The Art of Facilitation: A Look at Safety

Recently I learned an important lesson about facilitation:  safety can impact learning!

During a course on facilitation a fellow participant was facilitating a “real world” case study during a mandated practice teaching session – we were learning to facilitate by facilitating. His organization was responsible for training midwives overseas where there is a high death rate at child birth:  the need for oxygen or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is not always recognized and babies die unnecessarily. He shared the case study and asked a closed question summarizing the problem for the case to move us to the next level of learning task. However, the question required that someone know the answer, “How do you know when a newborn needs immediate assistance with CPR or oxygen?” He continued to rephrase this question as closed to get the audience to respond. The group tried to guess the answer. He rephrased with every attempt. However, the only way to know the answer was if we had had medical or personal experience in this area.

Sadly, the latter was my reality.

After what seemed like an eternity, and the same question being asked multiple times, I finally blurted out, “It is the color of the baby – he is a color he is not supposed to be.”

To which he replied, “Yes. Yes, that is correct.” 

For me, I just wanted the question to stop because it was stirring something within me that I had not felt for 14 years. His questions where actually taking me back to a point in time when my three-year-old son had drowned, and was that color. It caught me off guard because I had not experienced the intensity of reliving and seeing my son’s image in a long, long time. That closed question reframed, and reframed, and reframed again had engaged my head, heart and body to react at a very deep level. An experience that impacted the core of my being had been brought to the forefront and to that present moment. I froze. Time and space changed. I was no longer in a safe place with people I trusted.

When the practice teaching was finished and we went back to the circle to offer feedback, I discovered my colleagues had experienced real learning about this unknown topic. However, during the feedback they suggested that he use open questions to encourage dialogue and that even this may not have worked because we didn’t have the personal experience to offer meaningful input. They felt stuck because of their lack of knowledge on the topic.

It was at this point I had to interject, saying “I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but my experience was different.” I shared that I did know the answer because of my son. Despite this, my learning was hampered and I could not offer input or participate in the desired dialogue. The example was too personal and I had shut-down.

I continue to ponder that experience. There was great value in it and I now deeply understand the weight of responsibility of the facilitator to ensure safety at all times. I also now know that what can take days to build up can be lost in the blink of an eye – safety is fragile.

Here are some tips that I plan to take with me from this experience:

  1. Know your audience. It is the key for building and maintaining safety in the group. Also, know that your learning about an audience continues way beyond the course timeframe.  Stay open and stay curious.
  2. Use open questions. If the individuals in the room were also content experts the closed question asked of us would have worked. In fact it may have been the best type of question for that moment. However when looking for dialogue, an open question is always best. When asked with genuine curiousity, who knows where it may lead!
  3. Check your sequence. If a workshop moves too quickly or in the wrong sequence, learning can be blocked or jeopardized. Check the alignment between who is in the room, with the content to be learned, with the time and space you have to learn it.
  4. Be authentic. We can always expect the unexpected. When someone responds to something with unexpected emotion, notice and sit with it. Tears, anger and fear can enter the room at any time when using a learning-centered approach. These emotions need to be welcomed, honored and acknowledged. Sometimes just saying:  “Thank you for sharing what you just did. That could not have been easy…” Sometimes stopping is what is needed:  “I know we were going to move right into our next practice teaching, but I feel we need to stop. What you just shared is so personal and so real, we need to sit with it a little longer. …”
  5. Minimize fear in learning. Brain research is true:  When the amygdala is heightened, learning stops. Our goal is to maximize safety and respect to minimize fear.
  6. It’s never too late for an important conversation. To my fellow participant’s credit and skill, he followed up with me about two weeks after our class. He was thoughtful, kind, and vulnerable. We had a great conversation and it has helped me continue to process all my learning. Safety can be re-established. However, it’s better to stop and reassess, then try to pretend it didn’t happen. It did.
  7. Start building safety way before the course. Safety on the front end sets the stage for when life happens in the course, and it will. The more safety and respect you present in a course the more learners will have the courage to try new things, reflect deeply, share openly, and question even what they think they know.

There will always be unknowns and uncontrollable situations when you put a diverse group of people together in a learning environment. Facilitation is an art; it is messy; it is a responsibility. May we enter it with humility, openness, a keen sense of curiosity, and deep love.


Machaela Curry has attended multiple Dialogue Education (DE) courses with Global Learning Partners and incorporates DE principles and practices in her work as the Director of Grow for New Life Church, Gainesville Campus in Virginia, USA.  Machaela is a graduate of the University of Maryland and holds a certificate in Strategic Marketing from the University of Michigan.  She is also an administrator of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator Step I and II and can be reached at