toddler wearing a cowboy hat on a play horse

7 Approaches for Purposeful Event Design & Facilitation

As a consultant I treat the work my clients trust me with as a gift. They trust me with their hardest problems, their personal vulnerabilities, and their dreams. I try to handle each one as a sacred heirloom. My goal is to help take something that is fragile (from newness or fear) and make it sturdy and long-lasting. In this work, I find several things the most precious to be trusted with: ghostwriting, media preparation, and facilitation. Today, I’m going to share about facilitation as I’ve had more inquiries about it lately from clients, peers, and mentees alike.

I think facilitation is precious because of the power a dynamic event or meeting can generate. The endorphins from an inspiring collaborative session. The access to a national expert to inform or change thinking. The new ways to approach a problem and/or work with a team. Basically, a well-designed and thoughtfully facilitated event can crank folks up for good or squash their spirits.

At this point in my career, I have spent thousands of hours facilitating – from a planning session with a small non-profit to 300+ person multi-day offsites for the federal government. Through these sessions, I’ve come to rely on seven things that help me design and facilitate sessions that client and participant alike rate highly. I thought it would be helpful to explain them within the context of a national childcare care summit I did this month. Here we go…

Start at the end.

I do not do any work on an event until the client clearly and specifically answers this question: “When the event (meeting, offsite, session) is over, what three things do you want to have occur and/or have in hand?” I get this answer to be as precise and granular as possible. For the child summit, it began as “get recommendations” and ended up as “two recommendations from each group which address the what, the why, and the how for one single thing.” The preciseness enabled me to create a breakout session that was (1) interactive, (2) contained quite time for personal reflection, (3) templates to capture all the discussion and additional recommendations, and (4) targeted prioritized recommendations.

Think wholistic.

While each event has a desired outcome, it’s not just about the work. It’s about how the whole experience enables the outcome to occur. It’s for this reason I ask each client, “How will you know the event was successful… what will you feel, hear, and see?” This is an activity in visualization which helps everyone begin to see the event together. It’s important to give the client time to think about this and let their vision occur – in other words, don’t pounce on them with “would you like…” questions. After all facilitating is about making space for ideas. For this event the client wanted a casual environment that helped people of various backgrounds and titles feel equal and empowered to share their ideas. This resulted in name tags with only a person’s first name, a commitment (see next item) that focused on getting everyone’s input, and breakout room facilitators prepped to reduce dominant voices and amplify others.

Commit to common behavior.

Many facilitators call these “norms.” But after thousands of hours facilitating, there is nothing normal about how groups come together, and some things that are perceived to be a “norm” is not a typical group dynamic based on their organization or team. So, I recently changed to offering “commitments.” This is how we will commit to work together in this space in community… and after I presented them (reading them as I statements) I asked the childcare summit group to give me a resounding “wooo hooo!” to show their commitment. For this event it was, “I commit to…”:

  • Quiet my technology and be present
  • Focus on overarching issues and solutions (verbal side note – this isn’t about your personal problems)
  • Listen to learn and speak to educate
  • Seek out input from every participant
  • Use “yes, and…” when I respond to build stronger recommendation (verbal note: no one can respond with no or yes, but…)
  • Create singularly focused recommendations

Think about the participant.

So often facilitators get caught up on the client and their needs. It’s important to always ask yourself, “Would I like to attend and participate in this event?” or “How would I feel about spending # hours of my time in this way?” So many planning sessions and events I attend are geared to auditory learners (lots of time listening) and external processors (also known as extroverts who think with their mouths). It’s important to have something for every type of adult learner.

For the childcare summit I included the following:  visual learners got some PowerPoint slides, written instructions, and a worksheet to follow; kinesthetic learners got fillable worksheets; auditory learners got speeches and verbal instructions; Linguistic learners had interactive group discussions; Logical learners got a three-step process in the workgroups and polling data. Intrapersonal learners (introverts) got several reflective quite times built into the plenary session and workgroups. Interpersonal (extroverts) had social breaks and collaborative work sessions. Everyone had one or two ways to function in their preferred learning environment which helped them be better contributors to the purpose at hand.

Also, always do a walkthrough of the event… from opening the email or invite the night before, to transportation, registration, seating, heating/air conditioning, time to move between sessions, bathrooms, and more. Move like they would, look around, and think about the problems they might run into, questions they might have, or tools they might need in order to get and be there in a calm and productive state. For this event, the walk through resulted in a few more pre-event logistical emails, event signage, escorts through the large building, pre-ordered lunch options, and more microphones.

Oh, and speaking of microphones… never let a speaker convince you they don’t need one due to their loud voice. A mic is not for them – it’s for the participants; many of whom have hearing deficits which you won’t know about. If they cannot hear they cannot learn, think, or contribute to your work at hand.

