Facilitator’s Dilemma: Owning our mistakes

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca is a leadership innovator, a thought leader in facilitative leadership and one of the world’s top two experts in Integral Facilitation. For the last decade, she’s been bringing her vision to life as the developer of the world’s premiere Integral facilitative leadership training, Integral Facilitator® and Next Stage Facilitation, with graduates in 5 continents.

Today, I’d like to share some feedback on an interesting dilemma that’s come across my desk.  

As you read this, see if you can find in your own experience a moment when this might have been true for you. You might also engage in thinking about your immediate response and whether you’re “listening to fix it”, or to perhaps solve it for the dilemma holder and tell them what to do. Just notice that tendency, and that’s fine.  You might also relax and listen in for a deeper way of relating to the situation, having empathy and gaining some perspectives. 

So here it is:  

This facilitative leader says:  “During a meeting I unwittingly committed what was seen as an equity-related micro aggression. I felt both accountable to the group’s intentions for the meeting, and to restoring the trust and rapport between us so that we could fully participate. But I wasn’t able to do this fully and I focused instead on keeping the meeting on track. And I felt the tension right to the very end. So my question is, how can I repair with someone I’ve offended while also being responsive to the group process I’m facilitating and not get derailed by taking care of only one of those needs?”

Thanks for sharing this dilemma so that we can all learn from it.  To start, I want to be clear that I am not a specialist working in diversity, equity and inclusion spaces.  I’m sharing this in the spirit of humility and an awareness of my own ongoing learning about becoming a better ally.  Saying all that, I appreciate how the need for repair bumps up against the practical intentions for the group’s process, and I can speak to some ways that we can navigate that tension.  


One theme I’m hearing in this question is, how can we prepare for situations where we’re pulled in more than one direction and feel that there’s some kind of trade-off?  

And in this case, what if I am the one that is creating a diversion from the plan? And what if the diversion is the feeling that I might have harmed someone? 


(In this case, we don’t know for sure whether others were offended, or whether people got stirred up by the equity-related micro aggression, but I’m assuming there might have been some signs of that.) 

This dilemma gets to the heart of the matter – what kind of culture do you want for your group conversations

Do you want a culture that gives more weight to maintaining momentum along the pre-planned process? Or one that acknowledges how people might be feeling over our missteps and picks up on opportunities to unlearn old habits?

Let’s be clear that we all have to do this work together, and we have to do it from a place of oneness and not separation. There is no ‘othering’ needed here – there’s only compassion for humans, and then our own individual responsibility and care and accountability to learning  growing and doing better. 

At its best – a group process includes being inclusive of the people in the room, and being inclusive of our mistakes and of our breakthroughs, our joys and our troubles, and all the ways we drive each other crazy and light each other up. All those things have a place. But when we are including so much, it can be hard to identify the most important thing to focus on.

The universal questions for the facilitative leader are: 

  • What is the primary process here? In other words, what is our shared intention for coming together? That can help establish where we focus our attention. 
  • Given the primary process, how can we deal with any surprise bumps in the path to ensure that we are productively fulfilling our intention consistent with our values? 

Let’s imagine going back to that moment in question – facilitating a group process, with specific goals in mind.  And I just realized, inadvertently, I said something that would be considered a micro-aggression: in other words, a subtle, indirect or unintentional behavior which may have excluded those in the room whose identity is already marginalized.  I realize that’s not what I wanted to do. It’s not what I want anyone to do. And then I’m in my dilemma.  

The first thing I would suggest is to 

1) Start inside:


  • Find your own way of owning the behavior.
  • Instead of reaching out, to take care of people or inquire or think about the group, come into your own place of owning and feeling that embodied sense of what just happened.
  • Acknowledge in yourself any discomfort, or sensations and emotions arising such as  genuine regret, dissatisfaction or disappointment in yourself
  • Know that you are not the emotion, or the sensation. You have them but are not limited by them. Allow them to be there.

2) Then, include the outside – the relational space:


From the group’s perspective, you might ask for a pause to check in with them:  “Oh, wow, I am just noticing I am so sorry for what I just said, and that’s not okay,”  without yet attempting to return to the process.

