Taking the Next Steps as an Experiential Facilitator – Moving from “game player”, to “change maker” (part 1)

Starting out in the experiential education field can be extremely difficult. By definition this is experience based education after all and this has always worked both ways. All the books, documents, instruction and classroom training only builds a theoretical framework. You only really learn how to be a facilitator by being a facilitator. The nuts and bolts of learning how this all works and, more importantly, how YOU work really comes from putting it into practice and sometimes crashing and burning. Most of my great lessons, pivotal moments and turning points actually have come from activities gone wrong, groups and situations misread, etc. I have learned that experiential education definitely works both ways.

Given all of that, I have come to see that there are levels in this process. There is no neat way to work through all of this though and this process is not so much a nice set of stairs as a roller coaster sometimes. One that requires:

    • Risk taking
    • Stepping continually out of comfort zones
    • Awareness of self
    • Awareness of participants
    • A continual search for teachable moments and opportunities

The list here should really look familiar as it is exactly what we ask of our participants, right? I refuse, in all regards, to ask my participants to do something, or explore something I have not done or explored myself. In pushing myself, it is also where I find the deeper meaning, enthusiasm, motivation and essence of what I am doing in the first place. In previous articles I wrote about “Activities as Ceremonies.” I believe that to be true with all my heart. These are more than games. They are tools for transformation—a sacred trust really. However, they only become tools of transformation IF we use them with purpose and intent. I talk a lot in trainings I run about “getting inside” the activities we do. Getting inside means really seeing anything we do from all sides, and understanding on a deep level what the metaphor and purpose is from all vantage points. There has to be something of substance and purpose here OR it’s just another thing that may or may not have positive impact—and could even be damaging, or at the very least have impacts that run counter to what we intend. Here is an article with a few more thoughts on this idea and what research is telling us about potential best practices and approaches.


Also, there are levels I think most all facilitators go through on their journey:

Level 1: You enter into what appears to be an exciting field filled with ropes and balls and a whole bunch of new and crazy things. You discover that there are people that make a living even doing this stuff, so you jump into the unknown. Immediately you see that there is much more here than you thought. You dive into learning some activities, trying to understand how to use them, and watch other, more experienced people, use them. If you are like me, you pay attention to the words those other facilitators use, how they address groups and all the details that seem to make them effective at what they do. I took a lot of notes in the beginning, wrote down “scripts” that I liked and sometimes copied and took notes about specific phrases, words or actions that more experienced facilitators used. There is a lot to learn, but you are eager and exited most of the time and are looking forward to being able to actually put what you are learning into practice.

Level 2: Eventually you take what you know and start to work with some participants—maybe with a co-facilitator or mentor in the beginning, but later on your own. It’s tough in the beginning and rarely goes according to plan. You find yourself tongue tied at times and fall back usually on those planned sequences and scripts. It sometimes feels awkward and not very spontaneous. More than that, processing activities presents even bigger challenges. You often struggle to find something of substance to focus on and sometimes your questions are met with blank stares from participants. There are times when you may be fall back on telling participants what they “learned,” or even lecturing. There are some successes though. As you do this a bit more, you get the feeling that you are beginning to find your wings, but there are still many difficulties, and failures, or times when participants even react negatively to what you are doing. Some of those situations are jarring and you find yourself shaken and unsure what to do at all. If you are wise, you reach out to others to ask for help and advice. You take the ideas and suggestions and go out there for another day. Sometimes you find yourself struggling with self-doubt and other emotions—but you learn. And hopefully you continue.

Level 3: With practice, mentoring and self-reflection, you feel like you are gaining a foundation, finding your voice as a presenter, teacher and facilitator and beginning to see some deeper possibilities. There are still moments of struggle, but you see them differently and you know how to shift quickly when things appear not to work—either by changing directions or occasionally adapting an activity to meet the present needs. You begin also to develop a personal set of stock and trade tools—games, activities and sequences that are fall back, standard things that seem to get you through programs most of the time. When you do try new things though, it is usually without a specific plan because, either you’ve run out of things you know or it’s still about just filling time because you don’t know what else to do. Sometimes that experimentation works, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to accomplish much. However overall you feel like you are starting to have success more often than not. People “finish” activities and seem to have fun—or at least it seems that way most of the time.

Here is where many facilitators stop. They have gained a level of competence, a set of tools that seem to work, and those tools are enough to get through most experiences and situations. Your programs are safe and most participants walk way having had some fun. This is a crossroads really though. In fact, it is a crossroads for many programs too. You have achieved a level of consistency, safety and decent competency. Your participant and staff evaluations are consistently fairly high and your program may even be growing.

However, there is so much more. When I say that activities can be ceremonies and change people on the deepest level, I mean that in all sincerity. It certainly doesn’t happen all the time, but it never happens if we are not pushing for and reaching for big things. It usually isn’t even about what you do. It’s about intent and purpose. That is the difference between a good and competent facilitator and one that is great. Great facilitators will even take the same tools and activities as the competent facilitator and work magic. I’ve seen it happen. In fact, I have seen it happen while a facilitator is using things that most people don’t even consider reasonable tools of facilitation. As I have said in this blog many times before, it’s not about what you do, it is all about HOW you do it. Intent and purpose. This is the key.

Go back to that list of things at the beginning of the article and review those things. Those are the keys. At that top of that list in order of importance is actually self-awareness. You cannot have people explore anything you have not explored yourself. In fact, your own dark days and dark realms of the spirit, personal monsters and odysseys become the stories, metaphors, examples and keys that can serve to pull participants deeper into their own exploration. They become the keys to framing and processing experiences and helping participants transfer learning outside of your program.

Consider that these experiences and activities, when set up well, are microcosms of real life. In reality, they are either that, or really not much at all. A fun distraction maybe. But rarely life changing.

The next level involves all of the things listed above though. Great facilitators are out of their comfort zone and trying new things most of the time. The difference is that intent and purpose always precedes everything a great facilitator does. Nothing is just a thing to do unless your purpose is to blow off steam, allow a group to have some fun and rest the brain for a while. There is a time and place for that, but it is never just seen as a “time killer.”

The teachable moments are also the gold that all great facilitators work for. These are the moments when participants hit metaphorical walls, come face to face with their limitations, see themselves or others in a new light, or see themselves and past experiences in the “mirror” of the activity in front of them. Because of this, success is rarely about “completion” or “finishing” an activity, or “solving” a problem. Great facilitators understand that this isn’t an adequate measure of success in most instances. In fact, one strategy to break the ice with a group is to set up an activity that that a group doesn’t finish, or can’t finish neatly—one that almost forces a group “storm.” The storm being a watershed moment when participants get honest and real and provide something to work with as a way of moving forward purposefully.

With all of that in mind, great facilitators know that these experiences are like real life in many ways—or at the very least they are metaphors or simulations for real life when set up well. As in life it’s about the journey and living in, and from, that journey.

One other great myth is that the key to success in experiential programming hangs on big, extravagant, awe inspiring experiences. In reality, often the biggest and most powerful moments can happen any time and often can happen during the simplest activities and experiences. Here is an article on fire and fire making and some of the lessons learned over the years. Simple things can sometimes have the most power.

In Part 2 we will explore some key things to focus on and explore in the process of moving from good to great as a facilitator. We will also look at the question of “success” again—what it means, how you measure it personally and how to find it in the context of this kind of work.