Make it appropriate.

From your ice breaker to your activities, everything should align to the topic and add to participant’s connection to the cause or work. For example, at one two-day planning session on rural health, I had enormous photos of rural images from across the United State literally wallpaper the room. Anywhere someone sat or worked in a group it was like they were looking out a massive window at a tranquil rural vista. This relaxed participants, made the internal windowless conference room less morbid, and reminded folks why they were in the room.

For the childcare summit, playfulness was appropriate. Preschoolers learn so much through games, imagination, art, and song. I wanted participants to reconnect with their inner child. I opened with a mindful meditation on nine photos of different clouds (with the guidance that the day was for “blue sky thinking”) and folks picked which cloud best represented their mood. I made mention of daydreaming, stretching for dodgeball at recess, and sang part of “where is thumbpkin.” I also had the room play Simon Says as part of a mid-day knowledge check. In small groups, participants used this model to introduce themselves: (1) say their first name, (2) explain what they did for a living to a five-year-old, and (3) share their favorite children’s book, song, or movie. Each small element generated a more playful – child-like – session and it showed up in the participant’s energy. In case you’re wondering, “I’m Emily. I get folks to think about and do things using words and pictures, and my favorite children’s book is Dandelion.”

Also, I created a day-off event text for the four-person client team, myself, and two teammates so we could easily stay in touch and make adjustments. To set the tone for the day, I kicked off the text stream with the photo on this blog of me as a toddler “rearing to go” on my favorite bouncy horse pony toy, with the reminder to keep our “child-like wonder and enthusiasm throughout the day.”

Center yourself.

While the client itsthinking about the event and outcomes and staff/team are working on logistics… you need to work on yourself. What do you need to be successful in the moment? I found that a detailed facilitation guide is a must have. It’s less a guide and more like a full out play script of things I might say or questions I might use. I found that when I write it all out by time slot, that I can find :

  • Areas that feel bumpy which makes me re-explore them for a new solution
  • Areas that are too wordy that I need to rethink, cut, or put on a screen or pre-read
  • Areas that are stagnant due to too much listening or not enough movement, and redesign them
  • Areas where I don’t have the right tools or set up in the room which I resolve
  • Areas where I didn’t allocate enough time and rejigger the agenda

Creating it and practicing with it also helps me internalize the flow and instructions so I can be more present and responsive in the moment. I think less about what I have to do, and more about what I need to do when I’m at the event interacting with participants comments, fears, confusion, and ideas.

This guide also helps me show the game day event very clearly to the client as a final check that we’re on the same page. I always include the caveat that is a starting place for me and that I will, at some point, leave the guide which means my words will change or even a planned activity because it’s about being fully present in the group and responding to the needs in the room… but always with the clear understanding of the three things that must be in hand at the end of it all.

I also found I need to block off 1 hour each day the week leading into the group to truly get my head in the game. I do this by visualizing, reviewing the script, and prepping my outfit which impacts my mood, motion, and success. I also dedicate half of the day before the event to do a full mental walkthrough of the entire event and practice my parts, especially how to pronounce names. On the day of, I pack a bag of water and protein-based snacks with some chocolate, get there before the team for quite time in the space, and try to have time alone at lunch to recenter. Finally, I block the day or weekend after for quite time as my introvert battery is depleted.

Get feedback.

It’s important to understand how it all came together to help your client get necessary resources, to understand how participants valued the time they gave to the work, and to grow as a facilitator—from what you design to how you deliver it day of. This can be as simple as a +/- on an easel pad to capture “what worked” and “what needs improvement.” It can be five rated questions emailed the day after the event so folks have time to process the experience. Or in the case of the childcare summit, we did a few polling questions – from questions with a 6-point scale (6=outstanding, 1=lacking), to forced choice questions (pick the one from a list), or build a word cloud (we used mentimeter website), such as “one word that describes your experience at the event.”

I also like to do a post-event “hot wash” where we capture what was great, what worked good enough, what didn’t work (and how to fix it), and what was missing. I always directly ask about my job as a facilitator – either in a formal event assessment, to some participants, or with the client; as everyone has a different perspective and helpful input.

Finally, if you’re looking to learn more about facilitating these are my go-to recommendations: 

  • Whole Mind Facilitation by Eric Meade … he and I have facilitated at various times together for a decade and each time I learn something new from the collaboration.
  • The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker … it covers all kinds of events from national conferences to dinner parties, and how to make them intimate, compelling, and creative.

 Good luck out there, and please share your facilitation lessons learned!

