Facilitation is an essential skill for social justice consultants. It distributes authority among participants in the room and breaks down power structures. However, reading the room when facilitating is not a skill that comes naturally to most consultants. Here is an interview with Converge CEO and Founder, Takema Robinson-Llewellyn, who has been a master facilitator for over two decades.
Question: What are some common mistakes you see facilitators make?
Takema: I sometimes see inflexibility and that creates tension between the facilitator and the participants. Then there’s going to be an uprising, and usually facilitators don’t even know. The best facilitators are really less grounded in the subject matter, but more grounded in knowing how to be fully present in a space and channel the energy of the room. The facilitator does not have to be an area expert. In fact, in most situations, you do have to be an expert in group dynamics and in reading the room.
Question: Can you please explain more about how to read the room and channel the energy?
Takema: You have to embody a certain kind of presence to hold space like that. Make sure you are doing the things you need to do to be grounded going into that room. You can not go in there with anxious and nervous energy. You have to go in with very grounded energy. Make sure that you are grounding your energy so you can be used as a vessel.
As a facilitator, your job is to channel all the energy in the room, to guide people through. This is the mystical part to me. That is why I refer to it as the magic of facilitation. This work involves body language, reading what’s the feeling of the room, where people are anxious or people are angry. Is there tension? Are people open? Just interacting with people, feeling the body language. Is the energy high? Is the energy low? Or are people just keeping to themselves? What are the dynamics happening in the room?
Question: How do you get prepared even before entering a room?
Takema: I always try to read the room well before I get into the room. I do so by asking people what they want to do, what kind of experience they want to have. That is like a pre-reading of the room. If you’re a good facilitator, most of the work happens on the front end. And then when you are in the actual meeting, you have done all of that. You are bringing that information in with you so you are not being surprised. You should never be surprised about the dynamics in the room, if you’ve done that part of it well. Know what
Question: Can you offer any advice to fellow consultants on how to improve facilitation skills?
Takema: I think a lot of facilitators are afraid of tension and tension between participants. Facilitation and being fully present in the room is more of an advanced skill for people to have. Like some very important skill sets like, you may have training that help you improve your expertise. But I think of facilitation as an oral tradition. You learn how to do it usually by observing people who are more advanced than you. You watch how they move. You pick up things from your mentor and you start to emulate that. Then you have your own flavor added to it as well.
Converge builds all its services on its ability to masterfully facilitate convenings by creating a brave space for people to find common ground. We believe that such facilitation integrates a variety of things, including being able to hold the space, to create trust, to gather and process massive data in real time, to co-create community agreement, to build relationships, and eventually to enact strategies.
Converge’s facilitators are masterminds of some sorts who are highly observant in reading who are in the room, what has been said and unsaid, where is the resistance and what has softened. Although good facilitation is more of an art than a science, Converge facilitators follow a set of standardized, quality-ensuring procedures, such as creating a Community Agreement, setting and communicating a clear intention for how people are expected to be in this space together, and identifying mutual benefits and values.