There is No Magic in Being a GREAT Facilitator – Stories to Inspire You


I have been hearing a lot lately about people starting out their own facilitation businesses.  Those of us who have been facilitation business owners for many years know it is a profound journey that really invites you to look deeply into your own life.  It is a privilege to meet and connect with anyone on this journey.  In our blog today, I’ve asked two colleagues to share a little bit of their story through a series of interview questions.  I also answered these questions myself (see Barbara’s story).  We have shared these questions with you in a template at the end of this article to use as a reflection tool for yourself.

After my story, please meet Stephanie González and Shane Sasnow.  I’ve known both Stephanie and Shane for about 5 years and have been one of their facilitation mentors.  Stephanie is of Guatemalan heritage, worked at the University of Oregon as the ASUO Women’s Center Diversity Coordinator while being a student there.  She now works full time with a Portland based cross cultural communication company called Luna Jiménez Seminars.  Shane started his own facilitation company called Forward Motion Consulting and has a specialty in creativity and innovation.  Both Shane and Stephanie have been facilitating between 5-7 years and are also trainers in their fields of expertise.  In my opinion, they are extraordinarily gifted as facilitators and it has been an honor both mentoring and co-facilitating with them.

Barbara’s Story

I am a full time facilitator based in Portland, Oregon and I work with all sectors.  One of my specialties is strategic planning.  The tools I use the most come from the Technology of Participation (ToP®).  I’ve also been heavily influenced by my cross cultural work with Luna Jiménez Seminars and the work of Marshall Rosenberg in Non Violent Communication.  I lean heavily on  neuroscience and interpersonal neuro-biology (IPNB) principles to get the best out of participants

One facilitation event that I will never forget was working with the tribes of the Amazon and some of the largest conservation NPO’s of the world.  Nanci of Luna Jiménez Seminars and I worked for six days together. We used a lot of ToP techniques and Constructivist Listening.  I remember it because it was such an honor to work at this level of global importance and with people who obviously cared deeply for the planet. In this particular event I smile thinking about one of the facilitation workshops we facilitated orally in four languages and in writing in 2 languages.  Towards the end of the six days, several members of the tribes came up to us and asked us to teach them some of these facilitation skills.  What made me cringe about this event and most events is when people resist the collaborative nature of facilitation processes because they feel more comfortable with hierarchical processes, e.g., where one leader speaks and everyone listens.

My Journey

As I look back on my 20 years of facilitation I would say that I am still learning and growing “huge” amounts.  I’m ready to be  close to the end of my journey and thus being careful about the kind of jobs I take  and where I want to make the most impact. I am more passionate about supporting others to be great facilitators now.

I have several turning points in my journey.  One was after the first three years when I realized I was making the financial goal I had set out to make and I could actually make a lot more if I chose to do that.  The second turning point was when I was called to do a very large government – union – industry conference in my home country of Canada.  During this event I realized that I was conscientiously competent facilitating large scale, complex events.  This realization appeared at about  year 7 after putting extensive effort into my facilitation practice.  A third turning point was after moving to the United States in year 8 of my practice and having to start from scratch once again in the height of the worst economic recession. 🙁 It turned out well though 🙂

Facilitation skills have deeply affected my personal life.  I sometimes get teased by my family that I’m facilitating them. My listening skills are much appreciated by my friends and family.  My ability to get to the heart of the matter and step into conflict elegantly has made me often the family mediator.  A breakthrough occurred was when my husband asked to take the ToP Group Facilitation Methods course that I had been teaching for many years.  We now have even more amazing conversations.

Goals and Tips

My next goal for facilitation is to expand my dream I’ve had for many years and that is to significantly diversify the profession and support in any way I can the success of younger, diverse facilitators.

My tip for those that are considering becoming facilitators is to “Just Do It!”  Find good training, get a good mentor, practice as much as you can and tell everyone you know that you have these skills to offer.  One of the successful decisions I have made in the last 20 years is to offer facilitation training as a way to build up my client base. The other was to always take a lot of professional development courses myself to keep fresh.

Stephanie’s Story

StephanieI am a full-time facilitator and trainer with Luna Jiménez Seminars (LJS) and share these skills as an engaged community member in Portland, Oregon.  I find listening is the main facilitation tool.  It allows you to access the groups’ energy and provides insight into the pace you should set and the process the individual or group should take.

