When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.

Max Planck

One of my favorite quotes is from the writer and healer Deena Metzger: “There are those who are trying to set fire to the world. We are in danger. There is only time to work slowly. There is no time not to love.”

It was the quote that introduced my very first newsletter/blog post, and it remains core to my work.

Although I think of my work as more than facilitation, many people I interact with see me first and foremost as a facilitator. And there is a responsibility there I take very seriously—the role of creating space.

This is not simply space for conversations, and decisions, and results in a meeting but also—and perhaps more importantly—for surfacing challenging topics, reconfirming a group’s values, resolving conflicts, even acknowledging and addressing the powerful emotions that can often arise in our work.

If we are to create the kind of leadership we need to affect transformative change in ourselves, our workplaces, and our communities, we need to create this space—regularly—in our lives. We need to claim a time in our day and in our week to do what I call “big thinking” or just to be silent. We need to weave this space into our meetings with colleagues, so that we are not only focused on “getting things done” but in understanding why and how we are achieving our goals.

And we need places annually or semi-annually that can serve as a pilgrimage of sorts—a place to return to that helps reconfirm our purpose in the world, reconnects us with colleagues aligned with our efforts, and renews us along the challenging path of seeking greater health, sustainability and justice.

Creating this space is much like the role of fire in a healthy forest…seemingly destructive, but allowing the room for new things to grow. Even if that fire is born of crisis, it also allows for renewal in our lives and in our work.

Creating Space is one place that fulfills this ecological role my work. Whether I have been facilitating or participating in this regular gathering hosted by the Leadership Learning Community, I am provided with a clearing for new perspectives and tools, an opportunity to learn with colleagues familiar and new, and a place to reconfirm and recommit to the values central to my work—including collaboration, equity, and health.

In structuring this year’s gathering, there was particular attention paid to honoring the idea of “creating space”—the authentic time with colleagues we most yearn for which is often lost amidst presentations and working sessions. There was also emphasis on scale, reducing the number of participants from well over 100 last year to a maximum of 60 this year. And, as always, our theme explored innovative ways to deepen leadership that can achieve transformative change…though this year, we focused more intently on engaging participants in sharing or designing tools and approaches to do so.

The experience crafting the agenda and facilitating this three-day gathering led me to reflect on some of the principles I often use for creating space and designing dialogue in any meeting, using the mnemonic “CREATE” :

  •  Clarity. Defining why a particular meeting or gathering needs to occur—either for one hour or over the course of three days—is critical. What is the purpose of bringing people together? Clear outcomes (and the right number of them) help structure a meaningful agenda and allow for dialogue and connection among participants.
  • Room. The space that is used for any meeting creates a mood for that meeting. One of my mentors, David Orr, speaks about “architecture as pedagogy”—we learn from the rooms and buildings we occupy. Is there natural light? Is the space large enough for the number of people? The right answers to these and similar questions can make or break any gathering.
  • Expectations. While the first and most important question asked about any gathering is about its purpose, this MUST go hand-in-hand with participant expectations. If we are to genuinely create space for transformative conversations and results, we cannot design for people…we need to design with them in partnership. Getting input—through surveys, interviews, and pre-meetings—is essential for success.
  • Agenda. The path through any gathering needs to provide ample time for each topic, a graceful balance of content to ground a common experience and opportunity for dialogue, regular rituals—whether for short, recurring, or multi-day meetings (think poetry or getting reflections from participants)—as well as breaks to allow for integration. The intensity of a meeting is much different than the work done sitting alone at a computer or on a call with a colleague…and we need to pay attention to this difference in how we map out and balance the time for any size group.
  • Team. As critical to success as a clear purpose and well-crafted agenda is a facilitation team appropriate for the group and topic. While I often facilitate alone, and solo facilitators can be very successful, larger gatherings require two or more co-facilitators who have worked on designing the experience and who can share the tasks of leading discussion, documenting ideas, and resolving challenges. Equally important—particularly in conversations around social change—is the ability of a facilitator or team to address issues such as race and equity, and the important conversations and emotions that can seem like “off-topic” distractions but actually are core to success.
  • Evolution. I don’t think any meeting I’ve facilitated has gone exactly as planned, and as a colleague of mine once shared—“it’s not knowing what to do, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” Having the flexibility to evolve with the group—as a facilitator or a participant—AND remain focused on getting to clear outcomes and next steps is the real challenge and magic when coming together with a group of people.

These elements—and especially the final step—models a vital practice in both designing successful meetings and creating more attuned leadership for transformative change: the ability to remain committed to particular outcomes while respecting the evolution and needs of any group and the discoveries that develop along the way.

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