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Want Emotional Depth In Your Groups? Facilitate It.

When facilitating, I often have the urge to push participants to go deeper. Share more personal stories. Show the masked emotions. So, I frame my questions to elicit that depth. Sometimes it works gracefully. Other times, it all crashes. And then I hear my mentor, Guthrie Sayen’s voice in my head, saying, “Do not worship at the altar of vulnerability.” Agreed, Guthrie.

Yet, how do we elicit more real interactions between participants, that go below the the armor? This is what Priya Parker, author of ‘The Art of Gathering’, set out to answer during the World Economic Forum (WEF).

While facilitating a networking dinner for 15 WEF leaders, with much nervousness, she asked each of them to give a toast to the theme of ‘a good life’ – whatever that phrase meant to them. Her goal: to help them connect at a human level, beyond political agendas.

The first three toasts were short and celebratory. Parker wanted to invite raw sharing. So, she chose to give the fourth toast – a story about the day she got her first period. She talked about how she felt shame, and anxiety. But then, she shared that her mother was so excited about that milestone, that she organized a period party to celebrate. This response helped Priya shift her feelings of shame, to pride.

In her words, “I was still shaking from telling such a vulnerable story, but I thought, what the hell, hoping it would crack others open.” And she was right. “As the night went on, tears welled up in the eyes of the group. Not because they were sad. But because they were moved.”

What can you do to take your participants to such deep, connected spaces?

Prime them.

A LATE NITE ART client recently said: “We loved how dynamic the experience was. It was both playful and deep. But we were surprised with how personal it got. We didn’t expect that. We would’ve liked to know that our team was going to be asked to share in real depth.”

I thought, “of course!” We tell our participants what to expect, so they aren’t caught off guard. When they are aware, they are ready to be steered towards the desired outcome. Like vulnerability. When informed, people are less resistant, less defensive. They then have a real choice.

The group can go only as far and as deep as the facilitator.
— Nadia Chaney, Creative Facilitator & Trainer

Model it.

In Parker’s modeling of vulnerability during the toast, she showed the leaders the desired behavior. She also created the emotional safety and trust for them to go there. It reminds me of what my teacher, Nadia Chaney, always says – “the group can only go as far and as deep as the facilitator.”

Psychologist Albert Bandura called this ‘social learning’. He said, “Most human behavior is learned through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this information serves as a guide for action.” Hence, when facilitating, you have to do, what you want your group to do. Lead the way, be it the silly dance move, or behaviors like accepting discomfort. This tells participants that they are not alone in the risk-taking.

A word of caution: avoid the trap of wanting to model everything perfectly. It’s okay if you yourself are playing at your edge. For me, this happens with activities that involve movement or theatre. I feel way out of my comfort. Yet, I lead sessions chock full of those activities. And each time, I find more confidence. It also helps to let the group know that it’s edgy for me.

In Brene Brown’s words, “going deeper into ourselves means embracing vulnerability.” And this basically leads to uncertainty, risk, as well as emotional exposure. Intense as it may sound, such depth has immense value. Are you ready to take your groups there?

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Curious about facilitation?


About the Author

Nilisha Mohapatra is a trainer, mental health practitioner, and experiential educator, dedicated to building imaginative spaces for learning of all kinds. Using arts-based practices, she cultivate skills in young people and adults, across geographies and cultures. Be it organizational teams, youth from marginalized backgrounds, or teachers, Nilisha's practice bridges the worlds of depth and play, invoking meaningful conversations.

Nilisha Mohapatra

Nilisha Mohapatra is a trainer, social change agent, experience designer, and personal change coach. She is dedicated to building imaginative spaces for learning of all kinds. She joined the LATE NITE ART team as a facilitator and creative consultant in 2016. Using arts-based practice and process work, she cultivate skills in young people and adults, cross geographies and cultures. Be it non-profit / corporate teams, youth from marginalized backgrounds, or teachers, Nilisha's practice bridges the worlds of depth and play, inviting people to explore both new and challenging themes.

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