When I first started facilitating cultural immersion programs with Morocco Exchange I was excited to embrace the challenges of program logistics, working with students experiencing culture shock, and using up to four languages a day. The most daunting task– the one that kept me up at night!– was facilitating group discussions between U.S. and Moroccan students on the topic of “Islam and the West.” Having been shy in class during contentious debates as a student, how could I move from being uncomfortable speaking up personally on these matters to leading intentionally controversial discussion?
I was privileged to train with Arnd Wachter of Crossing Borders Education, who is one of the most incredible group facilitators I have ever seen– he seemed to draw out the most insightful, poignant, and meaningful comments from the group in a way that felt completely authentic and natural; unforced. I wondered how I could ever create that culture in a group in such a small period of time.
More recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the first Melibee Swarm. I was struck by the way that Missy and the other presenters were able to create that same kind of space– an environment, or a group culture that welcomes and inspires authenticity, honest reflection, and an almost-instant sense of community among participants that is rare. I felt the sense of a loss of community when I left the Swarm– it felt like more of a family reunion than an un-conference.
This type of facilitation is important for us as international educators, if we are to really dig deep into truly supporting students on their journeys of personal development that is a crucial step towards the process of developing intercultural competence.
I find myself conceptualizing this type of facilitation as one that “creates space.” It’s an important, powerful concept for group facilitation that is also relevant in other group settings. Creating space is about respect, safety, and invitation– it can involve inviting everyone to participate (or not), welcoming all ideas, including or acknowledging diversity, encouraging dissenting opinions to the conversation, or simply ensuring that participants at an event are welcomed and feel able to be their authentic selves in what might be an intense or new situation. Creating space encourages others to be comfortable with their voices.
As educators who embrace the imperative of life-long learning, the importance of reflection to process transformative experiences, and the power that can come from facilitating and supporting students coming out of their comfort zones, the art of creating space is an important skill, but one that can be challenging. The following ideas may be useful to create space while working with students in a cross-cultural setting:
Intentionality: It is often useful to intentionally state that you would like the group to “make space” for all to participate. Whether it’s targeted at a certain group (“I’d like to make space for those who don’t agree with the rest of the group to share”) or a specific invitation to a more difficult conversation (“I’d like to make space for those who might have experienced culture shock personally”), that simple invitation can open individuals to share what they might not have felt comfortable sharing previously.
Silence: The power of silence is often overlooked. In western culture, particularly, it might not be comfortable to sit in silence. Letting a pause between volunteers speaking go longer than is customary can create space for someone to decide to speak up, time for integrating thoughts, and a time for someone, undistracted by others’ speaking, to conceptualize what they’d like to say. It’s often helpful to acknowledge this (“We may experience some prolonged silence– which is okay, even if it feels uncomfortable!”), so participants expect this and aren’t surprised or confused. This extended period of silence may take facilitators out of their comfort zones; one tip that comes from the re-entry tool “Beyond Abroad‘s” short section on facilitation suggests that facilitators who may be tempted to jump in to kill the silence pause and deliberately take a sip of water. It may also be useful to explain to the group that some things take time to process, and that they should feel free to take time to process the discussion over the next few days.
Value conflict: While mediating conflict can take additional training, it can be powerful to acknowledge that conflict is normal, natural, and a catalyst for learning. Provided basic ground rules (no personal attacks) are kept, allowing conflicting ideas to emerge can prove to be a transformative moment. One of the most essential ground rules to establish if the conversation has the possibility to embrace conflict is to ask participants to use “I statements” rather than “You” (or “they”) statements. Though “I-statements” are a tool often suggested for interpersonal conflict, they can also help prevent real or perceived personal attacks. It can also be helpful to ask participants to step into the shoes of someone else and imagine or argue from their perspective to bring out conflicting ideas in productive ways. At the end of a conversation that has intentionally engaged in conflict, it’s important to “create space” to process that experience itself. Asking how they felt about engaging, if they were comfortable with the conversation, or what thoughts come from the direction of the conversation can help participants take a step back and continue to process.
Listen attentively: Using typical active listening skills can help people feel heard, and more likely to participate further. Looking at the person who is speaking, listening, reframing what they said, and occasionally responding or validating their responses creates space for others to feel comfortable participating. Listening attentively and deep thinking are strengths that many introverts posses– many may have a lot of thoughts going on but are unable to verbalize them easily. Using journaling before discussion, inviting people to share thoughts on an index card (anonymously or not), or specifically acknowledging and inviting introverts to share may help to “create space” for those who may be less comfortable with a group discussion than others.
Living Room Conversations: Living Room Conversations enable people to come together through their social networks, as friends and friends of friends to engage in a self-guided conversation about an agreed upon topic. Typically conversations have self-identified co-hosts who hold differing views. They have a list of tools, resources, and different types of dialogue and approaches.
The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation: The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation is a network of thousands of innovators who bring people together across divides to tackle today’s toughest challenges. Their Beginners Guide has a wealth of information.
The Dialogue Handbook: The art of conducting a dialogue and facilitating dialogue workshops (.pdf): This free book is a project from Ambassadors for Dialogue, where volunteers from Jordan, Egypt, and Denmark came together to foster understanding between youth in these countries through dialogue. Though it is geared for youth, it is an easy read to begin examining some of the principles of creating space for meaningful conversation.
Though these suggestions may be useful, it is still difficult to feel truly prepared for this type of facilitation. It is important to have grace with yourself as a facilitator. We can never predict what may happen to influence group dynamics or what might come out of meaningful dialogue on what may be complex or difficult issues. Facilitation skills are developed largely through experience, and they a part of our journey as life-long learners. These dialogues have the power to be transformative for participants no matter where we may be on the learning curve in our ability to “create space.”