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Holding Space During Facilitation for Difficult Conversations

Written by Johanna Bergan

Gifts You Can Offer to Youth Advocates Right Now

I have always found a special need for space to sit in a group and let free flow discussion and processing happen. This is especially important, and a source of nourishment, in the midst of change-making. Our network is active in intense change-making right now. As individuals working to find our place in building an anti-racist society, and as collectives, finding our way in building the future youth deserve.

This space of community dialogue does not always just occur. And many youth advocates right now may not have access to a safely held peer group to experience this form of nourishment. But each of us can be active in facilitating such a space.

I view the act of facilitation and process of holding space as just one way I can contribute my gifts to support current anti-racist advocacy work. I’m not traditionally trained in any of this but have rather grown in skill through trial and error. I feel confident that you too, can offer facilitation and space to your peer community. I offer you these three pieces of wisdom as you begin.

1.       Take time to prepare yourself emotionally. Holding space for others takes the energy of your own. I find a brief centering activity a few minutes before opening space is essential for me. This isn’t the time for my amp-up song but rather a time for an inward focusing on breathing reflection and affirmation.

2.       Opening and centering the group is important. Take a few minutes to share why we are gathering together and any expectations (or lack of expectations that exist). In recent facilitation sessions, this has included naming that we are experiencing racist systems, we are working actively to be anti-racist, and this work is occurring because of the death of black people at the hands of police. Put out the real heart of the dialogue in this opening. Expectations of the group can be informal to formal. Some groups may want to establish group norms; other groups will already have an established culture of community and a facilitator may simply open with a statement that all are welcome to share or to not share, with respect.

3.       Do more listening than talking. Your role is to actively listen, to affirm, and gently guide the dialogue forward (only when needed). Use phrases like “I am hearing you say… is that right?”  and “What that inspires for me is…”

When in doubt, use your breath. Breath can be used collectively, to offer transition points or closing to the group. Simply asking everyone to take three deep breaths together can close out a dialogue. You may use your own breath to help you hold back from speaking into the space too much or to create extra time to center a response or pivot you need to share with the group. Silence is a valid part of a dialogue.

Should you bravely move forward into facilitation roles, I offer these guiding affirmations – Whoever comes are the right people. Whatever is said is what needs to be said.

Be well, Johanna

A special note of thanks to the brave facilitators who have inspired my interest in this unique gift, and in this time, especially to adrienne maree brown and her gift to the world in the form of the book Emergent Strategy.

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