Some Stories from Wayne Nelson

Wayne and I were included in a project by Jim Wiegel to interview colleagues on video about their experiences some years ago.

When Wayne died in 2014, Jim extracted 3 short clips from the interview of Wayne telling stories of our experiences. There is a memorial page for Wayne on the ICA Archives site, (https://icaglobalarchives.org/) where the stories had been uploaded, and recently the links were updated. I was able to view these clips. They communicate some of Wayne’s passions for phenomenology and participatory community development, and his ability to laugh at himself.

Here are the direct links to the clips on YouTube:

The Boomerang Story
The Phenomenonological Method
The Bayad Community Development Association
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Debriefing a Traumatic Event

I’m reposting this in response to events in Ukraine and other current events. It was originally designed in response to the Columbine high school shootings, and used with a group of facilitators a few days after 9/11. It has been translated into French, Chinese, and Urdu.

We would like to offer this conversation to people to use with colleagues, friends and
family to begin to process traumatic situations and respond to them productively.
This conversation is adapted from a conversation in Jo Nelson’s book “The Art of
Focused Conversation for Schools, first published in May, 2001 by New Society Publishers and The Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, p. 155. The third edition was published by iUniverse in 2013.


A group member can help the group guide its thinking with the following questions. The
sequence of questions is designed to gradually move from surface observation through
personal reflection, thoughtful interpretation, and resolution.


Debriefing a Traumatic Event
Aims of the conversation:
To talk about personal experiences of the trauma
To face reality and begin to deal with it productively
To move from shock to beginning to come to terms with the situation

Opening:
This event has shaken all of us. Let’s take a little time to reflect on what’s happened, so
we can come to terms with it. I’m going to ask some questions that will help us gradually
process what happened. I would like you to let everyone have their own answers – no
interrupting, arguing, or judging what anyone says.
Objective Questions:
Imagine you were a video camera recording what you have seen and heard happening
since the first events. What actions, words, phrases, objects, and scenes are recorded on
your tape?
Let’s get everything out – the first events, then everything that has happened since — so
we all have as full a picture as possible of what has happened to this point.
Reflective Questions:
What were your first reactions?
What shocked or frightened you most about this incident?
What images or previous experiences were triggered for you?
How else did you find yourself reacting?
Interpretive Questions:
What impact has this had on you personally? How are you different now?
How we different as a group or as a society as a result of these events?
How has our view of the world changed?
What might have been some contributing factors to why this happened?
What might be some of the underlying issues behind all of this?
What might we learn from this?
Decisional Questions:
What can we do to deal with the situation in the short term?
What are some things we can do to begin to deal with the underlying issues and prevent
events like this from happening again?
What can we do to help each other?
Closing
We will undoubtedly continue to reflect on this. If you need help, please be sure to ask
for it.

Hints:
Some of these questions are difficult to answer, so if there are few spoken answers, don’t
worry. The very fact of raising these questions and following this flow allows deeper
reflection later. It may be helpful to print out the questions for people to take with them
for later reflection.


The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools: Over 100 Ways to Guide Clear Thinking and Promote Learning has nearly 200 sample conversations for parents, teachers, staff, and parents. It can be ordered through the publisher, iUniverse.com

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Three Stories from my Experience in Aboriginal Australia

These stories were originally published in Edges Magazine, Volume 4, #1, in 1991. The theme of the magazine issue was “The Fusion of Nature and Culture”. They are based on my experience with my family living and working with participatory community development in Murrin Bridge, NSW, from 1981-1983. I tell them in gratitude for the learning I gained from members of the community.

Auntie Lena

Auntie Lena was one of the last Ngyiampaa women to have spent her childhood in the bush in her own country between the Lachlan and the Darling Rivers, in New South Wales.  In the 1930’s the government intervened and moved the Ngiyampaa people off their ancestral land onto first one reserve and then to another. Since for Aboriginal Australians, the land and all of its life forms play out a drama that provides people with their essential life patterns, things fell apart.  Auntie Lena, however, had gained a foundational sense of who she was as a person in growing up on the land.  She witnessed her own children flounder in the vacuum of meaninglessness, and saw her grandchildren hungry from neglect.

Yet years later, when we met Auntie Lena, she maintained a centeredness, a sense of humour, a non-judgemental attitude, and an ability to reach out in the midst of all the chaos of the disrupted society, I remember her delighted laughter and dry comments, as she sat on a broken chair in a yard glittering with bits of broken glass.  She was one of the elders who put together a book and went into the schools to teach Ngiyampaa language and culture to the children, both black and white.  It took a lot of courage and self-respect to go into the school when she had never learned to read and write.  Later she asked me to teach her.  I have a wonderful photograph of her learning to write her name at age 80, something she had yearned to do for 60 years.

A week after the photograph she had a stroke, was in a coma for a month, and was never the same again.  She lived for another year, somewhat confused about time and place, but still an emotional and symbolic anchor for her family and the community.

The Black Superman

The children in an Aboriginal Australian community are generally left pretty much to their own devices.  They are watched to see what they’re going to grow into, but they’re not moulded into their parents’ image.  In the old traditions, the mythology of the people, intimately connected with the ancestral land, was the Law.  The words “story” and “law” are often used interchangeably.  The Law provided for order and stability in the community.  Sometimes the consequences looked like something swooping down out of the sky and taking you away if you got out of line or did dangerous things.  Children’s behaviour was governed by the Law more than by parents’ rules and punishments.  At puberty children were initiated into deeper meanings of the Law, which changed them into adults.  They then assumed all the responsibilities and roles of adults. 

When the Ngiyampaa people were moved off their ancestral land in the 1930’s, the Law lost its foundation, and the initiation rites went out of existence.  Since that time, the people have been without a symbolic transition to responsibility. By the 1980’s, children and young people were operating without mythic patterns to guide behaviour.  Adults were worried but had no way to deal with it.

Uncle Bushy understood at some level that mythology was the key to managing behaviour in the community.  He invented the Black Superman, a terrifying creature who lurked in the bushes.  It made sense to the kids, because it bridged the mythology of modern life they got from television and their own sense of natural limits.  Bushy told the kids that if they went out after dark down near the river, the Black Superman was going to get them.  It worked wonderfully.  Kids would come over to visit and we’d have to walk them home after dark because no kid was going to go out where the Black Superman might get them.  For that aboriginal community, the Black Superman story became part of the Law, a story about life which shaped the way people behaved.

Healing Drama

When the Ngiyampaa people were moved off their ancestral land, they lost contact with their mythology, In this “foreign” environment, their story had no meaning.  The centre of life became a black hole.  As this happened, self-respect eroded and order dissolved.  Some of the manifestations were family breakdowns, drinking, breaking things up, and fighting – classic symptoms of lives without meaning. 

There was no way to recover the myths, the old symbols, the ancient depth stories of the Ngiyampaa people.  The last initiation – a ritual involving depth communication of the mythology – took place in 1914.  One initiated man was left in that community, but he had no one to share the mythology with.  He could not share with anyone who was not initiated, and it took several initiated ones to re-enact the rituals.   

The people didn’t live on the ancestral land so the patterns of the mythology made limited sense.  For the younger people who had never lived on their ancestral land, the old stories did not hold together, so they seemed silly.  But after a couple of generations of living without meaning, people began, in small ways, to recover the heritage, the depth story, and a new myth and identity for themselves as Aboriginal people. 

One of the things they did was to take an Aboriginal myth from another tribe and act it out as a play.  Then they acted out their own recent history, how they had been moved in the cattle trucks to one reserve after another, put their own lives into the story.  The children acted these stories out in the school, giving them dignity and meaning and significance. 

When they began putting the “storying” into their present being, there was a change in the community.  This is not to say that abusive behaviour disappeared.  But things shifted measurably so incidents of alcohol-related violence dropped dramatically.  Even white people in town said, “Things are different.  People meet us differently on the street.” 

For Aboriginal people, life and mythology are much more a unity than can be expressed in the English language or can be understood by the Western mind. The Ngiyampaa people are now in a time of recreating their mythology after a long time of silence.  As the dramas are rewoven, essential life patterns are being reborn.  Self-respect and meaning are returning. 

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Quick Update to “Contemporary Christmas Story 2021”

A healthy baby boy was born to the family on January 9, 2022. Donated baby clothes and equipment were delivered to the house before he arrived home from the hospital. Joy continues…..

Posted in Personal Stories, Stories of Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Contemporary Christmas Story 2021

In these uncertain and dark times, I think we need a story of joy and hope.  Interestingly, it has resonance with the story of the Christmas season.  I tell this story with deep gratitude. It is shared without names, photos or precise locations for privacy and safety reasons.

