Mindful Facilitation: Lessons from My Mentors


I just spent a lovely week at the Writing Center in Bethesda, where I facilitated a week-long Writing Staycation. The 16 participants all had positive feedback on the week; one wrote thousands of words of her novel, another pulled together decades of poetry, and a seasoned writer transformed a story into a play. As a facilitator, I love the good vibes of a workshop that goes well.

That made me reflect on what is it about the Writing Staycation that fosters a high level of meaning, connection, as well as writing? What are the ingredients of the secret sauce that make the week seem magical?

I think the answer has to do with mindful facilitation, techniques I learned from my facilitation mentor. Here are just a few:

1. Provide Healthy Food to Nourish Brain and Body

A recent workshop I attended on “Healthy Nutrition for Cancer Survivors” featured pizza and chocolate for dinner. Not quite right. I learned from the fabulous Kim Fellner to always provide some kind of food for a workshop. Providing chocolate is a quick fix as a facilitator — it will energize the group and provide short term happy buzz — but it’s not really going to provide sustainable, healthy energy. At the Staycation, I have learned to serve fruits, nuts, yogurt, cheese, teas — the kind of things that will keep the participants’ brains going in the long term.

2. Honor Invisible Differences

When facilitators talk about diversity, we often think of age and ethnicity. Dany Sigwalt and the folks at the  DC Trainers Network helped me understand that more important differences are often invisible. At Staycation, I have learned that I must assume I’ll have inner diversity in my group: Someone who just experienced a devastating loss that drives her to write. Another person who has just retired and is finding it hard to make friends without the life of work. A new mother who has found the demands of parenthood deprive her of time to hear her inner self talk. I often find that being attuned to these types of differences is as important as sensitivity to cultural issues in the group.

3. Cultivate Radical Faith in Participants

I am often tempted to lecture. But I once had the chance to study Poetry Therapy/Facilitation with Ingrid Tegner. Ingrid helped me see that the facilitator role is to provide prompts and safe space: A container for learning, not a cup overflowing with knowledge. At Staycation, I am always rewarded when I have complete faith that the participants will fill the container. My reward: Hearing about their writing and growth as writers during the week.

Of course the other secret is to have wonderful participants, lovely co-facilitators (thank you, Staycation Fellows Bracha Laster and Johnna Schmidt) and dynamic guest speakers!

What do you see as key parts of mindful facilitation? Any tips from your experiences or mentors?


About Zahara Heckscher

Writer, educator, social justice advocate. Co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (Penguin, 2002) and forthcoming Volunteer Travel Reimagined: The Learning Service Guide. Instructor at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD and co-inventor of The Poetry Game. Mom, wife, cancer thriver, advocate for a world of justice.
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