One of the key facilitation events I recall was with The University of Oregon.  As the ASUO Women’s Center Diversity Coordinator I organized a retreat for underrepresented students off-campus.  I remember the easy way in which I was able to facilitate because of the peerness we felt.  It allowed for open, candid conversations and we were really engaged in the process.

When I facilitate a smile comes to me when I’ve  created the space – when there’s laughter and playfulness in the group. I cringe if, in giving instructions, I am not clear. I can tell.

My Journey

I think in my journey, I’m a quarter there.  The way you engage groups is a reflection of your growth in life.  There is so much more I need to learn and be skillful at.

A turning point in my journey was when I joined LJS.  We do training and facilitation.  We provide theories and materials.  We need to know what we are teaching and facilitating.  As I began to memorize what I needed to say or  the instructions to give, I  became more seamless – it’s in my body, it’s second nature.

Facilitation skills have impacted my personal life because I find I use the Technology of Participation (ToP®) Focused Conversation Method (ORID) as part of natural conversation.  For example, with a friend who needed to process info, she felt “heard” and appreciated the info.  She was able to laugh.

Goals and Tips

My next goal in facilitation is to hone the skills of the ToP Methods including their participatory strategic planning framework and their consensus workshop method.

My tip to anyone who’s considering becoming a facilitator is to take a ToP facilitation class with Barbara.  She knows what she’s doing.  Memorize the method.  Get it in your body and practice, practice, practice.  Trust that the process will work, because it does!

Shane’s Story

Shane pic 4I am the owner of my own consulting firm which I started 6 years ago called Forward Motion.  I’m based in Portland, Oregon.  I am a strategy and innovation facilitator, trainer, content developer (innovation), and marketer.

The skill I use the most is “letting go”. When I facilitate I over prepare. I dig deeply into the challenge and find an intellectual process to guide my clients through. Then,  to be present and heart centered for them I let go of attachments I have made to the intellectual content. This allows me to use the process I create without being “stuck” to it. That way when other needs come up I can follow the path they present. Letting go makes me more attuned to the moment and the people I serve.

When I think about memorable events, two come to mind. The first is a day-long innovation session for engineers in which I drew out their creative and novel thinking. It is always delightful to guide people through creative process when their day to day work activities are very static and repetitive. I get to see as they get sparks of joy and delight at what their imaginations are capable of. In order to get them to this inspired state I am careful to set the right context and make them comfortable with being creative around each other.

Another event (less comfortable!)  was with a panel of  20 people involved in sustainability/nonprofit. My role was to provide process guidance, track time and equalize power in the room.  I had asked my client to follow my lead but my client’s behavior had the effect of  leaving me feeling dis-empowered from the beginning.  Although  I ran the meeting, I lost “authority” and “unconscious respect” as the process guide. This type of event makes me cringe.

What makes me smile however are the times that I have facilitated with the North Star diversity cohort .  I really enjoyed the work we did with the Rebuilding Center and working with one of our cohort members Sandra, for a media focused group.  It felt like people were able to “say their piece” and there was a breakthrough in their organizational culture.

My Journey

In my journey I would say that I am at the beginning. I’ve learned a lot during the last 6 years and have many more years to refine.

In June 2013, I had a turning point in my journey when I learned the true difference between training and facilitation.  In training innovation, I am the content expert and I have experience in the area being taught.  It’s less about asking and more about telling.  In facilitation, I guide the process and get the group through all the work.  That turning point made me realize that I consider myself both a trainer and facilitator with subtle yet important differences.

In my personal life, facilitation skills impact the way I interact with people.  I’ve learned empathic and effective facilitation which allows me to have much more holistic means of communication.  On the other hand it can be annoying when the way I work  becomes the standard operating procedure in my personal life!.  I catch myself doing this and try to “let it go” to act natural.

Goal and Tips

My next goal in facilitation is to improve my own personal value as a facilitator through more specific training or facilitator certification.

My advice or tip for someone considering being a facilitator is to get some basic training (I also recommend taking the ToP Methods from Barb).  It also helps to get as many volunteer/work opportunities as quickly as you can  to practice, especially in low stress situations. [note from Barb: ToP training is all over the world – if you cannot find a course near you – contact me and I’ll help you find one or we’ll come to you!]

Where are you in the Facilitator’s Journey?

Download a copy of your own self-reflective worksheet with all the interview questions we used here.

Facilitator Journey Cover

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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