.
A year ago, I had a client situation where two people had an intense conflict during a gathering I was facilitating and I felt terribly unequipped how to deal with the situation. I knew I needed more training in order to fully serve my clients amidst these kinds of intense, unexpected conflict situations.
Now, as I’m about to complete the 9-month Integral Facilitator program, I’m reflecting on how the experience has transformed me as a facilitator—and truly changed my life on so many levels.
Through this program, I’ve learned:
These capacities are all interrelated, but there are two in particular that are making a very big difference in my work today.
From “space holder” to a “conductor of energy.”
Much of my previous training as a facilitator was within a community of practice called the “Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter,” which for me is a lot about facilitators learning to hold space for people to feel safe—space for emergence and transformation, space for chaos and order to coexist so creativity can go to work—etc.
Yet in my first experience with Integral Facilitator, Diane Hamilton said something to the effect of, “In Integral Facilitation we need to give up on the concept of ‘holding space’ and become conductors of energy.” Explaining, “You can’t really hold space. Space is holding itself! And your job as a facilitator is to move energy within the space.”
This really struck a chord in me.
Often, I found myself very tired after working with groups. I would feel depleted of my energy and sometimes literally feel like the group’s energy penetrated my being and got stuck inside.
Through my work in this program, I started observing this phenomenon in myself, and started paying attention to how I was working with energy in groups.
I used to be very proud of being a great space holder. I felt I was able to create a space where people feel safe to express themselves and have deep transformative experiences. Yet with observation, I started realizing that I often prioritized participation and safety over transformation and evolution of culture because I was afraid of creating conflict that I wouldn’t know how to handle.
A whole process of unraveling started. I saw how I was taking things too personally, how part of my identity was wrapped around this idea of my holding space. On the one hand I was feeling too responsible and on the other hand I was shying away from taking the lead when clear direction was needed.
But if I didn’t do that, what would I do? How would I become a conductor of energy?
As I write this the metaphor of the lightning rod comes to mind. Lightning rods need to be at the highest point to attract the energy from the storm, and at the same time they need to be connected to the earth to conduct the energy safely.
To translate the analogy into my experience, I realized there are a few things that I can do as a facilitator to be the highest point that can attract energy.
One is to help the group get very clear about their intention for the meeting. The second is to be very present, to rest in open awareness, without too much attachment to a particular outcome or how the intention will be reached.
At the same time, I work a lot on being really grounded in the physicality of the here and now. This means broadening my awareness from my interior experience—emotional, mental and physical—to observing behaviors, body language, interactions, movements in the room and so forth.
Basically, I take in the whole room with an open awareness. It feels similar to gazing with a soft focus at a landscape vs trying to spot a bird in a tree—and it’s also about moving between the two. What also helps me is to connect to the larger context of whatever the work I do is embedded in, what this work is contributing to in the world, and ultimately to the evolution of consciousness.
Working with Polarities
The second capacity that has made a huge difference especially in dealing with conflict and also in learning how to conduct energy is working with polarities.
Bringing polarities up in a group is as terrifying as it is enlivening as well as liberating.
Within the IF program, we learn that polarities are “unavoidable, unsolvable, and indestructible” pairs of interdependent qualities. And based on my experience of working with groups for over ten years now, it seems to me that between polarities lies the spectrum of what is possible in a group. A group that can embrace diversity and polarities has a bigger capacity to be creative and innovative together than a group that prioritizes sameness.
Since the idea of polarities can be complex, here’s an example of how engaging polarities has made a difference in my work.
Recently I was working at a three day conference on the future of education with a group of about 20 diverse education experts. Stakeholders included those within the conventional education system from primary school to University, teachers, a superintendent, a director of a master’s program, and several education innovators working independently outside the system.
As the group checked in and shared a little about themselves and why they were participating in the conference, I paid attention to some of the polarities and simply named them after everyone had spoken. Some of the polarities that showed up were: inclusion & exclusion, speed of change & depth, challenge & support, advocacy & embodiment. I also mentioned that we are working within a spectrum here and that we do not have to pick sides.
As our group work went on there were several moments when I named polarities and the effect was the same each time: relief, more energy in the room and more creative conversations.
I observed that the group seemed to have a tendency to collapse into sameness. Yet by naming these polarities and showing the importance of including both sides, the group felt more liberated.
At the end of the conference one participant, who is himself a very experienced facilitator, came up to congratulate me on my facilitation and said that he found himself behaving very differently in this group. He explained that he found himself much less confrontational and that he thought it was because of how I facilitated that he did not feel the need to always bring in the opposite perspective. He also said that he was very impressed with the result of our work. So by making the potential points of conflict visible to the group, we had created a greater harmony and more space for creativity.
I am so grateful to the Integral Facilitation team for this powerful transformative learning space they created and can say sincerely that this is the most impactful training I have ever taken.