People meeting around a table with computers

Better Meetings, Better Well-Being

I recently read the U.S. Surgeon General’s first-ever report on workplace well-being. The elegantly simple but thorough report gave context, human needs, and key components for five areas: protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, and opportunity for growth. As I scrolled through the report, I saw several common issues that come up in my coaching and organizational culture work. What came to mind in every section was how meetings touch each of the five areas, for better or worse.

Meetings stay on my mind as I spend nearly 70% of every workday in them. Additionally, I’m a facilitator who works hard to deliver meaningful experiences and outcomes when groups come together to think about and work on complex problem and big goals.

I constantly struggle to find (make) time to dig in on an issue, have open time to creatively think, or just be able to process information from one meeting before I enter the next one. I try to be mindful of my calendar – time for emails, time for recurring work, time for lunch, time to reflect after facilitating. Yet, I cannot seem to work around the sheer volume of meetings.

I attribute the spike in meetings to three things: (1) poor leader/organization communications, (2) the need for many executives to “see” their staff because they didn’t change their management approach with a remote work model – which is connected to trust, (3) the misapplication of agile scrum techniques, from a focus on productivity and work realignment to manager oversight and accountability.

Meetings & Well-Being

What began as a response to the COVID pandemic and the overnight flip to a remote work force, is now a mindless habit of meetings and more meetings. It’s time to get intentional. I think a commitment to better meetings – more intentional meetings – can support each factor of workplace well-being called out by the Surgeon General. For example:

  • Protection from harm:  Do you have meeting norms in place (and enforce them) to support open dialogue and belonging, rather than the oldest, most senior, or loudest person dominate? Do you have meetings that support different adult learning styles and neurodivergent thinkers? Are you clear about on/off camera and why? (Note: one friend set a “faceless Friday” norm and some quite hours on Friday as a why to help folks close out the week and prepare for the following one)
  • Connection and community:  Do you have dedicated time within meetings to simply “be human” and talk about life… or simply have a meeting to foster connection? Do you offer walking meetings – either in person or virtual where employees can get outside to share updates?
  • Work-life harmony: Do you have meeting-free time within your week or month for the entire team? Do you or your company constantly hold meetings 11:30-1 which prevents time to separate from work and eat lunch or take a mindful moment to recharge? Do you have a common approach to meetings (see below)?
  • Mattering at work: Do you have a habit of recognition in your meetings… how do you give kudos or provide space for team members to give gratitude to another person?
  • Opportunity for growth: As a leader, are you being transparent with your work – and sharing teachable moments about what you’re handling, why, and how—and the lessons you learned? Do you let various members of the team design and lead a meeting, or rotate facilitation for a standing meeting? Do you set aside time for “learning meetings” when an employee can spotlight new findings, helpful habits, or an interesting article or podcast?

Improve Meetings

A good meeting requires time for the host (meeting organizer) to create. If you hold meetings where you just show up cold turkey as host, it’s time to rethink things because you’re probably wasting time, losing value, and alienating your team.

  • Review your organization’s or divisions meeting’s:  How many meetings are conducted a week and a month? How are standing meetings – and what is the % of the workforce’s day? What is the cost of each meeting (e.g., each person’s hourly rate x number of attendees… if you don’t know this just use $150 per person)? What is the value of each meeting – how can you show it was worth the cost in terms of what it generated (e.g., knowledge, quality, creativity, strategy, efficiency, innovation, community)? How satisfied are attendees with the meeting, or how beneficial do they rate them (e.g., ability to do job, increased productivity, connection)? How many attendees multi-task during the meeting?
  • Set meeting standards: To get the most of meetings, consider what is needed to help attendees generate and receive value. Did you put the purpose of the meeting in the invite, and clearly articulate what will be accomplished by the end of the call/session? Did you include pertinent background information in the meeting invite? Did you attach all essential information several days before the meeting, and did you also block attendee’s calendar to read the materials, so they come prepared to engage?  Did you set the right amount of time for the team’s work and provide a realistic timed agenda in the meeting invite (note: most folks misjudge time by a deficit of 25%)? Did you send out a summary that same day with actions for whom and by when, decisions made, core topics discussed, and next steps – that can be read in 5 minutes?
  • Teach meeting design and management:  It’s important for all employees to know how to create and run a meeting – it’s both a skill and an art. Make sure folks are clear on what type of meeting is needed for the issue at hand: plan (assign roles, “define done,” set deadlines); sync (coordinate across a team on where things are in a complex integrated initiative); collaborate (work on a specific issues as a team or cross train); strategy (explore future, brainstorm); out-brief (provide status to executive/project lead); or connection (time for team to celebrate, recognize outcomes, or get together a humans)—and label them as such in the invite. Help folks understand how to put together a timed agenda that builds connection, elevates all voices, and creates outcomes. Teach basic facilitation skills to help team members create a safe space for hard conversations, as well as fun. And don’t forget how to integrate technology into meetings – music, chat, collaboration tools.

