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Facilitating Great Workshops

by Ken Nelson and Lesli Lang

Want to successfully bring your work into the world through workshops? Great workshops inform, inspire, and support a sense of freedom and empowerment. Great workshop facilitators focus as much on how they lead as on what they teach. In this article, Ken Nelson and Lesli Lang explore what worksᾹand what doesn’t—for those wanting to create powerful group learning experiences.

Judy came to a leadership training program at Kripalu during the long days of summer. She was distraught following a recent workshop she had led. As a successful psychotherapist, Judy was used to high praise, but she had been humbled.

Reading the participant evaluations, she found that the workshop hadn’t been a global failure. But, most people had felt incomplete, and worse, some had left the program raw and angry. Judy felt that she had let her group down. "My sense of timing failed me. I didn’t allow time for integration. I sabotaged myself and the group with a runaway workshop!" she shared with our group the first night. "What happened?" she asked.

The Myth of the Born Leader

For two decades in her private practice, she had helped hundreds of people challenged by loss, fear, anger, and depression. For Judy, offering group workshops was another way to reach people in need. But, as Judy discovered, the art of facilitation and the skill sets of leadership don’t necessarily come naturally.

Judy had learned to teach as she had been taught—in a left-brained, logical, linear way; being "lectured at" with prepackaged information. Our culture doesn’t offer modeling or practice for leading transformational workshops. It is rare to witness leaders using the tools of coaching, clearing, questioning, presencing, encouraging, and intervening to meet people where they are, to help them show up, and to embark on journeys of self-discovery.

Through modeling and practice, though, Judy began to appreciate the two primary functions of workshop leaders: teaching content and facilitating process. What she needed was practice feeling her way through the process, rather than thinking her way through the content.

The Open Secret

People want to be seen and heard. We want to care and we want our lives to matter. We want to engage in the big questions and to be invited to share in direct contact with others, to find out what is at stake here. What’s at risk?

We rarely get permission to enter into profound experiential learning states, or to be invited into the healing, non-ordinary, imaginal, ritual, and mythic dimensions of reality that nourish the soul and reveal the blessing next to the wound. But wounding hurts, and, try as we may to avoid our feelings, deep soul-searching arouses the emotional body.

Emotional Pulse Taking

Piecing together what had happened at her workshop, Judy remembered how two participants, particularly raw and vulnerable, had emotionally withdrawn and isolated early on. Judy now recognized that she had responded only superficially to "the withdrawers." Judy hadn’t listened beneath the words, with what Hafiz calls "the ear in the center of the chest."

Meanwhile, she recalled, another man and woman, "the fighters," had been provocative, seeking arguments and indirectly challenging Judy’s role as leader. Amazingly, Judy had overlooked the verbal and postural cues of hostility—the yellow flags in the averted eyes and the red flags of open annoyance and rebellion. Rather than sensing the mood and monitoring how people related to each other, Judy drew a blank. She failed to hear and respond to the underlying voice of need. "I missed the big picture, the global view."

Judy began to realize that she had completely blown the process side of leadership. She thought she had been following the winning formula for experiential workshops: safety, experience, and integration. But she failed to respond to the warning signs. Judy was too attached to her prearranged plan. Her focus on her goals had come at the expense of feeling the group’s energy. She moved forward at her own peril, full speed ahead.

Intervention: The Art of Cutting Through

Judy failed to head off the difficult behaviors early and to intervene by coaching and encouraging the withdrawers to express and to contribute. Nor did she confront the fighters. Fighters feel powerless. Their internal struggles need clearing, either inside or outside the group. Within the group, fighters need praise for contributing.

Her neglect triggered a growing reaction. The fighters got more irritated and prickly, stirring up the room, striking out at other guests. The withdrawers got busy outside the sessions agitating for mutiny. Yet, astonishingly, Judy went forward with her plans, seemingly unaware that the room was a detonating minefield.

