Prior experience facilitating groups of adults is an advantage but not a necessity. In fact, most of us have developed the relevant facilitation skills through our work and/or life experience; we just need to identify these skills and practice them. Each facilitator will bring her or his own personal style to the group, and every group will be different!
Role of the facilitators
It is important that you have a clear vision of your role within the group and that you share that vision with the group. As facilitator or co-facilitator, you will carry these key responsibilities:
- To enable meaningful discussion, to create a tone that is inclusive, safe and collaborative, and to emphasize the values of the reading circle.
- To serve as keeper of the group’s rituals. In every session you welcome the participants, review the “house rules,” and lead an opening exercise to focus attention on the matter at hand. You close the session with a final question, such as “what is one thing you will take away with you today?” and offer thoughts on how to approach the next week’s readings.
- Very important: While enabling personal exploration and sharing, you and the group recognize that you are there as a facilitator, not as a therapist.
Preparing the program and getting organized
Know the readings so that you are ready to guide the discussion. As you review the material ahead of the meeting, think about how each piece connects to larger themes of aging. Highlight quotes that you find particularly relevant or interesting and make margin notes to remind you about what caught your attention. Craft a few questions for each reading to spark discussion and include some challenging ones to get people thinking.
Manage the time. Starting and ending on time are important; participants may be on a schedule; another group may be waiting to use your space. When planning a session allot time for each section of the sample agenda. (You may find you never look at your timeline, but it will help you to have worked it out). Know what time the group discussion has to end to allow time for closing the session properly. During the meeting, keep an eye on the clock so that you can cover all of the material.
Make notes after the session. Record your impressions and any memory jogs that will help you keep people and their stories straight in your mind. Make notes about what worked and what didn’t so that you can incorporate what you learn into subsequent sessions.
Encourage participants to read with a pen in hand and to mark up their copies of the readings with their comments and reactions. Suggest they also keep a journal for their own reflections as the program progresses.
Co-facilitators should work out their respective roles ahead of time. You may wish to take turns opening and closing the sessions; plan your approach.
Facilitation in the moment
When in doubt, direct attention back to the text. If you find the discussion is wandering too far off topic, being dominated by too few people, or is just petering out, bring the focus back to the text. This is where your preparation helps. Now’s the time to say: “Returning to the story, I was struck by this line… did anyone else react to this? How do you think it connects with what Joan was saying earlier about…?”
Validate and acknowledge particularly personal responses. It takes courage to open up in a group of strangers. Your words can be as simple as “thank you for sharing that with us.”
Be conscious of your own opinions and antipathies and monitor your own strong reactions to people and to the ideas and opinions expressed. Avoid discouraging or silencing less forceful participants.
Manage conflict. Disagreement is normal and helpful, but disrespect is not. People bring different communication styles to the table and sometimes, though not often, you might find yourself needing to manage difficult behavior. If need be, remind participants of the key ground rules (on our logistics page): respect and the responsibility to “share the air.”
Encourage participants to talk to each other and not just to you. You can do this with body language and eye contact, and by drawing participants into responding to each other’s comments.
Model the behavior you want to see. For example, treat all participants and their ideas with respect and patience. If a line has been crossed and you feel it would be wrong not to challenge it (a racist statement, for example), let the group see you dealing with it respectfully by expressing your own reaction with words like “I’m not comfortable with those kinds of generalizations.”
Guide with a light touch. Although your role as facilitator may require some assertiveness (as in the example of conflict above), use that authority with discretion.
Don’t be afraid of silence and discomfort. Sometimes a group needs to sit and consider. Let that happen without feeling obliged to jump in and fill the space.
Listen, listen, listen. Is anyone dominating the conversation, or hesitant to speak up? Are you hearing opportunities to make links between one reader’s idea and another’s observation? Are you hearing “groupthink” that should be challenged? Is the discussion, entertaining though it may be, still linked in a meaningful way to aging issues or has it morphed into something else, requiring some facilitated course correction?
Pay attention to the group’s energy level. Be aware of body language or lulls that indicate boredom or distraction. Is it time to take the discussion in a new direction, or to focus on a different work? Could you ask someone to read a poem aloud? Should everyone stand up for a mid-session stretch?