Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups

The folk over at German based trainingskollektiv have written a detailed reflection on the week-long ‘Facilitating Change’ event which took place earlier this year. They’ve called it Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups and just translated it into English. It’s worth a read and you don’t need to have been there to find some value in their words. As one of the event’s facilitation team it’s a relief to see learning continuing and being shared.

For those of you who prefer reading off-screen, or with a few illustrations to complement the text, they’ve even taken the time to publish it as a pdf.

Let us know your thoughts,



A Facilitator in Conflict

Conflict. It sees to be the thread that’s connecting most of the work I’ve done this year so far.

I seem to be naturally adept at getting into conflict. Less so at getting back out of it. So facilitating conflict has always been something I’ve simultaneously been anxious about, and something I’ve been keen to develop the skills and mindset to do. The fact that conflict figures so large in the facilitation landscape of 2013 so far is almost certainly, in part, down to where I’m at as a facilitator, and not just to where the groups I’ve been working with are at. I’m changing my relationship with conflict (slowly), and that’s there in the conscious and unconscious signals I send to groups.

My experience of facilitating conflict has been very mixed – ranging from unexpected conflicts erupting mid-workshop, to consciously prompting conflicts in a group, to working with a coop on building their abilities to resolve conflict. I’ve not always been successful.

There’s at least some members of a community out there who feel I failed to deal effectively with a conflict that erupted unbidden in a workshop. And they’d be right. Ironically it was one of the few times in my facilitation journey that I’ve taken a deep breath and internally muttered “bring it on!” – feeling as ready as I’ll ever be to hold a group in conflict. My sense is that the group norms reasserted themselves and they slammed the door shut on the conflict, preferring to suppress it than deal with it. I needed to do more to confront that dynamic – to name it and to share it with the group so they were in  a better position to see what was happening and decide where they wanted to go with it (if anywhere).

Then there was the work at Facilitating Change in which the facilitation team made a concerted effort to name the dynamics that were causing conflict within the group, naming them repeatedly if the group tried to avoid them. Perhaps necessarily, or perhaps because of our lack of skilfulness this put us as facilitators in conflict with some of the group. Uncomfortable stuff, but made far more possible because of the support we were shown by group members who suffered most because of those dynamics.

More recently I worked with a group on their strategy and vision. An essential part of this was bringing out the conflicts within the group – conflicting interpretations of their core aims, conflicting values, conflicting approaches to running a campaign, clashing personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Simply doing strategy was never an option – so once again naming and addressing some of these issues allowed some forward movement.

Then last week I co-facilitated 2 conflict resolution workshops with Carl, a very experienced mediator who makes it all seem so easy! Working alongside him was heartening. He makes it clear that effective conflict resolution is possible and that in many ways it’s just an extension of the skills and states of mind of a good facilitator.

One of the other factors influencing me to feel more confident in conflict has been working alongside Emily. Her process oriented psychology approach has fascinating insights into groups and conflict, and I’m learning loads. We were lucky enough to have a process work student at Facilitating Change and her input showed, once again, how powerful the technique can be when groups are in conflict.

I’m sure that’s not it for conflict in 2013. I won’t say I’m looking forward to facilitating more conflict. I certainly won’t say I’m doing it well. But on balance I’m optimistic.

But enough of me – tell us about your experiences of facilitating, and being facilitated, whilst in conflict. Horror stories? Great successes? Over to you….


Facilitating Change: Changing Facilitation?

On Thursday I got an early train to Manchester to meet with Adam, Kathryn and Lucy – my ‘Facilitating Change’ co-facilitators before travelling to Wales together the following day. On Monday evening I got the train back from the event – a little battered and bruised from the experience, oddly exhilarated too, and very tired. I left the others three and a half more days of work to do and with a sense that Monday morning’s work has shifted the dynamic. But I get ahead of myself. Whilst there (there being The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Ecocabins), I kept a rough and ready journal. Here’s a few extracts and some reflections from 48 hours on:

“I’m typing this on Saturday morning before the inevitable early morning facilitator planning session. Friday evening – we started ‘work’ at 7pm, after 2 intensive days of conversation, planning and deep sharing about our needs from each other. We started just as I was really feeling I’d had enough for the day. Our preparation was exciting, revealing and exhausting. We were treading the line between holding to a vision for the event, and our own anxieties about facilitating that vision and sustaining ourselves for a week long event.