The Crisis of Engagement: When Things Fall Apart

Left unmanaged, these waves rippled through the group making the members feel wobbly and unsafe. But, having missed the telltale signs of trouble, Judy was playing catch-up. Her group was activated, and the clock was ticking.

Despite her heady approach, Judy had offered several powerful experiential exercises that touched off emotions. With no time for integration, she found herself putting out fires here and there. "Participants were still crying their eyes out and it’s almost lunch time!" Judy grew more bewildered: "I felt blocked in a way from interacting with my group, and they didn’t get closure. I thought I knew better as a group leader and therapist!"

Initiation into Leadership: A Hall of Mirrors

"I know people will feel triggered by the emotional impact of my workshops. They’ll need to process and to get a sense of direction, hope, and centeredness. But, still, I really struggled to reduce teaching time and to increase practice time using the tools." For some reason, knowing better did not prevent Judy from the classic mistake: "headucation" over "hearticulation."

The group is a mirror for the leader’s own journey. Consciously, in her own therapy, Judy thought that she had already gathered all her coins from the well of grief. But new treasures awaited her. Beneath the surface, the human voice of suffering wanted a hearing. Her own fear of rejection had led her to distance herself in groups and to teach from her head. She needed practice being vulnerable in groups, as she had learned to be with clients one-on-one. And, she needed to relax control of outcomes—to confront the myth of safety and the truth of uncertainty as a facilitator.

Judy had given the group a map, expecting them to find their way. But, she failed as a designated driver to guide them through the territory: the peaks and valleys of joy and pain, toward insight and the reward of self-discovery. That deeper reality, when ignored, left both Judy and her group frustrated and missing the true meaning and the greater importance of their encounter together. "I opened them up, but left them hanging. What was that all about?"

The Soul Aiming for Emotional Closure

"How did it feel," I asked, "leaving them that way, angry and hurt?" After a moment, tears flowed, and she replied, "I felt ‘not good enough,’ like being hurt again by my father when he walked away from me." Judy’s unfinished business had returned as a gift from the group—on the anniversary of her father’s death. In a flash, Judy realized how she had constructed, out of her own history, a reenactment of her father’s leaving, in order to reexperience the grief of his death when she was seventeen and her inability to get emotional closure with her unfeeling father.

Subconsciously, in her role as workshop leader, Judy played the absent father, and her group played the abandoned daughter. It was Judy’s own shadow self that prevented her group from getting closure. Unspoken needs and wishes got projected around the circle. The group reacted unconsciously by shifting their own history of rejection onto the facilitator. She did the same to them, while living out a hidden wish to revisit and to heal the early wound.

A Turning Point

Months later, Judy’s newly trim workshop design devoted 80 percent of time to process and integration. She listened deeply when Barbara, "a questioner," made another heady request. Judy let the rim of the circle embrace the group for a long, still moment. She leaned closer and invited a breath. "I hear how important this is to you, and I really want you to get it. Would it be okay with you if we met for a few minutes privately, after the session, to get clear about it?" Barbara felt heard and agreed to meet later.

Judy stayed focused and allowed herself to enter the living stream of experience with Barbara and the group, rather than to escape into the airy hills of thought above. Judy grounded herself and embodied her intention. She focused the group energy by offering instructions, demonstrating the experience, and asking for questions. Leading from the center, she monitored and encouraged the group to breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow, throughout the experience.

Judy Celebrated Her Maturity

Because she had integrated the group, Judy felt a renewal of trust, as though she had arrived from a journey. In the crisp fall air, amid the glowing maples, she felt deeply grateful for guidance, for the wisdom of the group, and for the wonder of this mysterious path.

Ken Nelson, PhD, has been an experiential educator since 1975 and is a leader in mind-body learning, group creativity, and teaching of the traditional healing arts.

Lesli Lang has a performing arts background and two decades of experience assisting Fortune 500 executives to communicate their message.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail