Excellent Facilitation: Create Safe Space

It is vital to create, foster, and support safe spaces where participants can learn together.

In a society that is openly hostile towards critical perspectives, participants in any activity need support when they make their voices heard. Establishing a safe space is powerful, positive, and hopeful, and hope is a requirement for excellent facilitation.    

Seven Ways to Create Safe Space  

  1. Acknowledge that everyone has preconceived ideas about others– or prejudices– that can damage others and ourselves.
  2. Ask participants, “Who should be in this group but is not?”
  3. Focus and limit our conversations until trust increases (sometimes it is better to agree not to talk about specific issue/problem right away.
  4. As the facilitator, seek true dialogue and ask real questions.
  5. Encourage participants to examine their personal assumptions by checking in with others rather than hiding or defending them.
  6. Speak from personal experience by using I statements and do not generalize about others.
  7. Be open to a change of heart as well as a change in thinking. 

These steps can be essential in creating safe space for participants, no matter what kind of physical space you’re in. Read on to learn more about being an excellent facilitator.

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Excellent Facilitation: Make Meaning With Youth

“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” 

Paulo Freire

At their best, group activities can serve as bridges between participants and promote learning through community building. They can reinforce the need for communication, co-learning, and collective action. 

At their worst, group activities can actually be tools of oppression and alienation and serve to support vertical practices that isolate people from each other everyday.

As Paulo Freire wrote, “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” In this sense, excellent facilitation requires that we all become humanists who engage participants with each other, followers with leaders, and teachers with students. 

Making meaning with youth means identifying the intentions, purposes, meaning, and assumptions within, throughout, and after an activity. This can happen in countless ways, but generally looks like this:

  • Make activities hands-on, engaging experiences that allow all students to access their meaning.
  • Learn from mistakes and use failure to teach youth.
  • Inspire innovation and creativity with different ways to solve challenges.
  • Bring youth to deeper meaning by encouraging them to think about how and why something works or fails.
  • Apply meaning to different parts of life, no matter what the activity, and let youth see that activities you’re doing in the moment affect them other places, too.

Approaching activities like this lets youth understand their are deeper meanings, more significant opportunities, and powerful ways the activities YOU facilitate can change the world!

Read The “Excellent Facilitation” Series!

  1. Be An Excellent Facilitator: Before You Start
  2. Excellent Facilitation: Be a Facilitator
  3. Excellent Facilitation: Embrace the Journey
  4. Excellent Facilitation: Seek Consensus
  5. Excellent Facilitation: Create Safe Space
  6. Excellent Facilitation: Make Meaning With Participants
  7. Excellent Facilitation: Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
  8. Excellent Facilitation: Framing and Sequencing
  9. Excellent Facilitation: Create Guidelines and Goals
  10. Excellent Facilitation: Embrace Challenges

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Excellent Facilitation: Reflect, Reflect, Reflect

One way make group events matter is to reflect before, during, and after the reflection.

You can see reflection as a circle: You start with an explanation what you are going to learn and frame its purpose and goals to the group.

As the activity progresses, the facilitator taking a more hands-on or less guiding approach as needed.

Finally, group reflection helps participants see how they met the goals of the workshop, and helps them envision the broader implications.

Then the group has came full-circle.   

Five Types of Reflection Questions

  • Open-ended: Prevents yes and no answers. “What was the purpose of the activity?” “What did you learn about yourself, our team, our program, our organization, or our community?”    
  • Feeling: Requires participants to reflect on how they feel about what they did. “How did it feel when you started to pull it together?”    
  • Judgment: Asks participants to make decisions about things. “What was the best part?” “Was it a good idea?”    
  • Guiding: Steers the participants toward the purpose of the activity and keep the discussion focused. “What got you all going in the right direction?”    
  • Closing: Helps participants draw conclusions and end the discussion. “What did you learn?” “What would you do differently?”    

When your participants have finished reflecting, you might find a warmer, more accepting group that has experienced something together and made meaning as a whole. This is facilitation at its best!

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Excellent Facilitation: Framing and Sequencing

To be an excellent facilitator, its important to practice framing and sequencing. These terms are important for anyone who leads activities, because they should be applied in nearly every activity we facilitate.


Facilitators introduce the purpose, or frame, the group they’re leading. Framing happens when a facilitator sets a simple prompt that lets participants know there is a purpose to the group. Framing relieves participants of the question “Why are we doing this?” by bringing them to their own conclusions about the purpose and potential outcomes of an activity.


An important consideration is the order in which you present groups, or sequencing. If a group has never learned together, it might be important to follow the sequences laid out beforehand. If they spend time together a lot, following the formal sequence isn’t always necessary. If a group is more comfortable with each other, try bursting the bubble by digging right into deeper group times. It is important to try to put “heavy” activities after less intensive ones, to build a sense of rest and preparedness.

Once you’ve framed and sequenced an activity, be transparent and help participants see why, how and what they are doing with your activity. Then work towards that goal and be an excellent facilitator! Read on to learn more.

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Excellent Facilitation: Create Guidelines and Goals

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.