In the end we went with our vision – working with the group of 22 participants (from the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and Spain) as the material for the event, and with the event as laboratory. The design of the event? Emergent. We planned as far as ¾ way through Saturday, knowing that even that plan might (would) change. Our intention is simply to give the group an experience of itself and see where that takes us, working with whatever emerges. Handing over to participants as often as we can get away with for them to discern where the group is at, and design and facilitate the next step. Nothing too radical there if process work or similar is your background. But for us it’s a step (and a big one) but one we’ve been working towards for a long time. We expect conflict, we expect strong emotion, we expect difference and divergence. And we expect a hell of a lot of learning for facilitators and participants alike.

We discussed at length whether we’d also have all our facilitator planning and debrief meetings in public. It’s the one area where we strayed from the vision. It felt like too much on top of other risks we’re taking as a facilitation team. Ironically at the end of our first debrief meeting one of us uttered “I wish we’d had that meeting in front of the group”. The result of that first debrief? We’re on track… the approach is working for now and the group are willing to go with it (for now). We discussed the gender dynamics of a 2 women/ 2 men facilitation team. Are some norms already starting to show? Are we dealing with them less than skilfully? Are we letting the task of being ready to meet and greet the participants, and begin the workshop get in the way of us processing these dynamics? Aren’t they themselves “group as material” and shouldn’t we process them in the wider group? Answers on a postcard.

After a brief sentence of welcome we threw the group straight in with a question – “What have you already observed or intuited about this group?”. After some personal reflection and paired sharing we had a group discussion, and only then started covering “housekeeping” information, and introductions. We took our time over the introductions, letting them run for the rest of the evening.


Saturday: I’m tired. Very. And not a little bruised. It’s been an eventful day. This morning we asked the full group to sort 45 or so words and phrases into 3 categories – values, attitudes and behaviours in around 20 minutes. After a few initial thoughts as a full group, they broke up and shared why they had made the decisions they had – to put which word or phrase where. The flip charts they produced were beautiful . From a facilitation perspective there was also plenty of material to work with – the groups issues were definitely starting to show. The next question was “what values were we embodying in the activity so far”. Different small groups then shared one of the values they had experienced in the group in tableau form (by creating a group statue to represent the value). It was a kind of alternative version of Pictionary. The energy was high and there was a definite frisson in the group when one group sculpted ‘Elitism’.


We took the same question to the full group and tried to reflect back the dynamics we saw at play and the approach of group as content for the workshop really came into its own. A strong theme was the restraint, the politeness, and strong grip on emotion. There was resistance – of course there was. Hold a mirror up to any group and there will be resistance – hence my feeling a little bruised. And channelling the emotion of the group – giving myself permission to feel it and reflect it to the group was intense, tiring. As was alienating some of the mainstream voices in the group. It’s the first time I’ve properly gone out to consistently and persistently act as that mirror to the group. Some marginal voices were heard more powerfully than they otherwise might have been. My co-facilitators assure me it worked, but I’m no diplomat and need to work on ‘framing’ my observations in ways that challenge but also support.


It proved to be the backdrop for the rest of the day – an experience that has, to an extent, divided the group by opening up those mainstream and marginal dynamics.