Here’s to better meetings filled with engaged staff and meaningful conversations, as well as more white space on our calendars … I feel better just thinking about it.

Emily at work desk

Give Mindful Feedback

I must start this piece with a moment of gratitude for Susan Stolov, my first boss out of college and a savvy businesswoman. I still rely on so many of her business tenants 20+ years later:  

  • There is always so much work you never need to talk bad about the competition, let your work quality speak for itself
  • It’s perfectly OK to fire a client
  • How you tell a story changes everything, and it’s the research that gets you to a compelling one
  • Creativity and data can gracefully co-exist, and should
  • Unwavering attention to the details builds results
  • You can have fun at work

While these and many other mentoring moments shaped how I approach work to this day, it was how she approach feedback for which I am most grateful. I’d had jobs in high school and college, but she was the first person to give me a formal end of year review. I am fortunate she set the standard for me.

First, she set the tone. She picked a fancy restaurant in Washington, DC indicating this was a special conversation that warranted a white table cloth. In this environment we were both relaxed and we were free of work distractions in a lovely venue.

Next, she came prepared. She had notes with specifics – examples of positive impact and areas that needed attention. We talked through the feedback in a conversation at the table which made it feel more collaborative. I always felt her feedback was ground in her desire to help me be successful, as well as her business.

Then, she was vulnerable. She revealed personal experiences in her career that helped me understand that we all learn and grow along the way … that no one starts out an award-winning TV producer, sought after expert, and business owner on day one. Her vulnerability made it easier to accept the feedback with a lens of growth rather than a sense of failure.  

She moved on to the businesses. Because of how I contributed to the company’s and client’s success – my raise would be X and my bonus (based on a pre-agreed to structure) would be Z. It was all broken out on paper along with my benefits for an itemized view and grand total. The connection to the bottom line was transparent.

Finally, she ended with encouragement. Each year it varied. From a trip to the New Orleans for a news producer’s conference for training to the incentive of a spa day if I could produce 1 video without a typo. Closing with her thanks for me and a toast to our future together.

She laid out a model of mindful feedback that helped me grow in my career, but also gave me a positive connection to feedback and annual reviews. A true gift.

A few months ago, I attended a Mindful Leader Summit. One session focused on “compassionate performance reviews” – how to be more mindful when you give feedback. The session brought back memories of my past reviews, those I received and those I gave. A few of the presenter’s tips stuck with me:

  • Check your own relationship with feedback before you give it – is your body tense just thinking about a review, and if so, take action to “unwind” or process the energy such as with a walk, meditation, several deep breaths, or listen/dance to a favorite song
  • Prepare yourself to give mindful feedback by examining your motivations, recognizing the other person’s humanity, assuming positive intent, and feeling compassion
  • Be mindful of when you give feedback, so you come prepared, aren’t rushed, and are fully present with the recipient
  • Choose a setting that gives you both balance, and move from behind the big desk to be more connected with the other person

Finally, remember to “gift the other person with your attention.”

Emily with friends around a table outside

Making Adult Friendships

I grew up in two “All American” TV sitcom kind of wonderful neighborhoods where kids rode bikes and roamed free delighting in imagination driven adventures in the days before cell phones. The connections were started by proximity and forged in laughter and skinned knees. College was much the same way but with more diverse options.

I treasure these friendships and hold them in a sacred place in my heart. However, time, miles, and maturity can stretch and strain these relationships. We grow as do they.

As we age, we build new friendships through work, partners, volunteering, hobbies, church, and kids. Again, proximity plays a role. So as friends move away and life remains hectic, the bond is there but the connection changes.

Over the past few years I’ve found that while I maintain a lot of friendships – we are no longer physically close which leaves a gap. Those who I most want to spend my time with are hours or several states away. And yes, there is Facetime and texts to keep the connection. And yes, there is space, a void, that technology cannot fill.

So, although I keep my friends, I find myself wanting – and needing – new ones… but well, it sure does feel awkward to make them as an adult. I’m here to share that the friends I most recently made during/post COVID have been soul-filling and worth the funky feeling first moments.

My newest friends know a more well-rounded version of me. The me of now, not of the version of me that was in such formative years. I also feel we value our relationship more because of life perspective, and we respect our time together through candor, quick laughter, and empowering support. The relationships also formed quickly as we know time is limited and precious. I also learned that you can have friends for different reasons. I’m not looking for a new “bestie” with which to run around town, but rather people I can truly connect with on various aspects of my life. More niche relationships rather than all-around buddy.