Albert Einstein

Many well-meaning facilitators come from cynical perspectives that disallow us from acknowledging the norms that make successful groups work. We can overcome this by having participants create ground rules or guidelines before you begin. Brainstorm potential rules and write them down – but avoid too many rules. There are three essential guidelines:

  • Stay on task. Every group should have a clearly stated purpose and agenda. This allows us to stay focused, considerate, and action-oriented.    
  • Avoid rabbit holes. Alice fell into a world away from reality – Your group doesn’t have to be that way. Stay aware of off-topic banter, read your audience, and consider other ways to share ideas before getting too far away from the point.    
  • Look for diamonds by working through the coal. There are rough things to go through in some groups. Instead of avoiding them commit- as a group- to getting in and going through them.    

  Every group should have some specific guidelines that all participants agree on. Some goals can include: 

  • Accomplish the specific task at hand, and when we’re done say we’re done.    
  • Build a sense of teamwork and purpose.    
  • Show that everyone has different strengths and abilities to offer the group and that no one is better than anyone else.    

Read on to learn more about excellent facilitation!

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Excellent Facilitation: Be a Facilitator

There’s a difference between a teacher, a speaker, a preacher, and a facilitator. I’ve found that a facilitator’s job has three parts:

  1. Lead the gathering or group    
  2. Guide towards goals    
  3. Lead by example    

 A excellent facilitator always starts by setting the tone of the group. A facilitator is not expected to know it all, nor are they expected to drive everything. Insecure leaders do this.

Secure leaders follow the maxim that, “A good leader makes the people believe they did it themselves.” You have knowledge and experience that you can and should share; however, you do not have to be the expert. Allow your participants to teach you.

Also, remember that the mood of the facilitator will set the tone for the entire workshop, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Strive to be positive, be human, and have fun in every group, no matter what its about.  

Six Tips for Excellent Facilitation

  1. Set aside your needs in favor of the needs of the group.
  2. Establish a friendly atmosphere and open sharing of ideas.
  3. Encourage participants to take risks. When in doubt, check with the group. It’s not your responsibility to know everything.
  4. Be aware of participants engagement: Observe what is said, who is speaking, and what is really being said.
  5. Respect is the critical ingredient in effective groups.
  6. Successful groups can be uncomfortable. Address conflict and do not try to avoid it. Create an atmosphere of trust so that disagreements can be brought into the open.  

There are many ways to be an excellent facilitator. This is a start!

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Be An Excellent Facilitator: Before You Start

Groups can be rough. Okay, okay, not really – all of them can be supremely useful. But when things go bad, and frequently they do, groups can be counterproductive and actually work against the very things they were designed to do.   After teaching folks how to successfully facilitate these types of gatherings for the last decade, I’m writing some tips, concerns, and considerations for being an EXCELLENT facilitator.

This is written out of love and respect for all the youth, friends, colleagues, and clients who have ever sat through a sucky group event and wanted to do it differently. If you are really committed to being an excellent facilitator, read on. If you’re not, well, good luck. Oh, and one way or the other let me know what you think in the comment section. Thanks!  

Before You Start  

Before you start down the road of becoming a better facilitator, think about these questions:

  • Who were the best facilitators you’ve ever experienced? The worst? What made them that way?    
  • What is your goal for being an excellent facilitator- productivity, interaction, fun? Do you think you can facilitate all those at once?    
  • What assumptions do you have about facilitation?    
  • Why do you really want to learn more about excellent facilitation?    

After thinking about all this you are ready to begin learning more about being an excellent facilitator- but not before then! 

Take a little while and really consider those questions, and then read on…      

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Meaningful Youth Engagement in Miami

These last few days I had the honor of going to Miami for an exciting opportunity to consult Catalyst Miami, aka the Human Services Coalition of Miami/Dade County, and to facilitate a day long seminar on meaningful youth engagement. You may have already read my post on consulting spectacular people doing awesome work, or getting ready for the seminar. This post is going to explore this Imagine Miami workshop in depth.

The night before the workshop I had a spectacular dinner at People’s BBQ in Overtown, a neighborhood near downtown Miami. There I met with my wonderful hostess, Daniella Levine, who is the E.D. of Catalyst, and Queen Brown, a spectacularly powerful advocate against youth violence in Miami. It was a humbling conversation that reinforced for me the focus on non-violence that has filled my month. I left that table with a tremendous sense of humility, knowing that the powerful work of mothers in communities ravaged by violence, people like Queen, is vitally important to the work of engaging humans in brand new ways.  

For my seminar on Meaningful Youth Engagement I was joined by 150 of the most determined learners I’ve been with in a while, including middle school students from a local school, nonprofit leaders from a variety of organizations, and concerned community members looking to learn about a truly revolutionary concept. I spent the day in full-on “Adam mode”, packed with energy and enthusiasm and completely present to the challenged, warm, and moving space we shared. And I was moved. There was so much passionate determination among the folks in the room, and I learned a lot from people there.

After a very deliberate prep time led by Lori Deus, the event coordinator from Catalyst Miami, and warm welcome from Daniella, the group was greeted by Modesto Abety, the President of the Miami Children’s Trust, who provided generous support for the event. With participants seated 10 to a table, we did some earnest small group introductions, and raced the engines to go.

