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Emergent Facilitation (What?! No agenda?!)

Written by: Jillian Tuck / Human Rights Strategy Consultant and Executive Coach

It was two days before I was to begin the eight day-long Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership (DSIL) Global immersion course, and I still hadn’t received an agenda. Had I missed an email? Was it an oversight? The rest of the course materials arrived appropriately in advance and contained considerable detail, but the course agenda was conspicuously absent.

I had registered for the course—a significant investment of both time and money—because it came strongly recommended by several alumni and I was impressed with DSIL’s CEO and the course facilitator, Katy Grennier, who I had met at a workshop the previous year. I felt confident I was in good hands, but not having an agenda made me anxious.

It wasn’t an oversight.

When the group gathered on the first day, the missing agenda was addressed. We were asked to “trust the process"-- invited to lean into the ambiguity of how the course would unfold and use the unknown as an opportunity to stretch our control-prone selves. We spent the first few hours crafting clarity around our individual purpose for being there (using Liberating Structures Nine Whys, among other tools) and found our purposes varied considerably.

The DSIL course is intentionally designed and facilitated to allow for emergence. Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. In time, small connections between humans emerge into intricately woven societies, and forms a collective that can do together what each individual could not do on their own.

There is no fixed agenda in emergent spaces. Rather, the facilitator creates a container for the group to come together in community, build authentic relationships, and see what arises from the conversations, connections, visions and needs of the collective. People are prioritized over process, always.

I had never been in a space quite like that before, much less facilitated one. Most facilitators develop an agenda ahead of time and then impose what conversations need to happen and how long those conversations will take on the larger group. It is no wonder the people we invite into such agenda-driven gatherings so often feel unheard.

In the DSIL spirit of “learn forward, teach backward,” here are a few insights I gleaned into how to practice Emergent Facilitation, with huge thanks to Katy Grennier for generously providing a ‘peek behind the curtain’ on the last day of the course:

  • Get everyone’s whole selves in the room: For emergence to become possible, relationships between individuals must be strong and clear and honest. The facilitator’s role is to create a container that will maximize self-awareness, encourage deep listening, allow for feedback and celebrate vulnerability.
  • Trust the group: The group knows what they need to work on together and has everything it needs to get there. The facilitator gently holds the space in such a way that the priorities come out organically.
  • Find the sweet spot between under and over control: The emergent facilitator’s does not try to control or guide what happens in the space. Rather, they keep their eye on the shared vision and move the groups in that direction with awareness and flexibility. If there is a conversation in the room that needs to be had, allow for it. Give people the space and time they need to build authentic relationships (including wrestling with conflict!) so they can move forward together.
  • Be a magician of time: For a conventional facilitator, a key function is to keep a tight hold on time and move the group through content at a prescribed pace. In emergent facilitation, there is always time for the right work. A one-minute pairing exercise can deepen one-on-one relationships that in turn builds the strength of the whole room.

I plan to write several posts in the coming weeks on my learnings and reflections from the DSIL course. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out if anything resonates with you or you want to learn more! Also check out #dsilstory

Learn more about Jillian Tuck here

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