August

An Afghan family has educated all of its children, including 7 girls, and 5 of the children, now adults, are in the Western world. Their oldest son is a lawyer and supports his parents, his wife and children. The Taliban offensive targets their regional city, killing a lawyer.  They threaten his friend, the oldest son of this family, and his family, with death.

The lawyer flees the regional city for Kabul, leaving his pregnant wife and 2 small children with her family in a nearby village, and his elderly parents in the house he built for them.

The Taliban try to burn down the house of the parents, who hide for several days, fearing they will come back.  Finally they gather their daughter-in-law and the children, and decide to brave the dangerous road to Kabul to join their son rather than wait for certain death in their city.   

They escape Kabul just after the airport bombing at the end of August on a flight chartered by a non-profit group, with only their backpacks of documents and a few clothes.

For the next 4 months they are shuttled from refugee camp to refugee camp, from Doha, to Frankfurt, to Pennsylvania, to New Mexico, to Michigan, homeless but relatively safe. 

December

On the last day of November, the whole family are admitted to Canada as refugee claimants.  An immigration official stages their papers compassionately so that each becomes an anchor person for the next, allowing them all to enter immediately.

They reunite with their youngest son, who is already in Canada, but have to stay in a motel for 3 weeks because there is no available place to rent.  The cost is astronomical for a family of 6 with no income.

Friends (including a young real estate agent) and the family work frantically to find rental housing for a family of 4 adults and 2 children. Several landlords refuse to rent to a family with only inadequate government support. One landlord has a vacant house for rent, but then decides that he is not going to rent. He plans to sell the house in January.

A family friend who has tutored one of the daughters and has known the family for more than 10 years appeals for donations for household goods, clothes, and children’s toys, and many generous people, neighbours, family, and friends of friends respond. One family shares the request with their young children, who go through their toys and clothes and donate several boxes, while a pregnant woman donates baby things that she has herself been given.

Finally a wise man, a friend of the family friend, decides to break the logjam.  He works with the real estate agent, and within 36 hours, he has signed an agreement with the landlord/seller to buy the vacant house with the condition of immediate occupancy.  The next day the family gets the key and moves in.  The collected household goods, clothing, and children’s books and toys are delivered by the family friend, and 2 days later the rental agreement is signed.

The baby, due in a few weeks, will not have to be born in a stable, or in a refugee camp. The family does not have to fear bombs or Taliban, and is safe and secure in Canada. They can go on to establish themselves here, with continued support for the first year.

The family is overcome with gratitude.  

Everyone who contributed as well as the family itself is feeling the joy of the season. Prayers of gratitude have been offered up in several religious traditions.

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Facilitation, Education, and Transformation

Stories from my Experience

Script of a presentation given on Zoom to a group of teachers and facilitators in China on June 29, 2021

Preparation

I grew up on a farm in Iowa.

I was a teacher from childhood – I taught my sister to read when I was 6 and she was 4.  And I used to gather all the neighbourhood kids to do science experiments.

My mother was a teacher, my father had a strong global awareness – both shared these with us.

I have a BA Degree in Education and Anthropology from the University of Iowa.

I joined ICA the same year I started teaching school, right after graduation.

Washington, DC – 1970

How to be respectful and fair, yet firm

This was my first experience in a culture not my own – Black inner-city, grade 3.

Given the history of blacks and whites in the US, I struggled with how to do fair and respectful discipline in my classroom. If the kids were disruptive, I didn’t know how to be firm and respectful at the same time. 

Eventually I was given an ultimatum from the principal: manage your class or you are fired– my transformation was the same afternoon.  I couldn’t afford to be fired!

That year I discovered learning from the students – there were 2 boys named Emmanuel.

They were in Grade 3 and neither could read

I developed a way of learning to read adapted from Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s work with Maori kids in New Zealand.

They asked for words they wanted to read,

I wrote them on cards,

They traced them, said them out loud, wrote them. 

The next day, if they remembered the word on the card, they could keep it.

 If they didn’t, we threw it away, and said it was the wrong word, not that the child was wrong for not remembering. 

After a few words, we built sentences.

Chicago, 1971-2

Forming curriculum around what the students need – facilitating their voices

Black inner-city, grade 7-8 – 7 classes of 30 kids every day – taller than me

Assigned to teach music – kids needed to learn to read

First year – disaster – kids out of control – again a principal gave me an ultimatum to improve

Second year –  on the first day, I had each student make a private 10-year life plan.

Name?

How old are you now?

How old will you be in 10 years?

What do you want to be or be doing in 10 years?

What are 10 things you need to do to get where you want to be in 10 years?

What are 10 things you need to do this year to get to where you want to be?

And finally, what do you need from my class?

Their plans were private – the only thing I asked them to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote every one of them on the blackboard and had someone copy it.  Then I clustered it all together along with the curriculum I was given, and what I knew they needed – to learn to read and believe in themselves. 

This foundation became the creation of Black Music History course – I learned a lot!

Transformation of kids – they were eager participants in my class

Transformation of me – I realized that I was successful when I could relate what I was teaching to what the students needed for their own lives

Commendation from the principal

Grade 6 Rite of Passage Journey, Summer 1974

Transforming children into youth

35 6th graders, children of staff and colleagues

Camping in tents for 6 weeks, mostly in the wilderness

Intention was to provide a rite of passage from childhood to youth, with greater responsibility

Challenging activities, such as a week-long hike, carrying all camping gear

An overnight solitary vigil for each student, with some questions to ponder

Watching the Northern Lights one night until very late – awesome

Peoria, 1974-6

Facilitating mutual learning

Group facilitation started to be known – we started to use it in facilitating community planning meetings

From facilitation and my experience in Chicago, I stood in respect for the students – they learned from me and I learned from them.

Lesson plans became session plans – a way of putting an agenda together

Egypt, 1975-78

The long-term value of building on what the community needs, creating personal and community transformation

Facilitated community planning – including all villagers

Community wanted good education in the village

Started the preschool – facilitating young non-literate village women to plan and teach

Demonstrated how to build curriculum and lead conversations

Encouraged the teachers to take literacy classes

The next year – community teachers running the preschool

Kids on the first day in the public school were not afraid

45 years later there is still a village-run preschool in the village

There are university graduates from the community, and several still doing participatory community development

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Texas, 1979-81

Facilitating as creating bridges of understanding between groups in a community

Two cultures not my own simultaneously – Mexican and Texan

In the school I did informal facilitation – creating bridges of understanding between cultures

Facilitating on-going community planning

I built the remedial reading curriculum on what kids needed – testing, talking with them – addressing underlying contradictions where they were blocked rather than creating a set lesson plan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Murrin Bridge 1981-83

Facilitating as cultural reconciliation

I took aboriginal elders into the schools – since I was neither black or white Australian, both sides trusted me and I was a liaison between the teachers and the Aboriginal elders

The community wanted to preserve language and culture – the elders were the only ones who spoke the language – they taught black and white kids together to create self-confidence and respect.

When we did this, I facilitated conversations on what students were learning

My work was to create bridges of understanding between cultures

Chicago, 1984

Supporting youth to thrive

Student house – place where Grade 7-8 students lived while their parents were working overseas

Jamaica, 1984-86

Supporting local leadership

Worked with village preschool teachers again, and trained school teachers on request

Canada, 1986 – 2021

 Facilitation as a way to change school systems

Regina Public Schools

I trained 10% of the teachers and principals in facilitation – Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop Method.  Many of them used the methods in their classrooms and in teacher’s meetings.  They also facilitated input into a school reorganization plan.

Eeeyou Istchee (James Bay Cree) School Board – Quebec

I facilitated strategic planning for the schools in 10 remote indigenous communities.

Then I facilitated the leadership team to bring the plans from the communities together for the whole indigenous school board.

This created a school board plan that held indigenous values.

This plan guided the school board’s decisions for more than 5 years.

Treaty 4 Education – Saskatchewan

I facilitated a strategic plan with the school board and leadership (several indigenous communities).

This facilitation included community consultations.

They created a school board that met their values as an indigenous board.

I continue to do follow-up and train staff in facilitation.

They use facilitation in all their interactions with community.

OISE – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

OISE is the education department at the University of Toronto

The new dean wanted participation in decision-making, not something often done in universities.

500 people – faculty, staff, administration, and students participated in small groups to create values, vision, obstacles and strategies, and then representatives of those groups clustered all the results together to make one strategic plan for the department.  For each strategy, there was an action planning team to make plans for how to move forward on the strategies.

This project won an IAF Facilitation Impact Award.

The university provost commended the department for its planning, and suggested that other departments do something similar.

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Fifty Years of Facilitation

September 1, 2020 marks 50 years since I first started working with ICA. At the end of this calendar year, I will be wrapping up my career, but not my vocation. I’m still working on what that looks like — likely coaching facilitators, designing facilitator training, some writing, and continuing to make sure that the legacies of ICA Associates, Inc. and the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs are strong and continuing into the future.

In celebration of these 50 years, I’m sharing the essay I wrote to apply for Certified Professional Facilitator: Emeritus. It is a story of my journey as a facilitator — at least that part of the story that would fit within 1500 words. I am extraordinarily grateful for all the people and events that gave me the possibility of continuous learning and contributing to create a culture of authentic participation in the world.

On September 1, 2020, I will celebrate 50 years of working as a facilitator.  Not only has the field developed over those 50 years, but so have I.

In September 1970, fresh out of university, 21 years old, with a degree in Education and Anthropology, I began teaching school and working with the Institute of Cultural Affairs simultaneously.  I was just learning to ask questions rather than having answers.  I facilitated staff meetings and also learning events.  At the time, there was little differentiation between participatory learning and facilitating a group to get results.

In 1972, I had moved to Chicago, and while I was working with ICA, I was also teaching grade 7 and 8 on the West Side, a black inner city neighbourhood.  I was assigned to teach music, which was ironic, as I was a young white farm girl, whose experience with music was far removed from my students.  The first day of school, I had each student complete a 10-year life plan.  The only thing they needed to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote all these answers on the blackboard and had one of the kids in each class copy them down and give them to me. (Whiteboards and flipcharts had not been invented yet, never mind personal computers.) I took what they needed from my class and merged it with what I knew they needed (to learn to read, to believe in themselves), and what the music curriculum required, which fortunately was vague.  Together, then, we put together a black music history class.  I taught them to read using the words to the songs, and to believe in themselves. (There is much more to this story.) My facilitation learning from this experience was the incredible power of engaging young people, and people that everyone had written off.  I had my first lesson in trusting the group to come up with the results they needed.

In Peoria, Illinois the next year, ICA had a fascinating group of staff members with strong personalities, all of whom were older than me. My husband and I were the assigned leaders.  I learned how to manage older, stronger participants as I facilitated staff meetings. 

In 1976, our family was assigned to a participatory village development project in Egypt.  Not only did I facilitate in a language I was not fluent in, but I also had the opportunity to train local staff in facilitation. In translating the processes and understandings, I learned to identify the core understandings.  During that time I learned a number of classic facilitation techniques. The translations of words and cultural styles helped me understand how to adapt facilitation processes better.  I learned you don’t have to be an expert, or even be literate to participate successfully. There is huge wisdom in a group that can be drawn out.

Skip to 1983.  We were living in and working with an Aboriginal Australian community.  Once I started a conversation with a group, and before we reached a decision, people started to disappear.  A week later, we came back together, and it was immediately clear that there was a group consensus on the decision.  No one had talked about it meanwhile.  I learned that there are different times and ways of processing information in different cultures, and the patience to flex and adapt to the group. 

In 1984, I was directing a multi-cultural daycare centre in Sydney, Australia.  There was a major conflict over whether any curriculum should be taught.  In a facilitated conversation in a staff meeting, asked what the world would be like when the kids were adults, it became clear that none of the staff thought there would be a world then.  I suddenly understood why they weren’t planning for the future.  I had discovered the power of identifying the root cause of an issue (although at the time I couldn’t figure out how to address it).

All of this time, I was always co-facilitating, and had the self-story that things worked in spite of me.  In 1987, now in Canada, I was thrust into a situation where a rural women’s group did not want a male facilitator, and I was the only woman available.  The facilitation went very well.  Suddenly I could not escape the fact that things went well because of me, not in spite of me.

In 1988, I participated in a year-long personal training program, with one event per month.  I told the trainer that I wanted to “let go of ego-self and replace it with receptive self”. In the September session, she wanted to do a session on Aboriginal Australian culture. Since I had experience there, she asked me to do a presentation, something she never asked someone else to do.  Suddenly, as I was sharing my knowledge, I realized that everyone in the room had something important to share, if they had only been given the chance.  I instantly became curious to know what their wisdom was.  Within a week, several people complimented me on what an incredible listener I was, something I had never in my life heard before.  That curiosity became the foundation of my facilitation career, and I began to be successful at it in many different settings.

At this point I was also very involved in creating clear and simple procedures for ToP facilitation methods so that we could teach them.  This was a very deep learning experience.