Here are a few ways I recently made some friends as an awkward 50 year old:

Accept the offer:  During COVID lockdown I began working with a new government client. In Zoom meetings I was drawn to her positive energy, quick wit, and creative thinking. At times she said what was in my mind which rarely happens. When the work ended, she politely said, “It was nice working with you we should stay in touch.” Hmmmm. I’d heard this before and I almost blew it off as professional politeness. But instead, I thought about for a bit. Did she mean it? How weird would I look reaching out without work to talk about? Would I look desperate, as if I had no friends? But I reflected on how I felt with her and thought, “What the hell. She offered. I’d accept.” It’s been over 2 years and we talk monthly and even met up to spend a day at the Virginia Fine Art Museum in her town; looking, eating, and dreaming together. I always leave our chats refreshed and recharged.

Make the offer:  I met a younger coworker who came to me for some coaching on an issue. I reflected after each call how much I learned from her in the process. So, I asked if she’d be my mentor. After a few chats we talked about our new friendship, and settled in for deeper discussions. We talk about religion, family traditions, and recipes. There is a casualness in our conversations. Authentic and no fancy airs. Just two women appreciating their personal journey, together.

Trust the vibe:  I completed my mindfulness facilitator certification in a global program, fully online. The work was vulnerable and a bit lonely done remotely, coupled with culture, time zone, and language differences. Via Zoom, I dropped into our pre-determined small workgroup and saw her smile. Warmth and comfort. When we needed to pair up and find a class “buddy,” I pounced on her solely due to how I felt in her presence. Over a year later we talk and text regularly, share tips, listen intently, laugh hard, and hold space for each other to express what’s in our heart – the joy and hurt. She then pulled me into her network which led to a global network of like-minded kind folks.

Share your network: As the cloud of COVID descended, I texted two friends together, made an introduction about how I thought they should know each other and what they had in common, and shared something I thought they’d both like. The conversation has never stopped … continued through hundreds of texts with lots of memes, photos, article links, celebrations, and prayer requests.

These new relationships taught me that when you sense a connection — explore it! Forget the inner anxious voice of your 13-year-old self. Ignore proximity as the folks you most need might not live on your street anymore. Be open to a new type of targeted connection rather than a single end-all-be-all friend.

And most of all, remember we all need friends… and someone is in need of you.

Graphic recorder drawing content on wall poster

Facilitation for Meaningful Outcomes  

Experiencing a well-designed and gracefully facilitated meeting is a gift. It demonstrates thoughtfulness, creativity, and clarity of purpose – as well as respect for diversity of thought and the use of people’s time. Intentional work sessions can feel like a road trip: excitement, uncomfortable, expanding, playful, and with a sense of relief and pride when you arrive… all guided by the facilitator.

While I didn’t intentionally set out to become a facilitator, it’s now one of my favorite work experiences. I grew into this role drawing on skills I honed over the course of my career:  public speaking, storytelling, coaching, listening, planning, and creativity. I also took courses on facilitation, read books, and closely watched facilitators to learn from them in action – what resonated with me and the room, and what didn’t.

What I realized over time is that there is no single way to facilitate. Yes, there are commonalities to how you put an event together (e.g., intros, norms, breaks, rotational work groups). But in terms of how you facilitate, well, that’s entirely up to you. Each facilitator brings a piece of them to the DNA of the event. And that’s a powerful tool.

Periodically folks reach out to me about facilitation – how to do it, how to start, or how to think through and design an activity for a meeting. There are two parts to facilitation:  design the session and deliver it. I’ll start with facilitation design.

Facilitation Design

Most importantly, design a meeting you’d like to attend – doing things, having discussions, and building solutions that can’t be done expect in community with others. Collaboration, inspiration, integration, and ideation come from interaction. Create a meeting where folks can connect. PowerPoints and lectures won’t cut it. You need to have folks sharing and working together in order to build new insights and solutions.

I never start planning a meeting without knowing the three goals of the meeting. Specifically, what needs to be physically in our hands (or minds) when the session is over. Or, asked another way, how will you know, what will you see, or what will you hear if the event is successful. This is essential so that you create activities in the time you have that will culminate in the right outcome or product. These goals are shared with the participants when I say, “At the end of the next two-days we will have 1, 2, and 3” so they are clear on what they need to bring into being as a group. I also coordinate with the client/event lead on where I have wiggle room and how to coordinate with them on changes in the agenda. There are times when conversations occur that change the course of a meeting and as a facilitator, we need to recognize that and make space for it. We cannot be so driven by the clock or preconceived goals that we miss the magic in the moment.