As the facilitative leader in this scenario, I want to actually note and validate in myself my own bias and then correct it, in part, by giving those who were subjected to it an opportunity to share their subjective experience if that is what they’d like to do. 

This is where your leadership comes in

Because your words and actions frame how we want to be

You can demonstrate that this is a trustable group culture. The biggest concern about rapport, belonging, and trust is that we want to include everyone. We don’t want to send any signals that this is a place where we cannot place our trust and be trusted. So this is your opportunity to demonstrate your trustability, and the trustability of the group container, even after a mistake. 

Shifting our cultures requires us to validate the experience of the marginalized, the people who are subjected to bias and to start listening to them and supporting them. 

3) At this point – you have two choices:


  • You can either check in and if needed, repair with the person who you feel was implicated by the microaggression, or:
  • You can commit to circling back with them individually after the session. 

How do you know when one path might be better than the other?

Notice what the response is from the person that you may have impacted, and use their feedback to guide how big a rupture there is. 

Do not do not repeat the microaggression by telling someone that they were offended by it. 

Own your first person experience and let them own theirs. This is where it’s important to take the time and not rush things.

Your first person expression might be:

“I don’t like what I just said. It doesn’t feel okay. It’s not sitting well with me. I know this is my issue to resolve but I just want to express my care for everyone in the room, and in particular the person who might have felt impacted by that directly. If you feel directly impacted by what I said, I want to listen to anything that you want to share or say. And, I respect your preference or choice about this. I feel like I’m right on the edge of experimenting about how to do this with you.”

I’ve also had the experience when the people that we think might have been offended or hurt may not have had a negative experience at all. Or they feel annoyed or disappointed, and they are not interested in or needing to process it – at least not at that moment.

Let them be the decision maker. They’re not debilitated by it and they definitely don’t want you speaking on their behalf and expressing their subjectivity to the group and taking ownership over that. 

4) Shifting back into the primary process:


When it’s time, you can frame the transition back to the core process with something unifying and graceful. Choose words soothe you and the group, reinforce the value of the learning, and create oneness. Perhaps something like “I appreciate the quality of our presence together, the quality of how we have been listening, and our willingness to learn from a shared experience in service of what we’re here to do. Shall we put our attention back on our intention for the day?” 

What does success look like? 
  • People feel heard and respected. 
  • People trust that you’re doing your best to be responsible for your own behavior.  
  • We’re being generous to each other as human beings not making others wrong or bad, but actually, each of us in our own sovereignty, are being accountable, and demonstrating that we’re trustable. 

Engaging vulnerably in the moment and standing in the fire together is an important threshold we can cross that will evolve culture.

It’s a chance for us to consciously lean into the kind of complexity that we know is absolutely essential for humanity to grow – to be capable of including our diversity and including new perspectives and navigating a more related way of being in the world.  

We’re all learning those skills and we’re also righting wrongs. 

We’re also carving new grooves for people to follow that are hopefully more just and more equitable. In these moments, we’re also helping to heal and reconcile historic patterns that still play out today, and helping to shift those power dynamics.

There are a lot of people doing some great work in this domain who can support you with more insights into allyship, equity and constructive ways to create more inclusive cultures. Keep learning 🙂 

Hopefully this has helped you’ll feel a little bit more confident about taking your next step towards repair inside a group session. 

AND we want to know – is this a satisfying response?  What would you add or do differently?  What would you elaborate on?  And what are YOU currently doing that you find useful for yourself and the spaces you work inside of?  Feel free to share with us below!  Or feel free to share a dilemma that you’re currently challenged by, and we may explore it with you in a future email.  

Share your thoughts or challenging dilemma with us here.  

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4 thoughts on “Facilitator’s Dilemma: Owning our mistakes”

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback Kerul, I am glad you liked it! So great to see that you are finding something of value here at Ten Directions.

    1. Hi Joy, thank you. Your appreciation of the post means a lot to me. This is such a difficult area for so many of us, and the ‘feeling of being on eggshells’ is pervasive, I think. Humility is my ultimate home base.

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