Why You Should Be An Empathic Facilitator

This is the first of four-part blog series about Leading In Times of Disruption. Sign-up for our newsletter to get future posts in the series.

 We’re living in a time great disruption and communities everywhere are bracing themselves against the rapidly shifting tides of political and social change. More than ever, the world needs less talking heads and more skilled facilitators capable of creating dynamic spaces for dialogue, connection, mutual understanding, and problem-solving. So how do we resist the urge to claim ownership of “the truth” and instead learn to hold complexity? We need to become Empathic Facilitators.

An Empathic Facilitator possesses three qualities that make them uniquely suited for leadership in a time of disruption.

1.    They listen to understand and be changed. The author and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo says "To listen is to lean, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” So much of what we thought we knew about each other is proving to be incomplete. I’ve spent more than 16 years facilitating groups in a range of settings. Some days it looked like leading writing workshops inside a prison and other days facilitating conversation about the history of racial segregation in the U.S at a community theatre in rural, predominately white, Michigan. What I’ve discovered is every time I set aside my own agenda and listen to the people in the room I am changed. When I’m curious about who they are and what they believe in I can be in the moment and intentionally responsive to the group. When people see this in a facilitator they soften, they open up to dialogue, they are less resistant, worried that you are there to indoctrinate them into your belief system.

2.    Adaptation Reigns Supreme: Which leads me to the second quality of an empathic facilitator. They are adaptive. I love facilitating. I think I love the planning of my curricula for a group session even more. I love to think through how I scaffold an experience step by step until completion. I want to create a process that is transformative and revelatory for the group. Yet, I also know that despite all the planning, when I get into the room I have to hold that agenda ever so lightly and be ready to pivot if that is what the room is calling for. Being an empathic facilitator means being attuned to the room through curiosity and deep listening and then adapting to meet them where they are and sometimes adaption meanings throwing out the agenda you’ve so carefully planned.

3.    Conflict is Generative: The one constant in life and work that we are not trained to deal with is conflict. We avoid it. We snuff it out when it begins to rise up in the room. We pretend to address it by appeasing the parties in conflict and most importantly we are taught that it is a sign of failure. That if we don’t play nice with each other and agree it means the whole experiment that is social interaction has failed. But for an empathic facilitator, and for anyone invested in transformative change, conflict should be regarded as really good news. Because conflict is generative. There is no change without it. The empathic facilitator doesn’t resist the collective contraction of the room when conflict arises -- they breathe into it. They become more porous and accessible, they model for the group the way to lean in, become curious, ask the hard questions, and stay in the process even when it feels most difficult. They read the room to discover where are the points of connection and shared values that can serve as an anchor as we move through this difficult part of the process. Now that doesn’t mean that it gets solved in that moment. It doesn’t mean that people walk away every time feeling a cathartic release because the tensions have relaxed and “whew! We got through it”. But maybe that’s not the goal. Maybe what this collective moment is calling for is more people capable of holding without destroying, more than one truth, more than one belief, more than one idea of what the world should be. Wow. How amazing would that be?

Well, my fellow changemakers it's difficult but rewarding work if you're the adventurous type. I hope you are. The world needs you. 

If you want to continue building the skills to lead transformative change than join us in NYC Oct 27-28th for The Empathic Facilitator.