One of my clients in 1989 or so was an organization that served people with developmental challenges, but was reluctant to let them participate in the facilitated planning session.  To make a long dramatic story short, I experienced that one participant could only speak in metaphor, and if I listened to that metaphor, he had wisdom that could not only add to the group’s results, but transform the whole organization with his participation.  I learned to listen past the words people say, to the wisdom that they have.

In the early 90’s I had a participant who tried to hijack a steering committee meeting by shouting that she had the only right to have an opinion on the topic.  I realized that the group had been abdicating its responsibility to handle her to me, and that that made the facilitator (me) a target.  I figured out a way (on my feet) to get the group to take responsibility for the situation, and it saved the whole process and the conference.  I learned that it was important to empower a group to help with its own process. I also learned that the facilitator can be invisible, so the that group says “we did it ourselves”. 

Also in the 90’s, I began serious work with First Nations peoples in Canada.  I learned how to adapt to indigenous cultural patterns – learning patience in dealing with groups that process at a different speed, and also to delight in the ease of seeing patterns and synthesizing rather than analyzing. I also learned that some languages hold detail better, and some hold the big picture better.

Between 1989 and 2003 I was on the Executive of the IAF Board, during some really difficult times.  I learned a lot about dealing with conflict.  I realized through this experience also that a facilitative leader needs to balance inspiring others with following the ideas of others.  I also learned that facilitating facilitators is one of the hardest challenges for a facilitator!

In 2003, I did my first online facilitation with IAF assessors to refine the IAF Facilitator Competencies, using the clunky technology that was available at the time.  

In 2010, I had 2 big long-term clients at the same time. One was a First Nations project, where I learned how to manage a huge participatory project and the top leadership of the First Nation.  The other was a university department, where I learned how to coordinate a large facilitation team that was doing most of the face-to-face work, and bring the work together to consensus.  This last project won a Facilitation Impact Award.

In the last decade, I have continued to explore online facilitation, and training facilitators in interactive online courses, using a variety of online tools.

I have also written 2 books during my career:  the first one, Art of Focused Conversation for Schools, was written with input from more than 40 facilitators.  The input and editing led to an  insight that helps refine the Focused Conversation Method.  The second, Getting to the Bottom of ToP, was begun by my husband.  When he died, I finished it, mostly doing the chapters about the methods and what makes them work.  Writing this book helped me understand the deep human principles behind the way groups think clearly and follow process. At this stage of my life, I am stepping back from facilitation, but am still continuing to train facilitators and mentor and coach others on their facilitation journeys.

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Recognizing Unconsious Bias

I have a degree in Education and Anthropology, from the University of Iowa in 1970.  Not only did I study cultures for my Anthro major, but I was active in the university’s International Centre and was good friends with people from every continent.  I came from a little rural community where the ethnic differences were between the Swedes, the Danes, and the Norwegians, so I was really open and curious, and my world was expanded greatly by my studies and friends.

Later, my husband and I were assigned to do participatory village development, shoulder to shoulder with village people in first Egypt, then Nigeria, then Mexican Texas.  Our staff was always multi-cultural, and we lived and worked together.

In 1981, we were assigned to work with an Aboriginal Australian community in Western New South Wales.  One day soon after we arrived, I was walking down the street, and an old man with very traditional Aboriginal Australian features was walking toward me.  My gut suddenly wrenched with fear and revulsion.  Then I was utterly shocked at my reaction.  I had never had this kind of reaction to anyone’s looks before!  This was not me and I was deeply ashamed. 

So I started reflecting on what had happened, to try to figure out what was going on with me.  I noted what I had seen, and noted my reaction. It took me several days to discern what memory or image in my brain had been triggered by the situation.  Then it came to me.  In my Anthropology textbook in the 60’s, there were pictures of “savages” and “primitive people”, and their depiction in the textbook looked exactly like traditional Aboriginal faces.   So my reaction was caused by that hidden and forgotten association! 

Once I identified where the reaction came from, I was freed from that unconscious association. My interpretation was that it was an unhelpful (maybe even evil) lesson, and I never had that reaction again. We went on to work shoulder to shoulder with all the people in the community and nearby town, both white and black, to share Aboriginal culture and heritage and build respect for each other.

Our biases often come from unconscious associations.  Being consciously aware of the reflective level, the associations and memories that trigger reactions, allows us to interpret the meaning of these and ask if they are relevant.  We are freed to make conscious interpretations and meaning, and follow that with resolve.

