10 Top Facilitation Tips

Jul 27 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Group shot at the end of Leeds Clown and Connection Workshop, June 2021 / Photographer: Oliver Parker

Haaaaaaahhhhh! What a breath of fresh air to be project-hopping again! Before COVID, my life used to be travelling around the country by train with a suitcase full of red noses, colourful feathers and rubber chickens, as a clown consultant.

My mission was to support performance artists to make work or guide them to reflect on and improve their creative practice or a bit of both.

As someone who thrives on variety, connection and adventure, you can imagine how delighted I've been for the last 6 weeks, getting to facilitate six different groups, both online and in real life (Yeah! I worked out how to safely do it, thanks to this chat I had with a bunch of improvisers at the recent Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space event - the solutions involved mega pre-project communication, risk assessments, contracts, lateral flow tests, lots of ventilation, finding the games with social distancing, floor tape, hand washing and many many group check ins).

Six Fantastic Facilitation Projects

  • I delivered my Mindful Play Inquiry weekly course for the second time online for a group of 12 international bold adventurers. 

  • Deaf and Fabulous Theatre Company in Cardiff asked me to share my clowning and audience connection toolkit as part of their R&D into a new outdoor show called 'Martha.' The show follows two deaf travellers as they search for Martha's Vineyard, an island that was once a sign language utopia.

  • A brand new (currently nameless) circus/theatre company in the making invited me to hold space for them to explore potential pitfalls in their working relationship as part of their week-long residency in Bristol.

  • Dance artist, Bobak Champion, invited me up to Leeds to offer my clowning and audience connection toolkit with a group of dancers, circus performers and theatre artists (pictured above), before working one-to-one on his clown character for his autobiographical solo show, exploring his Iranian roots; 'Don't Panik, I'm Muslamic'.

  • Hijinx Theatre company asked me back over to Cardiff to work with a group of actors, some with learning disabilities, some without, to share my clowning, ensemble play and audience-connection toolkit as part of their R&D towards making an anarchic and hilarious outdoor show called “Grumpy Unicorns.”

  • Artist / outdoor educator Angela Hill and I collaborated on piloting a one-day Nature-Play-Insight workshop for adults in the woods around Midsommer Norton, bringing together our combined skills in mindfulness, play, guided reflection and nature appreciation. 

I was a little rusty at first, having been largely out of the bespoke group facilitation game for over a year (Throughout the pandemic, I've been co-facilitating online clown workshops with Robyn Hambrook via The Online Clown Academy and offering one-to-one Creative Consultancy via Zoom, but I've not been doing much project-focussed group facilitation). But you'll be relieved to hear that my facilitator mojo is gradually coming back!

I'm now in the midst of designing a new three-month creative facilitation training course, called The Well-Held Space. As part of this process, I've been reflecting on my role as facilitator through these six projects. I'd like to share some the things I've learned / remembered about facilitation with you, dear reader, in the hope that it's useful to you.

10 Top Facilitation Tips

1.) Prepare yourself: ask A LOT of questions

If you're working for a company, ask A LOT of questions before the project begins, to make sure your offers are in line with their expectations. Ask as many questions as you need to and keep asking until you've got all the information you need. It can be advantageous to do this face to face / via Zoom to make sure you're all on the same page and to begin to foster an open, trusting partnership.

2.) Make sure you've got the right people in the room

If you're offering a workshop for independent participants, make sure the description is super clear, so that they have a sense of what they are letting themselves in for. If your course material is potentially emotionally, physically or spiritually challenging for participants, tell them in the copy! Maybe even consider creating an application form / interview process, to give them a chance to consciously decide if the course is right for them and to help you find out if they are a good fit. There will always be resistance in every workshop, but it's helpful to the group process to recruit participants who are prepared to meet their resistance and work through it.

3.) Prepare your participants: provide information

Creative workshops, no matter how “light” or “playful” can trigger anxiety for many people. It can be helpful for everyone who's going to be in the room to receive information before the workshop so that they can prepare themselves. You could send out an introductory email to explain a bit about what's in store, who you are, how you work, what might be expected of them, what they need to bring, etc. This information will empower them to be able to take care of themselves.

4.) Put in the planning time, then throw your plan away

When it comes to planning: brainstorm all the things you could offer in relation to the workshop theme, then make a rough plan, guessing at the timings. Be prepared to chuck your plan out the window and follow the flow if the group's energy and curiosity takes you in an unexpected direction. The preparation time will have given your mind a chance to get familiar with the areas of exploration, which will support you to go off piste with ease if necessary.

5.) Ground yourself

Do whatever you need to do to ground yourself before the workshop – this might mean having an early night, meditating, walking in nature, eating well, packing up all your equipment the night before, chatting your plan through with a friend, writing, drawing – whatever helps you connect with yourself and calm your nervous system down. The group members' nervous systems will be responding to yours, so the calmer you are when you enter the room, the easier it will be for the group to settle into the work. Keep grounding yourself throughout the workshop, it will make it easier for you to tune into the group and notice your own instincts.

6.) Set out your aims, intentions and boundaries

Start the workshop with setting out your aims, intentions and boundaries – even if you've sent this out by email, speak it aloud – the group will be more able to relax into the work, if they are clear what's happening and what's expected of them. Remember: not everyone reads emails!

7.) Find out how everyone is

Make space to find out how everyone is before launching into activities. It can be really helpful for everyone to have a sense of what's in the room, so that you can alter your plan to suit the mood and participants can support each other through the tasks. Keep checking in with the group throughout your session, it's a useful temperature gage for you to respond to.

8.) Less is more!

Leave plenty of time for reflection around your activities – this is where a lot of the learning and integration happens. Resist the urge to squeeze in one more exercise. 

9.) Leave time for endings

Factor in lots of space for endings: as the facilitator, it's your job to provide a bridge back to “reality.” If you've invited your participants to open up, they may be feeling vulnerable and will need time and guidance to zip themselves back up before leaving the space.

10.) Ask for feedback

It's impossible to get an accurate sense of how your activities have landed without feedback. Feedback is the thing that helps facilitators to grow their practice. Make it part of the workshop, find dynamic and creative ways to draw out their reflections and this will be useful to the participants as well as you.

If you're interested in developing your creative facilitation practice, I'll be running two courses in autumn 2021, one in person in Bristol UK and one online. Check out The Well-Held Space here.

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