The first section of the day’s event covered the basics of youth engagement. The day began without youth in the room, and when there aren’t young people participating at the very beginning of the conversation I like to begin with a memory visualization exercise that I learned a long time ago focused on helping adults remember their own young years. After that we continued with a simple discussion of three different terms that often get inter-used: Youth Voice, Youth Involvement, and Youth Engagement. After having each person define the terms for themselves, I shared my definitions. There were great conversations about different meetings, and they provided a great segue into the next conversation about the locations for meaningful youth engagement throughout our communities, all the places youth voice can and should and is being engaged throughout society today. Then we examine the Cycle of Engagement I’ve been working with over the last decade. The final component of this section of the workshop was an interactive examination of how adults and youth perceive each other, and how those views contrast and compliment across age awareness.

In the second section of the workshop, participants focused on making engagement meaningful. The basic premise behind this section is the acknowledgment that what makes some activities meaningful for some young people isn’t the same as what makes engagement meaningful for others. From there we discussed convenient versus inconvenient forms of youth voice, and how those perceptions of value, predictability, and purpose affect the engagement of young people. I led participants through a brief brainstorm focused on authentic youth engagement, and what role being concerned with “real” youth voice has in efforts to meaningfully engage young people. In the final component of this section participants examined the Ladder of Youth Involvement.

Section three of the day focused on the barriers to meaningful youth engagement. This section hones in on discrimination against youth, which is a new conceptual framework for many adults to consider. Participants were introduced to the definitions of adultism, adultcentrism, and ephebiphobia, and I shared with them the reality that youth, adults, and structures can be barriers. We acknowledged these forces in practice by examining by assessments of youth voice

The forth and last section of the workshop was focused on engaging non-traditionally engaged youth, and planning for action. We identified some typical attempts at youth engagement, and juxtaposed those against new activities that are more expansive and generally hold more potential. Under the heading, “The Widest Possible Range of Youth“, participants examined their own and their organizations’ assumptions about which youth are targeted for engagement activities, and how they’re targeted. Finally, I skimmed over different potential ways that youth can be engaged, which I later processed with the Catalyst Miami crew as another workshop for a different day.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important to acknowledge that just as all learning activities, this one was flawed and imperfect. As you can see above, there was a lot crammed into the day, and as is my tendency, I wanted to impart too much all at once. However, there was a tremendous energy among the participants and staff. With the deliberate and intentional support of Catalyst as this effort moves forward, I am sure the potential for a spectacularly wonderful future for engaging entire communities throughout Miami will burn bright.

I want to thank all the excellent staff at Catalyst Miami, especially Daniella and Lori Deus, as well as all the powerful folks who joined me as co-learners throughout the workshop. The future is ours, right now, and I look forward to working with you all as you move forward!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Make Learning Meaningful

There are hundreds of manuals and workbooks and binders out there about how to teach and train young people, with most of them being well-intended and sometimes interesting. I’m guilty of writing more than one. But sometimes I forget to boil it down to its essence, the point.

Here are three elements for how to make learning meaningful:

  1. Relevancy – Young people know what they like, at any age. Sure, they’re constantly learning more things they like, but from the age of none my daughter has been communicating to me what she thinks is interesting and good. In my experience as I’ve grown up I’ve become so finite in what I like that I have to be conscientious of what bias I’m introducing to my daughter in order to ensure that I’m actually listening to her and in order to attempt understanding what she finds relevant. And relevancy isn’t just about likes and dislikes – its about where we’re been, where we’re going, and who we are, individually and collectively. Working in hundreds of classrooms across the country I’ve consistently heard from young poeplethat this is the most important part of their learning: That if they don’t see why, they might be able to see what – BUT they won’t feel how, and they won’t know where, when, who, or why.
  2. Transparent Teaching – Students want teachers who are real, fallible humans who act as co-learners, fellow searchers, and when appropriate, facilitators and leaders. Transparency gives teachers a mental frame for how to be real with learners. This is an important differentiation with traditional teaching, if for no other reason than because of the democratization of the process embodied inside of this way of approaching learning and teaching. Opening up oneself to demystifying teaching allows young people to conceive of themselves as both learners and teachers, and in turn gives them permission to see teachers as more than dictators. This creates a less hierarchical perspective, which in turn challenges the very nature of traditional schooling and learning.
  3. Speak by Listening. When I first read this adage in one of Paulo Freire’s books I didn’t understand exactly what he was alluding to. However, in the years since I continuously seen people who I admire live by this simple guideline. How we speak to others is a calling card for our self-perception, and in turn how we perceive others. To speak by listening means to let your receptivity, your ego and your ability sit exposed for the people you’re listening to.

There are many other keys, including appealing to multiple intelligences, using small groups, create action items, constantly checking-in, and avoiding the “trick-and-treat syndrome” that plagues so many well-meaning but poorly-executed community and school programs. We have to reach higher, and these points are meant to help teachers and youth workers make learning meaningful.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!