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Making Clustering Ideas Easier Using a Puzzle Image

The clustering stage of the Consensus Workshop Method is often really challenging, especially to those (most of us) who have been deeply trained to sort and categorize ideas: “Which of these is not like the other?” Somehow the capacity to see new constellations of ideas, a “gestalt” of the detailed ideas into bigger ideas that hold new insight, is a real challenge.

Once I had a participant in a course who could not understand a concept unless he had physically acted it out. Luckily, he sat at the back of the room, so his wild movements as he tried to understand were not too distracting. He could not understand the concept of clustering / gestalt, and asked for help.

So I borrowed a simple children’s puzzle from a colleague, and as the participant put it together, I talked him through the steps as a metaphor for creating a larger picture from a bunch of separate pieces. After we had done that, I realized I didn’t need to physically do that, but using putting together a puzzle as a metaphor as a story to talk through the steps with a group just before clustering their ideas would give them a sense of where we were going with clustering. They could then be somewhat relaxed with the ambiguity as the clusters developed. This has amazingly shortened the time it takes to cluster ideas.

Here is the story as I use it:

Puzzle Story for the Beginning of Clustering

DO this when groups have finished filling in their cards & have them laid out in front of themselves.

Look at the cards in front of you.  Imagine that they are all puzzle pieces. 

Imagine that you take all your puzzle pieces and throw them in the centre of the table.  What do we have?  (a mess, the sum of the parts)

Now imagine that you take them all back, and that we are going to put them together.  We don’t have the box cover, so we don’t know what we are going to have at the end. 

What’s the first thing you do when you put a puzzle together?  (find the corners, or the borders)

What do you do next? (find similar colours, patterns, lines that go together)

What happens at the end if you leave a piece out? (a hole in the puzzle, it’s not complete, frustration)

What we are going to do next is like putting together a puzzle for which we don’t have the cover picture.

First we’ll get a few different cards on the wall, then we’ll look for 4-5 similar pairs of answers to the focus question, which is like the border or corner pieces.  Then we’ll cluster the rest, a few at a time, looking for similar patterns that answer the focus question. 

In the end all the cards will get up here.

Then we will name the parts of the picture we have created.

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A Summary of My Professional Pathway as a Facilitator

I am declaring 2020 as the last year of my career, but not of my vocation!

This essay was written as a submission for IAF “Facilitator Emeritus” certification. It was limited to 1500 words, so there is a lot of the journey left out!

On September 1, 2020, I will celebrate 50 years of working as a facilitator.  Not only has the field developed over those 50 years, but so have I.

In September 1970, fresh out of university, 21 years old, with a degree in Education and Anthropology, I began teaching school and working with the Institute of Cultural Affairs simultaneously.  I was just learning to ask questions rather than having answers.  I facilitated staff meetings and also learning events.  At the time, there was little differentiation between participatory learning and facilitating a group to get results.

In 1972, I had moved to Chicago, and while I was working with ICA, I was also teaching grade 7 and 8 on the West Side, a black inner city neighbourhood.  I was assigned to teach music, which was ironic, as I was a young white farm girl, whose experience with music was far removed from my students.  The first day of school, I had each student complete a 10-year life plan.  The only thing they needed to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote all these answers on the blackboard and had one of the kids in each class copy them down and give them to me. (Whiteboards and flipcharts had not been invented yet, never mind personal computers.) I took what they needed from my class and merged it with what I knew they needed (to learn to read, to believe in themselves), and what the music curriculum required, which fortunately was vague.  Together, then, we put together a black music history class.  I taught them to read using the words to the songs, and to believe in themselves. (There is much more to this story.) My facilitation learning from this experience was the incredible power of engaging young people, and people that everyone had written off.  I had my first lesson in trusting the group to come up with the results they needed.

In Peoria, Illinois the next year, ICA had a fascinating group of staff members with strong personalities, all of whom were older than me. My husband and I were the assigned leaders.  I learned how to manage older, stronger participants as I facilitated staff meetings. 

In 1976, our family was assigned to a participatory village development project in Egypt.  Not only did I facilitate in a language I was not fluent in, but I also had the opportunity to train local staff in facilitation. In translating the processes and understandings, I learned to identify the core understandings.  During that time I learned a number of classic facilitation techniques. The translations of words and cultural styles helped me understand how to adapt facilitation processes better.  I learned you don’t have to be an expert, or even be literate to participate successfully. There is huge wisdom in a group that can be drawn out.

