During the appreciation circle that the organising team held after closing a 170-participant, multigenerational, week-long European Nonviolent Communication festival, a long-time colleague said to me: “Your large group facilitation was beyond mastery; it had magical qualities.” My inner response: “Well, of course it’s magic – I cannot possibly facilitate such a large group on my own!”
I did not say anything loud at the time though. Later I realised that we rarely (if ever!) speak about the invisible realms of facilitating groups in complex contexts.
This topic requires at least a book as it covers such a wide and wild horizon: from intentionally expanding the sphere of possibility together with the client (to venture out beyond the realm of the known, easy and safe) to connecting with the group and place in non-ordinary reality to asking for human and more-than-human support to intuition to embodiment to authenticity ….
But let me start with one of the more tangible facets (and leave the juiciest stuff for later ;-)), one that can be applied to a wide range of life situations – well beyond group process interventions.
From tools to inner receptivity
For a group process facilitator/host, a vast repertoire of models, methodologies, techniques is super important: as each process is tailor-made for the needs of the specific group/team/organisation, it is useful to have a wide toolkit at hand for crafting a powerful experience.
But this is just one, rather narrow level of what a facilitator/host offers. The inner space from which the offering comes is key. One place where – in my experience – magic starts (or ends, if it is not present) is a radically hospitable, embodied inner space in which the facilitator meets the client, the group, and every one involved.
How does this live in me?
Nurturing radical inner hospitality
It means being open, receiving, even loving of each and every person – and of everything they bring to the group. Including what we would name as anger, rage, aggression, resentment, judgments, naiveté and any other offerings that we usually do not associate with smooth collaboration.
I deeply believe that everything that is offered in a group process – explicitly in words or implicitly in energy – has a message for the whole. If a person is angry, they are angry because they care about something so much. How can I connect to the deeper humanity that is in them? How do I as facilitator create a space in which what they care about can be expressed in a way that the others can more easily hear? How do I know when it’s time to hear all key pains in the group – and when not, because somethings else would better serve the whole right there and then? Important note here: having a radical respect for everything that happens does not mean that every thought, feeling, idea needs to be verbally expressed and heard in the large group. It does mean however that I keep nurturing a radically hospitable inner space for whatever people bring. I reach beyond the rational mind into the realm of deep longings that connect us as humans.
How does this live in me during a group process or workshop?
When a behaviour comes up that is potentially triggering to others, I almost automatically do the following:
- Check-in with my body, and bring the focus from the mind (physically head) to my center of gravity below the navel. This makes a huge shift from thought-level to a more holistic experience.
- With breathing in and out, I visualise a large soft bubble of care that extends from my torso to the other person. Key here is to really feel the care for that other person. This sheer action usually helps the person relax at least a little.
- From there it all depends. Sometimes a person just wants to be heard, and that’s it. More often it helps to name the underlying quality, value or need that is inherent in their expression of, for example, anger. And I do that for them, with utmost respect – not diagnosing, but gently checking if this is what they are longing for, and would like to see it manifested in whatever the group is creating. This brings relief both to the person in question, and to the rest of the group – as they can more easily connect to the deeper human longing than to the complaining and/or blaming that covers it!
This ‘inner process’ has been inspired by my martial arts experience – learning to extend my awareness beyond my physical being – and by nonviolent communication that helps me connect empathically to whatever is important to people in a given situation.
As always, an honest intent to receive people in their beauty is key. All else is secondary.
After years of practice, I can now usually cultivate this radical hospitality during the workshop no matter what comes up in the group. Quite predictably, the more hospitable I have become through the years, the less drama happens in the group processes I facilitate.
Creating the container of radical hospitality in invisible realms before the workshop
When I reasonably expect that the group I will be working with will bring into a room a lot of vastly different interests and strong emotions, then I start creating a radically hospitable container way before the workshop itself. In fact it starts already when dialoguing with the caller of the event – the person who hires me. A radically hospitable inner stance helps me listen deeply to their concerns and hopes, and to the larger whole in which they are embedded.
Then, in the stillness of my home, comes the time for a next step: connecting with the group in invisible realms, with the aim to create a welcoming space in which they will feel relaxed, engaged and inspired to sense in together into the larger picture, and co-create the future they really long for.
Coming from a place of stillness, I expand my awareness from my physical being to a larger space: I create a soft, welcoming energetic bubble that starts in my body (between my heart and my hara), and extends a few metres in front of my torso. I focus my intent, and visualise the group in the workshop venue embraced by that bubble of care and trust. I do this until, on energetic level, a sense of wholeness comes: everything feels to be in the right place.
This works for me as a highly visual and kinaesthetic person. For other people it might be different.
What is key is again
1. quieten down the ‘monkey mind’’ first,
2. set an honest intention, and
3. find your own way to connect to the group. It may be as simple as voicing the intention and the invitation for an engaging and productive time together. Or find a metaphor. Or draw a symbol. These are the portals to a ‘felt sense’, which is really crucial – that you are, with all of who you are, connected with the quality of the space you want to invite for the workshop.
Connecting to the wider container that holds me
Sometimes, in longer-term processes, it can be challenging for me to keep loving somebody no matter what. This is what happened during that week-long nonviolent communication event too: after a while, I did find it challenging to unconditionally receive one particular person.
I knew it was time to ask for support. Many people turn to empathetic friends or colleagues for that. For me, what is even more potent, is to go and talk to the place that hold us: in this case it was the land and the forest our venue was embraced by. I quieted down, expressed where I was (closing myself to one person), and what I longed for (create and maintain a loving container for this person even when I am challenged), and asked for support. I needed a larger presence to hold me so that I could hold the person and the entire group.
In many ways, we are holding space for some people – children, vulnerable ones, partners, colleagues at work, friends, aging parents – while also being held by greater circles: partners, parents, friends, therapists, mentors. And there is always, always a larger container that holds us (even though we might not be conscious of it): the land, the ancestors, inspiring people from history, non-human beings of nature, spirit helpers and guides … In my experience, they are very ready to step in – they just need an invitation.
Radical hospitality for the wholeness of Life
Inspired by the ‘radical hospitality’ that I offer to others when in facilitating/hosting role, I am still learning to expand this kind of loving embrace to myself and to what Life serves me well beyond the workshop space. To the unexpected blows and gifts; the people I randomly connect with in the streets; the sun’s kisses and the rising moon. How can I radically receive the wholeness of Life? And how can I lovingly embrace my inner experience and reactions to what life serves me?
With a bow to All of Life,