Facilitator as Space-holder Or Conduit for Group Energy?

Simone Torrey

Simone Torrey

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:

  • How to be more attuned to what is happening in the room between people in every moment
  • How to work quickly and responsively with what emerges
  • How to be more easeful around different emotional states and play with them instead of rejecting them
  • To understand levels of development in groups
  • To take and work with different perspectives—and so much more

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.

Simone Poutnik
Facilitator, Consultant

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11 thoughts on “Facilitator as Space-holder Or Conduit for Group Energy?”

  1. Thank you Simone for sharing your learning and for rooting it in such grounded examples from the coalface.

  2. Dear Simone,

    Brilliant! Yes, by naming all the polarities in the group, you are allowing them to be as they are and not have to meld into one blob, which isn’t reality, inside or out. This also reminds me that the whole group is a mirror of who we are. So, when one part is excluded, one part of us is excluded and one part in the group will need to speak up to be heard. That is the “voice” of ourselves and the group. You certainly did give them all voice and liberation. Thank you for this. Really beautiful.

    1. Dear Barbara,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Creating a space where people can find voice and liberation is so important to me so thanks for pointing that out! I love what you’re saying of the group being a mirror of who we are. Today I was facilitating a small group of executives in a very high stakes meeting. We started out with two of them being very frustrated and showing a lot of anger. One participant even said she didn’t want to be here.

      We just finished the last 5 day IF intensive where we had lots of very charged conversations – from racial dynamics in the US to the pain around the German-Jewish history to conversations around burnout, white male privilege and the pain of carrying that. After all that intensity I felt so much space in me to include the anger and tensions these people were experiencing. And although I would not dare to claim I did that, I felt that very quickly the anger and tension resolved simply by letting it be there and not making it wrong. Thanks for your reflection.

  3. Laura J. Nigro, M.S.

    Simone, you just surfaced, affirmed and / or clarified several pointers here that help me relate to my facilitation much better. I paste / re-write them below, and speak them while doing so, to help me imbibe them even better:

    * SPACE is holding itself!

    * 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 [brilliant]

    – they’re “unavoidable, unsolvable, and indestructible” pairs of interdependent qualities
    – we are working within a spectrum here and don’t have to pick sides
    – make the potential points of conflict visible to the group

    * NAMING what emerges can open seismic shifts for participants.

    One more thing: Several years ago I burned out on facilitating interfaith dialogues and embarked on a long hiatus. Soon after breaking, I suddenly realized my burn-out came from holding all that charged space so much, for so many group encounters, without practicing any deliberate psychic self-hygiene afterward. In addition to the benefits (largely for participants) that I summarized above, your post here also gives me fresh, generative options for my own psychic hygiene DURING the facilitation. Thank you for composing all this and sharing it out.

    1. Dear Laura,

      Thanks for reflecting back what landed for you reading my post. I’m sitting here with goose bumps and feeling very touched by you sharing your experience of burnout. I’ve been through that myself and can so relate. That’s why the conduit vs space holder was such a strong learning for me. I’m so glad it’s inspiring you to take practice psychic hygiene. I’d be curious to hear how that’s changing your facilitation experience.

  4. Simone and all,
    This is more good reading for me. I’m a winemaker, not professionally employed in facilitation. But as a company general manager now, I’ve been motivated to understand how my meditation learnings relate interpersonally, and IF has been demonstrating this for me.
    I’m inspired, again, by the evolution in your awareness and skills using your whole body & mind, and by the dependent stories of those (your “very experienced facilitator”) freed up from their unconscious drives to control what facilitators leave unattended. Polarity, opposition, conflict. I see now what Diane Hamilton, and Terry and Jeff did at Integral Boulder was to declare the space shelter/bubble in the beginning for us, but not pretend to hold it. Space was defined by us all and respected like a line in the sand, respected by all of us with our willful energy. They then worked with energy and consciousness development among us. Spacetime continued as it always already does.
    As a beginner learning how to facilite consciously, I appreciate your stories here. Space holding itself, naming indestructible polarities, emotional self awareness, grounding energies rather than holding them. So much to be inspired by.

    Thank you for this vision into the world of greater capacities.
    Caleb Foster

    1. Dear Caleb,

      I LOVE wine 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m touched by the depth of your insight, your noticing of your own will, how space was holding itself and working you while being supported by such masters like Diane, Terry and Jeff. And I’m so happy that you found inspiration in my post! May your company and all the people you work with flourish!

  5. Dear Simone,
    I got the link to your article from a online forum I am part of, exploring Circles of Trust. What you wrote was something we needed right now. To be aware of the energy. To stay grounded in yourself, yet very aware and open. To allow the differences.
    Thank you for sharing and many blessings.

    1. Dear Malin, Thank you! I’m happy my words reached you at the right time. Timing is something very mysterious and also so simple. In our last IF intensive some of our colleagues led us through a Wendy Palmer inspired exercise where you feel the pulse – literally your own heartbeat, pulse or if you can the pulse of the earth – before making an intervention. I loved it because it’s a very tangible way of quickly getting out of one’s head, being aware of the life energy that pulses through us, which I found very grounding. And it opens up my awareness to be guided by the pulse of life. May it serve you.

  6. Dear Simone,

    What a pleasure to read this post, and learn more about your journey! I remember you well from the first Art of Hosting training that I attended in Germany – now many years ago!

    What perfect timing for me to read these words: I’m beginning to work with First Nation and municipal leaders here in Canada – facilitating meetings between neighbouring communities as they develop (or strengthen) a partnership to collaborate on issues of mutual importance. Often the meat of the goals are around sharing water and sewer infrastructure – but the context is so much bigger than that. We work to support a relationship of mutual respect and trust, and to get there often conflict, intensity and strong emotions surface. It’s a learning curve, and these insights are very timely and helpful. Thank you for sharing your learning!

    big hugs from Ottawa,

  7. The technique of widening my awareness to include physical sensations as well as the energy of the environment interests me. I’m going to have to practice that – seems very useful. Thanks~

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