Published: March 27, 2017   Updated: May 9, 2017

We learn the content. We plan how we’re going to facilitate it. We have a contract, a venue, and–hopefully, sometimes, if the facilitation gods are feelin’ extra magical–we know the exact number of participants ahead of time. All that’s left to do is show up and make it happen. The responsibility feels enormous, even when shared with a co-facilitator. It’s all on us.

I thought this way for years until I realized, late into my tenure as a facilitator, that facilitation is a relationship that begins before a contract is even signed. Your host can do a lot of help to set you, and the participants, up for a successful facilitation. Below are six questions you can ask your host that can help them help you create powerful facilitations.

#1 Is there anything going on in the community or within this group that may impact the training?

I went to teach middle school sex education at the height of a community’s opioid addiction and HIV crisis. This small southern Indiana town was suddenly thrust into an international public health discourse. In fact, the night I checked into my hotel, I spotted vans from MSNBC, CNN, and talked to an NPR reporter over dinner. Every student I would see that day had a family member in drug treatment or jail, or living with HIV. Did that change the way I facilitated there? You bet.

While I always facilitate through a trauma-informed lens, assuming that someone in the room likely has trauma around the topic we are learning about, being absolutely sure of it and having context for it totally changed the way I planned and executed that job.

To Know:

  • Find points of connection. Maybe I’ve facilitated in a similar environment before, or had life experience I can access to inform my work.
  • Understand that there are obvious points that my workshop/class need to bring up (for example, if teaching an evidence-based sex education program) and that I may need to take more than the normally allotted time to address and process that content than I did at other venues.
  • Address up front with participants that I know that there is an ongoing conversation in their community, and that I want them to help me carry it into this space in a meaningful and helpful way.

#2 What control do you have, or not have, of the group?

If you’re facilitating in a school, after-school center, or summer camp, youth don’t have a lot of agency or autonomy in those spaces. Hosts can sometimes be on different pages when it comes to what is and is not okay in a space, so ensure you’re on the same page before the training. Help your host to understand that a participant may need to leave the room if they have experienced trauma related to the day’s topic. I assure my host that I can handle giggles and joking from the group. It is often a sign of their discomfort, and I’m there to help them process it. Related, I talk to my host about what language is allowed during facilitation. For example, some students only know crude slang when describing sexual acts, and that may be okay with someone who talks about sex for a living, but not for the host. Talking through what is normal for the group, what I can handle, and reminding the host that I’m there to meet participants where they are developmentally and emotionally will go a long way.

To Know:

  • All groups have norms, whether intentional or not. You want to be sure you understand them as best as you can, and follow their lead. You are the guest.
  • Once you’re with the group, loop them in. If you’re changing the rules of how a group typically interacts, make sure to get that cleared with the host–and, make it explicit to the group! Give them permission to engage.

#3 Does the host have a protocol for handling disclosures?

This may not feel relevant to your facilitation, but you’ll be glad you asked if someone discloses something. If I’m facilitating a conversation around sexuality or violence, someone almost always discloses their experience of assault. Does your host entity have a policy around handling disclosures of abuse? Do YOU, as the facilitator? Depending on your professional association and background, this may guide your policy. For example, the Social Work Code of Ethics may help you to understand your position, or the laws your state has for classroom teachers.

Figuring out what you need to do legally is much easier done beforehand, rather than the moment a 15 year old tells you she and her 21 year old boyfriend have been trying to conceive and cannot, and wants your advice—a true story, and from my very first day on the job at a new health education agency. Lucky for me, the agency had a standard policy on the paperwork I needed to file, and clear guidelines on who in the school I needed to connect with.

While this may seem like something that only applies to working with teenage participants, this may also be important for your adult participants. What if you’re at a workplace and a participant discloses that they are an abusive partner, and their partner, the victim, also works there? It sounds overly specific, but that exact scenario happened to me.  You never really know what you’re walking into. Have a plan, and see if your host does too. You can’t plan for everything. And you don’t want to scare your host by showering them with possible “what ifs.” With adults, even if you don’t ask your host, think through who you might loop in if you feel someone’s safety is at risk.