Understand time, and that you’ll never have enough. At the end of every strategy session I facilitate I hear the words, “we really need to do this more often.” Yet, intentional, facilitated meetings remain an annual event at best which results in a cram it all in experience of report the past, understand the now, and plan the future in under 8 hours event, sometimes half a day! As things get dumped in, always check them against the goals. I also found that 90% of the people I work with on a meeting do not understand how long it takes to do things, such as doing introductions of 20 people in 5-10 minutes, nope. I plan in 5-minute increments – never 2 or 7 minutes. By rounding up you typically get to a more accurate time, plus I generally add 5 or more minutes to what folks think it will take. Participants need to have breathing room and not feel like they are getting shoved through a gauntlet of exercises to complete. The time and space should foster a sense of relaxed thinking.

You need activities that help folks share who they are, both professionally and personally. You need quite time for introverts to process and frame their thinking before they share and for extroverts to take a strategic pause. You need small group thinking to build comfort with each other and big group validation discussions. You need visuals – from easel pad or notes on a screen to a graphic recorder – to help reach all the brains and enable participants to actually see what they are building together.

When I build a meeting agenda I use a column format: 

  • Time (9:00-9:10 / 10 minutes) so it have a clock view to help me quickly know how much time I have left in a session and a participant view – “I’ve been listening to X person for 20 minutes.”
  • Activity name and description so my client and team understand what the participants will do together and the supplies needed to help them succeed
  • Outcome or purpose of each activity so my client and team knows explicitly what the work will generate and how it connects to the 3 goals – from how introductions are done, to the food provided, or worksheet completed

Upon approval of the agenda, I convert it to my facilitation guide – keeping the time column and writing out my full “script” in place of the activity description. By writing it out word for word I check my time allocation (140 words = 1 minute speaking) and that I have the steps clear for participants. I also found that this helps me internalize the meeting so that I can be more present day of. I found that by writing it all down, I feel freer to make adjustments during the day because I intuitively know what needs to be done. Sometimes I rely heavily on the script when I want to say things precisely because certain words really matter, but mostly it’s a guide. Having it written out, also enables someone else to step in and facilitate if an emergency arises.

The location is another key consideration. Can the work be done in the space? Tables, and if so round tables or U-shape or just chairs in a circle? Windows? White boards, easel pads, or a screen? Technology? Accessibility? Parking? Meals? The place you put folks impacts their feeling and thinking.


Moving into day of tips, the most important is to understand and articulate your role as a facilitator. I typically see myself as a friendly guide or host with a side of timekeeper, cheerleader, and investigative reporter. I think it’s important for facilitators to know you need to:

  • Hold folks accountable to the norms and purpose of the work – so they have the right kind of conversations to create what is needed in the time allocated
  • Help all voices get heard … give folks actual quite time to think before a conversation starts or use “I’m going to call on a few folks I haven’t heard from lately”
  • Stop/redirect a discussion and shut folks down (obviously nicely) when it’s toxic, unproductive, or irrelevant – how to do this gracefully is a whole other blog
  • Make sure all the work is done — or get consensus in the room that X will come off so they can dig more into Y as something significant came up
  • Be ok with long stents of silence and the unknown as you were not there to give answers but to create space for them to come to life
  • Find the balance between how your personality/presence is needed and stepping back to the let the process work
  • Listen to words that constantly arise that need to be explored or what is to being said or skirted around
  • Read the energy and adjust accordingly with your voice, where you stand, or the activity
  • Wear clothes so you move comfortably without drawing attention or causing a distraction

As a certified mindfulness facilitator, I want to wrap up with a focus on personal energy, being aware of how you are doing throughout a session. Consider being alone before participants arrive to center yourself – see how you’re feeling (frenetic energy or knot in the stomach nerves), take a few breaths for calmness, reflect on how you want to host, and mentally walk through the meeting to set your intention. As an introvert, I also (1) plan quiet time the day before the session to practice and visualize the day, (2) find a few moments of quite in a session (perhaps at lunch or on a break) to recenter, (3) selectively participate in evening events when I have multi-day session, and (4) have alone time the day after a session is over to process the experience and recharge my people battery.

Before you end your session, seek feedback in real time while the emotions are fresh, and ideally a few days later for more reflective input. Day of, I simply put a + or – on an easel page and ask what worked (+) and what needs improvement (-). In a post event survey, I aim for 5-10 questions, most on a 4-point Likert scale, to avoid the safe, middle of the road score of 3 on a 5-pointscale, with a few open-ended questions. The survey should seek insights on if goals were met, activities, was it an effective use of time, venue, and facilitator.

