Photo by Lukas North

Where I live and work, in almost all of the school districts, city departments, and nonprofits, a commitment to diversity is clear from the minute I walk in the door. Staff members, intentionally representative of the community – reflected in the languages spoken, neighborhoods lived in, and shared personal experiences – are visible at every level. However, as I’ve come to know many of these organizations more deeply, I have noticed that sometimes the commitment is, quite literally, only skin deep. 

While hiring towards creating a diverse and representative staff is a crucial first step, I have found that, all too often, that is where the commitment ends. Not because of any conscious malintent, but simply because it hasn’t occurred to our supervisors and colleagues to be mindful of what is happening once we have that diverse talent in the room, particularly when we are gathered together to learn or meet. 

This is where “Transformational Facilitation” comes in.

At the heart of Transformational Facilitation is the value that not only is diversity and inclusion important when we get together but that it is ​the​ thing that is important.

I now understand that I cannot say I champion equality if I am not actively striving to make everyone in the room equal in the way I facilitate the space everyone is inhabiting, for example, enforcing equal airtime, decision-making power, lauding divergent opinions, etc. To sum it up: ​The WAY we do things is as important as WHAT what we are doing. 

As an example, a number of years ago I took on a project to help coordinate a series of mandatory monthly meetings within a school district. As I observed the first meeting, I began to pick up on the cultural norms of the gatherings. For example, most people came in and sat down at tables with other people they already knew, and many people pulled out their laptops and phones and began doing work tasks, continuing throughout the meeting. From my vantage point, watching the hosts lecture with PowerPoint from the front of the room, the meeting felt like a long update, full of what was critical information, but that was landing on half-listening ears. 

When I met with the hosts after the meeting, they complained about the disengagement they felt from attendees, not only during the session but in using and implementing the information and resources that were shared. In some cases, they even felt the participants were rebellious. 

Over the next year, we began making changes to the meetings. We surveyed people to ask what topics they felt were most pressing and included time for elective coaching sessions so that people could address those issues within a small community of peers. We integrated hands-on activities to help deliver critical information so that it was engaging, interactive and leading towards actionable ways to implement. We shifted the direction of communication so that the people at the front of the room talked less, and the people in the participant seats talked more. 

The most important thing I’ve learned while exploring Transformational Facilitation is that being “a teacher” doesn’t mean being at the head of a classroom, or being “a leader” doesn’t mean making all of the decisions, and being “an expert,” does not mean knowing everything. 

What makes a great teacher, leader, or expert is their ability to transform the people sitting with them in the room into teachers, leaders, and experts. 

Take a minute to think about when and where you might want to make a change: with colleagues in a department meeting, during professional learning events, at parent/caregiver meetings, etc.. The tips below can be modified to work with any age group, or at any type of gathering. 

Here are the five areas I encourage you to think about, along with examples of how each one might play out in an engagement:
Transformational Facilitators can sometimes almost seem invisible during a meeting, class, or workshop. However, they still always run the space because they have spent the hours before the engagement constructing it. 

  • Create crystal clear goals and objectives for your agendas. Be specific about what you want participants to walk away with. Set no more than 3-5 objectives; trying to cover too much can overwhelm people. 
  • When creating handouts, invite participant interaction by including spaces to take notes, areas for writing responses to questions, and room for drawing and doodling. 
  • Create a comfortable and accessible environment: provide healthy snacks and drinks, make sure there is enough and accommodating seating, and put up directional signs so that participants can find you easily — these details matter. 
  • Everything that a Transformational Facilitator does is working towards creating an environment that feels safer, encourages engagement, and brings out openness in participants. In reality, this is not easy to do, and especially since so many of us walk into engagements carrying all of the weight of our past experiences.
  • Establish a welcoming atmosphere. Greet participants with a smile as they walk in. Introduce yourself and find out a little about each person. 
  • Open with an icebreaker that is related to the topic you will be covering as that helps participants get comfortable. Make it fun: keep people moving, talking, and connecting. 
  • Help participants feel comfortable with honest sharing by setting the expectation that there is value in individual perspectives, and by encouraging people to speak from personal experience. Acknowledge privilege and hierarchies, and when tension or a disagreement arises, remind everyone of these values. 
  • As Lao Tzu says: ​When the best leader’s work is done, the people will say, “We did it ourselves.” ​What this means for you, as a Transformational Facilitator, is that you need to believe and trust the participant, student, or employee. A leader, teacher, or facilitator who is transferring power without also transferring ​trust​ is not really transferring power. 
  • Open by asking participants what they hope to learn or get out of the session and write their responses on chart paper. Check-in at the end to see whether you were able to meet their expectations. 
  • Operate on the assumption that the knowledge is already in the room because it usually is. When participants raise a question, invite the group to offer ideas instead of responding to yourself. 
  • Give participants ample opportunities to share what they already know or are doing on the topic. When we talk with and teach others, it reinforces our own learning. 
  • There are lots of ideas online about how to create active learning spaces. Here are a few ideas I like using with adults. 
  • Stimulate discussion by posting quotes around the room that highlight different opinions or views on a topic (e.g., from famous authors, experts, or a student survey). Ask participants to stand by a quote that resonates with them and share why they selected that quote. 
  • Switch up partners and groups often in fun ways. Remind people to introduce themselves each time before they begin their discussion. 
  • Encourage participants to use graphic organizers, sticky notes, big paper, index cards, and other out-of-the-box materials to generate creative brainstorming and idea-sharing. 
  • You likely have had the experience of a colleague, student, or staff member who doesn’t seem motivated to take on leadership, follow through on tasks, or learn new things. You may also have noticed that sometimes participants are super excited and involved with the content ​during​ the event you are leading, but once they leave the room and return to the reality of their day-to-day lives, they do not put what they learned into practice. 
  • Provide participants with an “action plan” template so that they can write down their next steps. What will they bring back or do? How? When? Encourage them to share their plans with a partner or accountability buddy. 
  • Provide time for reflection after each activity or a new idea that is introduced throughout your engagement. This can be done silently in writing, as a partner discussion, or as a small group conversation. 
  • Create an evaluation to gather feedback. Ask participants to rate how well they feel each of the objectives from the agenda. Also ask open-ended questions and use the data to improve your practice. If you meet with the same group again, point out how you are incorporating their feedback into each session. 
  • Of course, this is an ongoing process! Instead of approaching Transformational Facilitation as a curriculum or system, I encourage you to pick one or two ideas that really jump out at you to start with. Once you feel comfortable with those, and can use them automatically, select a few more to try. 

If you decide to take the first steps, I applaud you for embarking on this journey. Becoming a Transformational Facilitator is much more difficult than merely running a meeting, workshop, or class. It requires that you, as the facilitator, become part of the group you are working with – teaching, learning, leading, following, sharing, and listening along with everyone else. It means giving up control and transferring power, things we struggle to do when faced with deadlines, mandates, and lofty goals. It means believing deeply in the imperative of creating the conditions for equity to thrive. It is not easy work, but it is truly transformative.

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