Sunday: If the last entry saw me bruised, this evening  I’m bloodied and bruised. It’s been another intense day. We saw a mainstream in the group exerting its power, unconsciously resisting avenues that might empower the margins. Through Theatre of the Oppressed and a long debrief we persisted in trying to open up the possibility that there might be other forms of communication, other meeting structures and cultures, other ways of facilitating, that made room for the margins to participate. That persistence, coupled with allowing ourselves to feel the anger in the room and express it in the way process workers fill the ghost role – the role of what’s there but not acknowledged – opened up a rift between facilitators and the highest ranking participants. It was a risk. Has it paid off? Too early to say, but the margins are more vocal and they are demonstrating their support for the facilitation team.


What we’re almost certainly not communicating as clearly is the connection between this work and our role as social change facilitators. We’re not here for group therapy or for an anti-oppression workshop, valuable though both may be. We’re on this journey because we believe that social action groups and movements are tied into cultural norms theoretically informed by beliefs in equality and democracy, but which lock out behaviours that deviate from those norms. Ironically these democratic structures exclude those who can’t or won’t conform to those norms. We lose many people who might join our struggles because the culture and process of our meetings fail to show solidarity with their struggles. In our meetings we simply can’t handle strong emotion, we deal with conflict poorly, and difference of any kind is a real challenge in whatever form it takes. If we facilitators cannot support groups through these inevitable processes, what are we doing?


2 participants picked up the baton this afternoon with a ‘group process’, drawing on one of their experiences as a student of process work. Again, we were reminded that the UK activist scene needs new approaches to move forward. And process work has a lot to offer. As is so often the case it was facilitation from the group that was pivotal in moving the group on from a stuck position.


We’ve stretched people a long way. We’re aware that we need to keep going, but we also need to ensure that everyone has the support they need to work through the conflict that has arisen.


Monday: We were only working together this morning – the participants got the afternoon off. We facilitators fielded questions and conversation, and had a short debrief meeting. Kathryn, Adam and Lucy pick up the baton again at 7.30 this evening. Or rather they hold the space whilst a pair of participants design and lead the evening session.

This morning’s work was about consolidation and repair – acknowledging that the work so far has been tough, and stretched people. We gave them a chance to get to know each other more deeply, to support their experience so far with a firmer understanding of the theoretical models, such as margin and mainstream, that underpin it, and then a chance to take another look at the struggle of the margins through a diversity interview. One of the key learnings of the morning’s work was to broaden understanding of margins to the invisible (or less visible ones) such as mental health.


I’ve never facilitated an event at which so much of the work took place outside of the session – all 4 of us were engaged in a series of sometimes curious, sometimes furious conversations with a range of participants. Many of these conversations saw movement and helped us and them process what was coming up during the sessions. They were also an invaluable way for the facilitation team to keep its finger on the pulse of the group. So much was changing over a lunch break, or overnight that the snapshot we had of the group at the end of a session or a day’s work was rapidly out of date.


If last night we were feeling out of our depth (and I think we were), today we saw the clouds lift a little. There is very rich learning happening. The approach of continued dialogue and diagnosis of the group dynamics shaping the design and flow of the work was tough but rewarding. Holding to roles that challenged the group’s status quo was vital to deepen the work, but came at a personal cost – emotional and energetic. We need to reflect more on that and find ways to make it sustainable for us and our groups.


I’m hoping Adam will take over where I’ve left off, posting his learning, that of the group, and the facilitation team at some stage in the future. But he has a full week of this and needs to conserve his personal resources.”

48 hours on and back to ‘normal’ life’ it seems like another world. Knowing that the event is still in progress is mildly surreal. I got a text this evening “Going well, moving forward at least on M&M [margins and mainstreams] and rank. Now leadership is emerging as an issue as well. Positive learning being taken from your work with the group. Sorry you not here to see that…”. Having expected to be quite low after the event I was surprisingly uplifted. We received a lot of support from the margins of the group that made difficult facilitation possible and confirmed that we were doing the right work (even if we need to refine how we do it). Will it create a step change in facilitation here in the UK and elsewhere? Who knows. Will there be a Facilitating Change 2? Who knows. Will there be a lot of learning on facilitation for facilitators and participants alike. That’s guaranteed.