Finally, if you’re looking for ways to learn more about creating space to bring folks together for meaningful discussions, I offer up two books. First, Whole Mind Facilitation by Eric Meade. I recommend this book because I’ve seen him in action, so I know what he wrote works, and co-facilitated with him several times – each time learning so much. Priya Parker offers a broader take on how to bring people together in her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. This book is about being a host and designing experiences with people in mind.  

An Eight Hour Conversation in Silence

I spent the last eight hours sharing more than 1 million words. The words came and went. Some in an emotional onslaught. Others dripped slow like molasses. The words reverberated, some boomeranging back again and again and again. Some I wanted more of, and others I wished to escape.

For eight hours in silence, I shared more than 1 million words to myself during a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction retreat. The experience left me calm in some ways and spent in others. Eight hours with only your own words to listen to is daunting, even for me – an introvert – who’s comfortable spending time alone.

Each new practice of the day reinforced just how many “mind habits” I have … those loops that play on repeat in my head or rear their ugly head at the most in opportune time. While some habits are good:  I carry with me a strong sense of love and community. Other mind habits are distracting and sometimes detrimental:  The little nag that whispers not enough, not yet, not you.

This retreat, part of an eight-week training, emersed me in a variety of mindful practices all geared to help me recognize, be curious about, and move around my mind habits. During the day I:

  • Did seated breathing meditation
  • Conducted a body scan lying down
  • Held various yoga poses
  • Walked mindfully outside
  • Sat and ate in silence centered on my food

As our class practiced together via Zoom, our instructor stated that throughout the day we’d have “visitors,” and when they arrived simply name them, breathe, and let them move on. He shared that each visitor was an opportunity for something to work better rather than be an obstacle. Visitors could feel like a challenge but when embraced with a state of curiosity (Why are you popping up? What can I learn from you? Why are you back?), could be help us grow, reframe our thinking, and forge a new mind habit. I appreciated the metaphor of a challenge being a visitor – a neutral, if not positive word. I also liked that once we learn from our visitor it leaves. It’s not a permanent relationship. We have power over the visitor, and can help them leave.

Additionally, I participated in a few guided meditations. My favorite being “unconditional friendliness.” We were instructed to mentally focus on four specific phrases first thinking about myself, then a friend, then a “neutral” person (someone in the world less connected to you like a neighbor, co-worker, teacher, bus driver, or bartender at your favorite hangout). The four phrases:

  • May you be safe.
  • May you be happy and peaceful.
  • May you be healthy and strong.
  • May you live with ease and joy.

For about twenty minutes I focused on these four phrases. I thought of people in my life mentally stating: May you be safe. May you be happy and peaceful. May you be healthy and strong. May you live with ease and joy. Then I repeated the phrases to myself:  May I be safe. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with ease and joy.

While I don’t have many negative messages in my head, I can’t say have a lot of “pro-love” ones either. I do not typically take time out to mentally love or reassure myself. I don’t regularly hear a soundtrack of compassion play in my head, yet I try to give that to others. It was a meaningful experience to give myself such concentrated positive energy. These well wishes for myself remined me of a meme I saw few weeks ago stating we should talk to ourselves with the same way we do to our pets.

Throughout my day of silent mindful meditation, the words in my head came and went. What began like crashing phrases eased into a gentle ebb and flow with longer breathing spaces of silence between them… followed by a lightened mental load.

Smudge and Fig Preserves, the Cultural Connection at Work

As a consultant with a strong undercurrent of Type A, I find great satisfaction in “the do.” Checklists checked, calls completed, emails sent/deleted, deliverables submitted. Done is a delightful feeling.

However, over the 1.5 years of COVID-crazy I felt like my focus on done became all consuming. As if the more I did would make me feel better; but it didn’t. The satisfaction of complete became the burden of more. More, more, more. I lost sight of the why and missed the joy of the being – especially from the energy of team collaboration. The remote environment seemed to have restricted the connectional side of work in many ways.

Upon this realization, I became deliberate in how I began my latest project which included a partnership with a Native American small business. I wanted to focus on the why, be smart about how we used our time together, and be culturally sensitive. I wanted to put connection front and center of the work.

You see our team’s diversity was significant – DC “beltway bandits,” some PhDs, and Tribal members all working to improve health care for American Indians/Alaska Natives. To support this, we received historical training, word sensitivity workshops, and candid first-hand accounts of cultural nuances. The emersion was great and terrifying. The more I knew, the more I realized there was so much I didn’t know or understand. My lens to life was different. And while that difference is OK – my life is my life – I began to realize how many blind spots I had that could impact the effectiveness of my work. More than anything I didn’t want to produce anything that would offend or do harm to the initiative. For a while I pulled back into listen mode, a bit afraid. Then I found some courage to take steps to move forward and learn. I did this to get more comfortable so that I could really apply my expertise in an appropriate and impactful way. My sitting on the sidelines did not help the cause.