To Know:

  • You can’t plan for everything, but the more scenarios you have given some thought to, the more organically you will handle the unexpected.
  • Are you empowered and qualified to address this? Is your host, or someone else in the community, a better resource?
  • Are there certain disclosures your host can help you prepare for? When I facilitated in the community that had recently made international news for it’s opioid epidemic, I was prepared to hear from a lot of youth on the day we discussed intravenous drug use. I knew that was where I needed to spend a bulk of my content knowledge work.
  • If there is a protocol already in place, such as in a school, you can adapt to that. In fact, by law, you may have to.
  • You don’t want to scare your host by showering them with possible “what ifs.” With adults, even if you don’t ask your host, think through who you might loop in if you feel someone’s safety is at risk.

#4 What are participants usually doing during this time?

If you’re taking over an employee’s lunch break or a student’s PE time, you might be fighting an uphill battle before you even walk in the door. I had many sex education classes start with anger as a group of boys who thought they were bound for their gym class basketball game instead walked in to find me. Ask your host if there is another time you can facilitate. If not, ask the host to prep the students ahead of time so they know, and you aren’t an unwelcome surprise.

To Know:

  • Having content for what happens during this time, or even right before and right after your time with them, will clue you in to the energy of the room. Standing in front of a room of middle schoolers in September feels a lot more laid back than in front of a room of high school seniors the week before graduation.
  • Will there be people arriving late, leaving early, coming and going? Does that interruption change the energy of the space you’re trying to create? It gives you time to accommodate during the planning phases.

#5 Does your message conflict with that of your host?

I will never forget finishing a really wonderful sex education class with a group of eighth grade students, only to see it all fall down in front of me. I’d had a particularly engaged group, and we got some really wonderful work done together. After thanking them all for their time, their classroom teacher asked for the last few minutes of class to handle general housekeeping. What I thought would be a reminder about studying for an upcoming test actually turned out to be a five minute lecture to the students about the importance of abstinence before marriage and that birth control didn’t really work. This was completely counter to the positive conversation—and all medical research, everywhere, ever–we had just worked so hard to create. I was heartbroken as I watched my participants look between their teacher and me, befuddled.

To Know:

  • Does your host have specific goals?
  • Does the host see you as an expert, or as someone who will relay their own message?
  • If your message and that of the host conflict, what is the common ground? Usually, there is some. Looking at it from a strengths-based perspective, try to capitalize on those common goals early.

#6 Can you leave resources for the hosts?

I was feeling unsettled after I left some of my sex and healthy relationship education gigs. Over many beers–I mean, very professional meetings with colleagues–I realized what it was. I knew some of the sites I was leaving had no clue what to do if questions or disclosures of abuse happened once I left for the last time. I began leaving classroom teachers with resources, and made sure they knew they could email me with follow-up questions.

Good facilitators start conversations that rattle around in the minds of participants long after we leave. Great facilitators leave the hosts and participants with resources to handle those questions or resources to direct people towards when they can’t.

In addition to giving the students some websites and apps to check out, I left resource cards that listed local phone and text helplines, and explained what the process would be if they reached out to those numbers. I would also email the teacher with resources geared toward caregivers, and also ensure they knew they could email me specific questions from students that they couldn’t answer.

To Know:

  • If you’re able to communicate with participants afterward, or if you cannot, changes the relationship. It’s either finite, or the beginning. This has to do with your host, and also your personal style of working and pedagogy
  • Does the host even have access to the participants afterward? Try to find a person or even a place to leave printed resources that outlasts your time in the space.
  • Does the host allow or ban certain materials? If you tell the participants about a website to answer their questions about sex, and then the participant gets in trouble for accessing that site in the school library, there needs to be another resource.

The longer I engage is social justice facilitation, the more I don’t know. My scope of practice expands, and so do my questions. New challenges arrive as our culture changes, as new research emerges, and with every new group we are honored to walk alongside. We can begin modeling healthy relationship building, the power of interdependence and vulnerability, and shared power in the facilitation space from our very first conversation with our host.

Mary-Margaret Sweeney is the Manager of Training Services Domestic Violence Network, a domestic violence advocacy and education organization in Indianapolis, IN. She creates trainings around intimate partner violence, sexual assault, reproductive health, cultural competency, and loves taking new requests that challenge her. She has worked as a sex and relationship educator for over a decade, and believes that safe, healthy, good sex only happens in safe, healthy, and good relationships.

Written by FacilitatingXYZ Team

This is the account that the FacilitatingXYZ team uses. FacXYZ is co-facilitated by Meg and Sam, and brings in expertise, knowledge, and lived experience from facilitators far and wide. Read more about us here.

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