Stop Wasting Everything You’ve Learned About Facilitation


I pulled a book off my shelf today by Susan Jeffers, “Embracing Uncertainty: Breakthrough Methods for Achieving Peace of Mind When Facing the Unknown”. The title is totally relevant to what I call facilitation design. (Ms. Jeffers also wrote “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”).   In this blog, I’m going to talk about a model that has helped me feel radically more confident and relaxed about my ability to use what I’ve learned to design and deliver  workshops, especially when I am feeling uncertainty. In other words, I have peace of mind now. The model also gives me greater certainty of offering the group a profoundly rich experience.

So how did I learn to design?

Unfortunately, there are few books and even fewer courses on how to design. I was lucky because I studied methods that have great design embedded in them.  Think for example of the Future Search Conference, the Technology of Participation Strategic Planning model, the Theory U model, Appreciative Inquiry, the Dynamic Facilitation Approach, the ToP Focused Conversation Method, and many more.  This meant I  had a half decent chance of delivering a pretty effective event even if I did not really understand what the group needed.  If, however, I simply used my list of random tools and techniques, I was uncertain if I had interwoven them into a coherent focused design.  Many of us keep taking courses and learn a ton of new tools. Then YIKES – we are faced with realizing we don’t really know when to use them – so the vicious cycle goes on. We don’t use them and we run our meetings the same old way.

Design does not have to be complicated

Think of designing like going on an adventure.  Matt Walker, Adventure Consultant with Inner Passage in Tucson, Arizona (link to his article below) says that adventure “is the willingness to commit to an uncertain outcome with an open heart and a willingness to learn and engage. It is the ability to take a leap into the unknown with mindfulness and grace.”  He also says that adventure is made up of the 5 elements. I would say that designing your workshops can be an incredibly beautiful creative process if you have a system to  guide you. Otherwise it seems like  a frustrating, doubtful hit and miss process. Which do you prefer?


Think of designing as balancing unbalanced energy in a group.  The facilitator’s job is to restore the balance.   The various approaches to the 5 elements all say that when we are in balance we are able to function at our highest level as human beings and that is what we want, right?  Even Feng Shui talks about balance being very important to creating spaces that are supportive and “feel” right.  Imagine as a facilitator you can get every person in the room potentially functioning at their highest level of being or engagement, what you could achieve.   I’m discovering from my 5 elements trainings in South America and Asia that the key to facilitation design is to determine what kind of energy or element is primarily out of balance.

So, how do we use the 5 elements to effect beautiful design and achieve fantastic results?  I’ll give you an example.

Case study of using 5 elements to design

Imagine two groups have been asked to collaborate with each other but their history is that they are competing with one another.  You’ve been asked to help them be more collaborative since their missions require them to achieve the same thing.  As you interview some of the key people in the groups, you realize that they don’t understand how each group is going about their work. There is irritation, confusion and competitiveness between them.  What is out of balance?

The imbalance may likely be caused by several things e.g., 1) little connection with each other based on not really having had  enough successes from collaborating, 2) not understanding the big picture and where they overlap and can support one another 3) feeling mistrust and in conflict and competition.  You could try to address all these things and that would work.  To be more efficient I would identify the key element that is out of balance by taking these steps:

Step 1. Ask more probing questions about what really is bothering them.  For example, you might ask each group:

  • What are some things you have heard the other group say about you?
  • What is one thing that really seems to keep repeating?
  • If you had to give only one reason  why you do not collaborate more, what would that be?

Step 2. Based on their answers, discover what is the strongest missing element

For example, it might be that they have no clear picture of how each group operates. Thus, your agenda design needs to focus on clarifying. It must help them release old inaccurate images they have of each other.  This is the air element at work.

Step 3: Design to reinsert the missing element

Designing for “air” in a meeting might mean that you bring awareness to a group’s behavior that is subtle and yet has a powerful negative or positive impact on their work.  You might design activities to help them clear out “debris” – i.e., that which no longer serves them well.

Step 4: Choose appropriate tools that  rebalance the missing element

Once you have discerned the key missing element, it is also pretty easy to choose which tools and methods to provide this element.  It takes some practice.  But because this model is so present in our daily lives, it becomes very intuitive once you are aware of the 5 elements.  The model has the capacity to change the way you think about your own life and practice.  Whether it be facilitation, training, mediating, consulting or coaching, learning about the 5 elements will be profoundly enriching for you.  If you want to learn more about this, we have provided some resources below.

P.S. The step-by-step photos of this mosaic piece I did are to remind you that the most important thing is to keep your design focused on the most important thing (in this case, the butterfly).  Learn from my incredible teacher at


Adventure in Everything – Matthew Walker

Adventure in Everything

Embracing Uncertainty – Susan Jeffers

Embracing Uncertainty

Five Elements of Feng Shui (wood, earth, metal, fire, water)

Five Elements in Japanese Philosophy

Five Elements in Hinduism

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.


  1. Simba on November 27, 2014 at 4:28 am

    Five Elements of Feng Shui (wood 木, earth 土, metal 金, fire 火, water 水)

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