What Can A Facilitator Do to Honour Life’s Milestones?


Since 1995, when I first learned the Technology of Participation methods from The Institute of Cultural Affairs, I have been impressed with the tool I have heard them use on staff and collegial special events, good-byes and birthdays. However, the way I’ve been using it over the decades, is to conduct a conversation with my family members, friends, and even myself on special occasions. It is perhaps considered by some to be a little touchy feely? However I have noticed when people do participate in it, there is a profound level of understanding and respect for that person and the process. All those who participate benefit.

This week is around my birthday! You can guess which day or age. When I went out for dinner last week while on vacation with my husband, he said “shall we do the birthday conversation?” I was so surprised because for years he resisted doing it. Now, it has become an annual ritual we both enjoy.

Basically, the tool is a specific application of the ToP Focused Conversation Method. It has four levels of questions and the purpose is to get the person to talk about their own experiences. One person facilitates, the other person is the recipient of such a profound gift, and any other remaining folks participate especially at the beginning and the end.

We prepared two videos for you to show you what it would sound and look like. We don’t include too much detail but you will get to know me a little bit more and you’ll hear how powerful the tool used this way, can be.

In words, it sounds something like this:

The first opening comment is: we’d would like to have our special event person share a little bit about her/ his/ their past year. And I wondered if you’d all be willing to participate in that conversation with her/him/ them being the main focus? Probably we could just take 10 to 30 minutes to do this. Would you all be willing to do that? Note: It’s essential of course to ask the conversation recipient permission as well.

Note also, normally, I love going very slowly with this process. Sometimes I’ll take a good hour to conduct the conversation. And if the person is willing to take this time, it can be even more profound. I typically do the longer conversations when there is just the special event person.

The first level question is “(say their name) “what have been some key events that have occurred over the last year in your life? They could include travel, work projects, family milestones, volunteer activities, and anything else that you can recall. Just name them briefly in the order that comes to you.”

After the person has listed 5-10 events, ask others what they would add from the time period being shared.

Be prepared for this to take at least 5-15 minutes.

The second level set of questions might be “what were some high points about any of those events?” And, “what were some low points?” and, “How did you experience any of these events?” Deep, uninterrupted listening is helpful here as the person may be sharing some very vulnerable moments.

The “video” below features photos of some of my year’s high points set to music and words.

The third level questions could be “what’s the significance of all of these events over the past year? And, “what would you like to change or be different in the coming year?” You could also ask “what are you really looking forward to in next year as you move forward into a new phase of your life?”

The last level questions are also where different people who are present are invited to contribute and make some wishes for the person’s future. The questions might sound like: “how would you sum up this period of your lief?” and to others, “what do you wish for this person in the next year(s) of their life?”

I also like to ask the conversation recipient the same last question at the very end. That offers a beautiful conclusion to the conversation. If it is for a birthday, retirement or graduation, you can certainly end with singing a song or all cheering!

I would say the result is profound because it really helps a person make sense of the year that is past and the year(s) about to come. This allows the person to deeply reflect on things that have gone well, things that might have been a challenge for them, and to make a commitment and catch a glimpse of the potential to create beautiful years ahead.

When you hold this very intentional conversation with others, you create a profound sense of community. Everybody realizes that their life in the preceding year has had ups and downs and it honors the rhythm of life itself. Each person thinks about what would be a gift for the person when they make a wish for them. Often people’s wishes help the person see possibilities they cannot imagine for themselves. It is a rare gift if you can do this for the special moments in the lives of your friends, colleagues and families. Try it!

This second video shows the Focused Conversation applied to my special event and explains a bit more about the four levels of thinking at the end. We use slightly different questions than those given above. An excellent resource is the book “The Art of Focused Conversation”.You can learn hundreds of applications of this tool in the course called ToP Facilitation Methods offered all over the world.

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. Jim wiegel on June 12, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Very fine, Barb. I love getting your posts and this onewasspecial

  2. Wan How on June 13, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you for sharing this method. I plan to use this with my colleagues next week. I am also excited to hear that you are moving to Victoria. Cheers, Wan @ Vancouver (we met at IAF Ottawa)

  3. Barbara MacKay on June 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Thanks Jim – it was special for me to do also.

  4. Barbara MacKay on June 27, 2018 at 8:48 am

    Wan – yes wonderful to hear from you. And we will b be closer geographically soon!

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