What to Do When Life Happens: A Facilitator’s Challenge

I intentionally design to maximize learning. I conduct a needs assessment, asking select questions of participants and stakeholders, studying websites and key documents, and observing events and meetings of the client and small groups. I check my assumptions and work to align the steps of design to ensure the best content is being offered at the right time with the appropriate audience in a way that works for them. 

And yet, life happens. It takes us by surprise and we are often caught unprepared. 

What do we do when a natural disaster, political unrest, global pandemic or other catastrophe stops us in our tracks and demands our attention? What do we do when amazingly positive news comes our way – birth of a child, receiving a large grant or donation, or a cease-fire in war?

This unexpected news may be experienced or received by a participant, the entire group… or even you! 

Allow us to offer a few tips we have found helpful:

  1. Stop when you learn of unexpected news. It is unwise to pretend something has not happened, when clearly some people in the room know and/or are being impacted. Pretending will not undo it. It is best to name it as soon as possible and decide (by yourself or with the group) how to make space for it. In the case of political unrest a pause in your work may be needed; in the case of a large donation being announced it may be enough to spend the last 5 minutes sharing gratitude for the individuals who made it possible. 
  2. Make space for what has happened. When our hearts are captured by death, destruction or disaster our heads may not be fully able to learn or work. Enter slowly or make space for sharing before entering your day together. 
  3. Use a talking circle. The practice of taking turns to speak in a controlled way helps to ensure everyone has a voice and is heard. Using a talking piece to clarify whose turn it is to speak and to ensure truth is shared without interruption. 
  4. Check in with individuals. It can be helpful and kind to pull an individual aside to see how they are fairing given the latest news – fantastic news can be just as distracting as devastating news. This check in can be done during a break, at the end or before the next session. This is certainly a great example of meaningful connection and relationship-building.
  5. Offer choice. It is often best to offer the group the choice to continue as planned or whether to change or postpone what you are doing in light of the new situation. If learning or engagement are at risk many will appreciate this choice and respect will be felt. 
  6. Ask permission to start or continue. When you believe a group is ready to start or continue a session, it is wise to check your thinking. For example: ‘It feels to me that we are ready to continue. If this is okay, please raise your hand.’
  7. Offer an update. From time-to-time sharing a bit of additional news about the situation can be appreciated. This communicates that you have not forgotten, and you are honoring people’s curiosity. In some cases, the news is being lived each day and it may be unwise to bring it into all work spaces. 
  8. Decide on protocols. Since some news can be triggering for individuals, it can be helpful to co-create and agree on when, where and how you will discuss or share the news. 
  9. Create an alternative space. In some cases, it may be helpful to host a separate event or space to share more personally or deeply about the event. It is not always appropriate to allow news to take over work space and time. This may be especially true when only some of the members of a group are impacted. 
  10. Invite diversity of engagement. Different people find it helpful to express feelings in different ways. For some a walk’n talk can be helpful, for others some time in silence is important, and for others journaling may be the thing. Consider what would be most appropriate for your group, knowing that choice may be best. 
  11. Do not generalize. People get affected by the same event differently and react in various ways. For example, some people prefer to detach themselves emotionally from horrible news and focus on learning or doing something to survive a difficult situation. Help everyone feel that there is no right or wrong reaction.
  12. Be open to adjusting the content or the technology. Depending on the course, the unexpected event, or the program, sometimes it is necessary to work on what is most relevant and possible, rather than what you had planned. For example, if suddenly technology is no longer possible or the context of a situation changes, pivot. 
  13. Offer some short-term prioritizing tips. Some events force people to prioritize the work at hand, the family, the advocacy, etc., for a while and distract them from long-term learning plans. If possible, give them some tips to stay engaged with learning i.e. offer a different pace.

If the unexpected news is experienced by you as a facilitator, don’t avoid it. You will be impacted and also need to attend to it. Some ideas include: 

  1. Name it. There is no shame in sharing personal news, while staying professional. The group will most likely notice a shift in you… so you might-as-well name it.   
  2. Care for yourself. This may mean taking a break while your co-facilitator continues with the group. This may be enough to keep you fully present later in the event.  

Here are two personal stories when ‘life happened’ and forced us to respond:

  1. Celebrating Persian New Year in Canada – by Nasim
  2. The Day the Elections Rocked Our World – by Jeanette

What unexpected news stopped you and your group in your tracks? How did you respond?


Nasim Mogharab is a women’s rights advocate focusing on Iran, with a background in educational technology, human rights education and advocacy, as well as oral history.

Jeanette Romkema is GLP Senior Partner, as well as Network and Partnership Director. Here are more GLP blogs by Jeanette. 

Here are other GLP resources you may be interested in: 

  1. Talking Circles
  2. Being a Contemplative Practitioner
  3. True for You: A Technique to Consider
  4. Where Aboriginal Practice and Dialogue Education Meet
  5. Building Equity through Restorative Approaches – a podcast 
  6. Where Restorative Practice and Dialogue Education Meet 
  7. The Circle of Trust – a podcast

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