Facilitating Change

Tomorrow I head to Manchester to meet up with my 3 co-facilitators for the Facilitating Change event.

Facilitating Change is an exploration of the values that underpin and support effective facilitation. It’s an antidote to the view of facilitation that’s all “tools and techniques”. For a while the event had a nickname – a working title of “Super Intuitive Ninja Facilitation” or SNIF for short. It gives you a sense of what the event is working towards – grounding participants in themselves, in trusting their intuition and building on their and the group’s values (and yes, I acknowledge that there are those uncomfortable with aspiring to be compared with ninja… violence, assassination and all that).

The event itself starts on Friday evening and runs for a week. Yep, a whole week. When the idea was first mooted a couple of years ago part of the frustration was that we rarely if ever got the time to get deep enough to really do values-based work. The only way to get that time was to put on an event ourselves. We toyed with 10 days, but pragmatism won out and it ended up as a week. Not that I’ll be there that whole time – other commitments to juggle. The group will have the dubious pleasure of my company for the first half of the event. Rhizome’s Adam is made of sterner stuff and will be there throughout, so we hope to bring you reflections on the whole process.

There should be plenty to reflect on – it’s an event that will stretch all those involved, including (especially?) the facilitation team. I certainly hope to come home a changed facilitator. There are edges I’ve been skirting for a while and I hope to plunge over them during the week. Some of them are common to many facilitators from certain cultural backgrounds – issues to do with facilitating conflict, facilitating strong emotion – how to do so effectively from  base of the values of facilitation, for example.

I’m not sure whether we’ll be blogging from the event – depends on time, energy and the consent of the group. But we’ll certainly share some learning afterwards.

Facilitating Change: Supporting Effective & Sustainable Action Groups

Facilitating Change: Supporting Effective and Sustainable Action Groups
A 7 day residential workshop in rural Wales, 15th-22nd March 2013.

Effective group-work and high quality decision-making. That’s what we all long for, right? Yet bad process is rife in our grassroots action groups and can lead to a lack of trust and respect, frustration, resentment, burnout and ultimately group failure.

We can’t fix this overnight – Facilitating Change is an opportunity to start doing some of the work needed to build strong and sustainable direct action groups and networks.

This week-long workshop will be an opportunity to develop and strengthen our practice as facilitators and trainers, increasing the capacity, effectiveness and sustainability of our social change groups and movements. We hope to go beyond the current facilitation tools and develop our intuitive skills to help us support groups as much as possible.

We will do this by:

  • Deepening our understanding of the values, attitudes and behaviours needed to facilitate effective group-work.
  • Working together to develop strategies, tools, support and resources to help our groups and movements identify shared values, build trust, develop open communication and handle conflict positively.

This will help our groups make good decisions, implement them and stay sustainable and effective for the long haul!

Facilitating Change is a collaboration between activist trainers from
Rhizome, the Tripod Collective and Seeds for Change. You should apply if:

  • You are involved in grassroots activism in groups, movements or
  • You’ve ever noticed how grassroots groups can be effective and
    inclusive one week and shockingly bad at working together the next.
  • You have some experience of facilitating meetings, workshops or
    trainings within grassroots movements or if you don’t consider
    yourself to be a formal facilitator, you are familiar with
    participating in meetings and try to foster good process to support
    your group to work effectively together.
  • You have ideas about how to help groups work more effectively.
  • You are keen to improve your facilitation and / or training skills.
  • You intend to share your learning with your own group and your wider networks.

We have funding to cover some costs. We will also be asking participants to contribute to the costs of the event on a sliding scale of £30-£150. We don’t want to exclude anyone on the grounds of cost so please contact us if making a financial contribution to the event would prevent you from participating.

How do I apply?
Places are limited, so we have a selection process. Please contact us for an application form or download it. Get in touch to ask any questions about the course: facilitatingchangeATriseupDOTnet. Applications by 14th December, please.

DOWNLOAD: Application_Form_for_Facilitating_Change