Skip to 1983.  We were living in and working with an Aboriginal Australian community.  Once I started a conversation with a group, and before we reached a decision, people started to disappear.  A week later, we came back together, and it was immediately clear that there was a group consensus on the decision.  No one had talked about it meanwhile.  I learned that there are different times and ways of processing information in different cultures, and the patience to flex and adapt to the group. 

In 1984, I was directing a multi-cultural daycare centre in Sydney, Australia.  There was a major conflict over whether any curriculum should be taught.  In a facilitated conversation in a staff meeting, I asked what the world would be like when the kids were adults, it became clear that none of the staff thought there would be a world then.  I suddenly understood why they weren’t planning for the future.  I had discovered the power of identifying the root cause of an issue (although at the time I couldn’t figure out how to address it).

All of this time, I was always co-facilitating, and had the self-story that things worked in spite of me.  In 1987, now in Canada, I was thrust into a situation where a rural women’s group did not want a male facilitator, and I was the only woman available.  The facilitation went very well.  Suddenly I could not escape the fact that things went well because of me, not in spite of me.

In 1988, I participated in a year-long personal training program, with one event per month.  I told the trainer that I wanted to “let go of ego-self and replace it with receptive self”. In the September session, she wanted to do a session on Aboriginal Australian culture. Since I had experience there, she asked me to do a presentation, something she never asked someone else to do.  Suddenly, as I was sharing my knowledge, I realized that everyone in the room had something important to share, if they had only been given the chance.  I instantly became curious to know what their wisdom was.  Within a week, several people complimented me on what an incredible listener I was, something I had never in my life heard before.  That curiosity became the foundation of my facilitation career, and I began to be successful at it in many different settings.

At this point I was also very involved in creating clear and simple procedures for ToP facilitation methods so that we could teach them.  This was a very deep learning experience.

One of my clients in 1989 or so was an organization that served people with developmental challenges, but was reluctant to let them participate in the facilitated planning session.  To make a long dramatic story short, I experienced that one participant could only speak in metaphor, and if I listened to that metaphor, he had wisdom that could not only add to the group’s results, but transform the whole organization with his participation.  I learned to listen past the words people say, to the wisdom that they have.

In the early 90’s I had a participant who tried to hijack a steering committee meeting by shouting that she had the only right to have an opinion on the topic.  I realized that the group had been abdicating its responsibility to handle her to me, and that that made the facilitator (me) a target.  I figured out a way (on my feet) to get the group to take responsibility for the situation, and it saved the whole process and the conference.  I learned that it was important to empower a group to help with its own process. I also learned that the facilitator can be invisible, so the that group says “we did it ourselves”.   

Also in the 90’s, I began serious work with First Nations peoples in Canada.  I learned how to adapt to indigenous cultural patterns – learning patience in dealing with groups that process at a different speed, and also to delight in the ease of seeing patterns and synthesizing rather than analyzing. I also learned that some languages hold detail better, and some hold the big picture better.

Between 1989 and 2003 I was on the Executive of the IAF Board, during some really difficult times.  I learned a lot about dealing with conflict.  I realized through this experience also that a facilitative leader needs to balance inspiring others with following the ideas of others.  I also learned that facilitating facilitators is one of the hardest challenges for a facilitator!

In 2003, I did my first online facilitation with IAF assessors to refine the IAF Facilitator Competencies, using the clunky technology that was available at the time.  

In 2010, I had 2 big long-term clients at the same time. One was a First Nations project, where I learned how to manage a huge participatory project and the top leadership of the First Nation.  The other was a university department, where I learned how to coordinate a large facilitation team that was doing most of the face-to-face work, and bring the work together to consensus.  This last project won a Facilitation Impact Award.

In the last decade, I have continued to explore online facilitation, and training facilitators in interactive online courses, using a variety of online tools.

I have also written 2 books during my career:  the first one, Art of Focused Conversation for Schools, was written with input from more than 40 facilitators.  The input and editing led to a  insight that helps refine the Focused Conversation Method.  The second, Getting to the Bottom of ToP, was begun by my husband.  When he died, I finished it, mostly doing the chapters about the methods and what makes them work.  Writing this book helped me understand the deep human principles behind the way groups think clearly and follow process.

At this stage of my life, I am stepping back from facilitation, but am still continuing to train facilitators and mentor and coach others on their facilitation journeys. 

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