How to Facilitate Facilitators – with Holger Nauheimer
Facilitating a workshop requires many different skills. Facilitating a workshop for facilitators makes those skills even more vital.
When Myriam decided to explore the nuances of facilitating facilitators, she knew the perfect person with whom she could speak.
Holger Nauheimer has been working as a facilitator for nearly 30 years and for 11 of those he has also organised Berlin Change Days, a conference for facilitators and change-makers – attracting 150 participants from all continents to Berlin. In that time, he has learned a great deal about what it means to facilitate in traditional settings and in less traditional ones – especially with facilitators.
What makes a good facilitator?
Before we delve any further into the particulars of facilitating for facilitators, it may be valuable to reaffirm our understanding of what makes a good facilitator.
For Holger, a good facilitator isn’t one single thing.
Depending on clients’ needs, a good facilitator performs different roles. A facilitator may be considered good if they make a process of change or the development of a new strategy easy and efficient. For others, a facilitator may be good if they mediate a conflict. Both examples require very different approaches and skills, and there are many more reasons a facilitator may be brought into an organisation.
At its most simple, Holger defines facilitation as: “I am the person who makes things easy or fluid. I help people to go through processes, whatever they are.”
Do facilitators necessitate a different approach?
When Myriam asked Holger whether the design of the event or workshop should change because it is for facilitators, Holger expressed uncertainty, stating: “every event needs a design, but every event is different.”
The idea of differentiating between events for corporate clients and peers didn’t sit entirely comfortably with Holger, who said he “wouldn’t narrow it down to corporate vs. facilitators”, due to the differences within those groups. Indeed, one could create numerous subsets of those groups, and subsets of those subsets, ad infinitum.
In fact, Holger believes that “in general, it is easier to host facilitators, as they are professionals.” He reasons that, as participants, they are aware of how a good workshop functions, they come well-prepared to participate fully. “If you treat them as equals”, Holger stresses, “not with arrogance, but in a humble way – they are the most thankful and appreciative folks you could imagine.”
Myriam agrees wholeheartedly that “if you approach a session and your participants with kindness, there is no space for judgement. If you don’t judge them, they won’t trigger anything in you.” Myriam has “the impression that, very often, my judgement of others is actually a judgement of myself.”
It is true, then, that a different design is required for facilitators – but only insofar as it is required for every workshop and event.
What should you consider when facilitating facilitators?
As we have established, being intentional in the design of any workshop environment is vital. This is no different for workshops for facilitators.
There are many lessons Holger has learned since launching Berlin Change Days, but some of the most important are:
Control the number of attendees
Holger rapidly grew Berlin Change Days from 30 attendees in 2009 to 150 in just a few years.
Since hitting what he calls the “magic number”, Holger has intentionally capped the number of attendees at 150. It allows for “a good variety but is also still intimate enough. Not everybody will meet everybody, but a lot of people have the possibility to interact.”
We all have a different magic number – it depends on your personal preferences, the structure of your event, and the type of people participating. Be mindful of what feels like “enough” and try to honour that.
A room full of professional facilitators will have a greater understanding and expectation of how a workshop might unfold. Use this to your advantage by encouraging them into deeper experiences quite quickly.
One of the benefits of working with facilitators, Holger believes, is that “you can push those people right away into experiences.”
Of course, you must remain mindful of creating space for participants and allowing the room to warm up. Facilitators are humans too, after all!
Treat people as equals
This is, both Myriam and Holger agree, one of the most important elements of a successful workshop or event – but especially so in a professional setting.
For Holger, there is nothing worse than attending a conference and seeing facilitators acting like “stars” who “fly in, show 100 slides, and then disappear – not before mentioning that everyone should buy their book.”
At Berlin Change Days, Holger makes sure that, if people promote themselves, “they do so in a humble way.” There is a lot of focus on ensuring that participants have the same chance to promote themselves as facilitators.”
Create space for connection
In a facilitation workshop, it is important to leave space for people to process the things they are hearing and experiencing. As Holger puts it, you need to “make sure that people have time to breathe and digest.”
A room of facilitators is a room of people – don’t take their experience and understanding for granted. Make sure you create the same space for reflection with them as you would any other group.
Connection, it is important to note, isn’t just about processing concepts and questions internally. Holger also believes that a well-designed workshop will create “the possibility for connecting and learning together.” Sparks fly when participants are given the space to explore their experience together, rather than being left to silently reflect.
In creating a workshop for facilitators, balancing the space for listening, reflecting, and collaborating is of the utmost importance.
Create emotional experiences
“Emotions”, Holger says, “are part of the learning journey.”
Emotional experiences are a powerful means of complementing and enhancing participants’ learning. You are asking people to show up fully and presently in your workshop, so embrace the vulnerability and connection you have shaped by bringing an emotional experience to the front of your workshop.
As an example, Holger closed out Berlin Change Days 2016 with an opera singer and facilitator leading everybody in singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. “That was a very magical moment”, Holger reminisces.
Doing so made the event live longer in people’s memories and created a stronger connection between participants.
Takeaway for facilitators
Events and workshops you facilitate for other facilitators need to be different – just as every event and workshop you run should be.
Designing your event to the participants and their needs is best practice regardless of whether they are your peers.
There are certainly positive unique qualities to facilitating for other facilitators. You can push them further quicker, you can connect with deeper ideas, and you can start different conversations. There are also potential roadblocks you will need to consider, such as overestimating their capacity for retention, ensuring everyone feels equal, and paying attention to feelings of judgement or comparison.
Trust in your instincts, be cognisant to your biases and reactions, and give your participants the space to learn and connect.
If you would like to hear Dr. Myriam Hadnes and Dr. Holger Nauheimer’s full conversation about facilitating for facilitators (and many other interesting topics), you can listen to the Workshops Work show on your favourite podcast player by searching for “Workshops Work”, or you can stream the episodes on workshops.work.
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