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.

About jofacilitator

On Sept 1, 2020, I celebrated 50 years of work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, facilitating meetings, groups, communities, and organizations, making it possible for ordinary people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. I retired on December 31, 2021, but still volunteer with the organization.
This entry was posted in Facilitation Stories, Personal Stories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Fifty Years of Facilitation

  1. Ann S Epps says:

    Thanks, Jo, for your dedication to the profession.


  2. A great recap of your life and experiences, Jo! That epiphany – “things happen not in spite of myself but because of myself” blew me away. All of us need to learn to identify that in our lives.


  3. A great recap of your life and experiences, Jo! That epiphany – “things happen not in spite of myself but because of myself” blew me away. All of us need to learn to identify that in our lives.


  4. Thank you Jo for your lifetime of service!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sheryl Smail says:

    An inspiring read, Jo. Thank you for sharing. Arohanui, Sheryl.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s