I started by privately connecting with a woman on the project to better understand something done during our weekly team meeting – smudging. At the end of our meetings, her husband would bless us while fanning a giant bird feather over burning, smoking dried plants. He always began with “Grandfather spirit.” The blessing was less prayer and more a setting of intention. A request that the spirit help us be true to our word and compassionate in our actions as we served the community in our work. To be vividly aware of the world and space in which we work. The centering practice provided a calming way to anchor us to our work and take a moment to breathe together as a team before we scattered our separate ways onto another Teams call. My teammate Anna answered my questions and in doing so created a safe space for me to ask and learn more.

The website Indigenous Corporate Training states, “Smudging is traditionally a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place. There are four elements involved in a smudge:

  • The container, traditionally a shell representing water, is the first element.
  • The four sacred plants (cedarsagesweetgrasstobacco), gifts from mother earth, represent the second element.
  • The fire produced from lighting the sacred plants represents the third element.
  • The smoke produced from the fire represents air, the fourth element.”

Fast forward a few months, and Anna learned my mother had open heart surgery. She mailed me four types of smudge to support her recovery:  sweet grass braid, golden sage, traditional sage, and pine picked from her yard. In turn, I sent back a jar of homemade fig preserves that I made with my mother, from figs picked from her yard. Homemade food, a southern tradition, to show love and provide comfort.

This is the real “do” that matters in work. The forging of relationships, the learning, the collaboration, the connection – all of which makes the work better and the journey richer.

Emily in OTF Hell Week Shirt

Be Brave, Leadership Communications Depends on It

The Junior League of Northern Virginia recently asked me to conduct a training on leadership communications during change. No small ask, as “The League” is a global organization that generates community change through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers who promote voluntarism and develop the potential of women. Members are constantly on their A-game, to say the least – leading careers, leading families, leading boards, leading programs.

As I worked on my presentation, I thought about my communications work that helped leaders implement national changes. Reached 100 million Americans to help increase patient awareness of UFE, a non-surgical treatment for uterine fibroids. Increased access to care for rural Veterans by 240% in five years. Facilitated the employment of 60,000 military spouse hires – meeting the White House goal two years ahead of schedule. Increased combat wounded soldiers’ knowledge of an Army program’s services by 35.1% in one year.

I glanced at some of the books on my shelf: Lead from Outside, The Art of Possibility, Missing Conversations, The Leadership Challenge, You Are Your Best Thing, The Third Door, Resonate Leadership, The Five Levels of Attraction, Change Management, Switch, and Change Better. The books on change are endless… and it seems like you barely finish one book before the approach to change itself has changed.

I realized the success of leadership communications to drive a change comes down to a few simple things:

  • A vivid, simple, clearly articulated vision of how the change makes a difference for people in and out of the organization.
  • A consistent, frequent, repeatable approach to sharing information on the change that is centered on the people in the change (not the organization).
    • A litmus test for this is to ask yourself how does your communications help people:  understand the change, believe in the change, internalize the change, prepare for the change, see success, try the change, advocate for the change, elevate issues, see the work change, and be the change?
  • Active listening to those who must walk into the change—as a builder (employee), as a partner, and a customer—and tangibly show them how you applied their feedback to address their perspective and needs.
  • Publicly using data to show what is working in terms of people walking into the change (behaviors and outcomes) and what isn’t, in order to modify the approach.
  • An engaged leader who devotes time, resources, energy, and emotion to the cause, over and over and over and over and over again to bring people into new possibilities, new thinking, new solutions, new actions, and new outcomes. They bring people with them, find new people to join them, and celebrates people along the journey.

But leadership communications in a change is not just about the CEO, SES federal leader, military Commander, or division manager. Leadership communications is at every level. It’s as much about a mindset as the words shared. Successful leadership communications is about bravery.

Bravery to bring voice to the unseen.

Bravery to acknowledge mistakes publicly and regroup.

Bravery to dig into and share the data with others in order to build better solutions.

Bravery to invite adversaries to the table and find common ground.

Bravery to call upon your peers when you’re beyond your expertise.

Bravery to seek diversity and move beyond the established “leadership team.”

Bravery to let others step in so that you can recharge.

Bravery to stay the course when it gets hard, and it will.

Bravery to be silly to lighten the mood.

Bravery to move beyond the board room and be a public cheerleader.

Bravery to reveal your own challenge with change. 

Bravery to show change in action.

Why be brave? Because bravery is where great service to others occurs. As Dr. Rebecca Ray states, “She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave.”