How on earth did we create such a magical gathering?

Facilitating the first Mindfulness for Change Hui

Oh no, we’ve made a terrible mistake.

That was the enduring thought I was left with at the end of the first night of the Mindfulness for Change Hui last weekend.

Too many people, not enough time, too much diversity. There was no way the group would come together.

I had to remind myself to trust the process we had created.

We hadn’t just thrown it together with no thought. We had incorporated concepts from Theory U, Teal Organisations, Systems Thinking, Social Labs and Open Space. All of which are about being adaptive and creating the future as it emerges.

‘Imperfectly perfect’ seems to be a suitable way to describe the weekend. There were many rough edges. We had to change the programme as we went, we didn’t have enough muesli, the venue was cramped…

But the outcome was far more magical than we could ever have hoped for.

Our aim was for people to leave feeling inspired to work together to create compassionate systemic change. We never dreamed that the weekend would spark deep personal and inter-generational healing.

I’m still trying to figure out what I learned from the weekend. One week out: here are my thoughts.

Adapt the programme as you go…

Mindfulness for Change Hui #1 programme

Usually, an organising team creates an event programme before the event and that’s it. Even if it’s not going that well, you just let it be.

We steered away from that path.

It started with the opening circle on Friday night. We had allowed two hours for people to introduce their story to the group. It took around six hours. Yes, it was long and tiring. But it set the weekend up to allow people to be present and participate fully.

At one point, somebody said that this was the most important part of the weekend — and they would be happy for the whole weekend just to be about getting to know each other. That triggered some nervous laughter on behalf of the hosts and facilitators.

Many people later said that the long opening circle was hugely valuable. They felt that about three days worth of connecting had been done in one evening. That laid the foundation for more deep connections throughout the weekend, and into the future.

Expanding, cutting and condensing parts of the programme on the fly was a difficult call. But why force yourself into a programme you designed in the safety of your officeblock if you can see the group needs something different on the day?

…but once you’ve chosen a process, explain it and trust it

On Saturday morning, the Mindfulness for Change hosts presented their vision. It was big and intellectual.

After this, I wanted to give people space to reflect on how the vision resonated with them. I wanted to move people from a thinking level to an emotional level.

But of course lots of people wanted to ask questions. Because that’s what we’re used to doing when confronted with a stimulating intellectual presentation.

I gave in to the group’s desire and opened the floor to questions to help people clarify parts of the vision.

The questions that followed were really just opinions in disguise. People were engaging intellectually with the vision. They were relating it to existing ideas and trying to classify it into a box they were familiar with.

After a few non-questions, I intervened and explained again that I wanted to give everybody time to connect with the vision on an emotional level.

What I failed to do was show people that I heard and understood their need to engage intellectually with the intellectual vision. I failed to explain why I wanted to introduce a particular process.

I learned that I should trust my gut when facilitating as long as I also explain that gut feeling to the group. Otherwise, I can’t expect the group to understand or accept my perspective as a neutral and impartial facilitator.

Focus on relationship-building, not action-building

Mindfulness for Change full circle

Eariler this year, I co-facilitated the Lifehack Community Retreat. It was a three day event for people around New Zealand working to improve youth wellbeing.

At the end of that Retreat, we ran a process where everybody:

  • Wrote down their vision of the ‘ideal Lifehack Community’
  • Wrote down one action they thought would best contribute to that community
  • Sorted through everybody’s ideas
  • Formed groups to work on those ideas.

Looking back, only one of those seven ideas has been actioned.

For the Mindfulness for Change Hui, we decided to focus on building relationships rather than a list of action points.

Our first draft of the weekend programme was content heavy. (Incidentally, it was designed by four males.) Our approach was to create shared knowledge and language. If we clearly and concisely introduce and discuss the key concepts of Mindfulness for Change, people will understand our thinking and want to take part.

Fortunately, one of us four males realised we needed to bring some different perspectives and genders on board. The females in the team re-focussed the need to trust each other and build strong relationships. (Gender stereotypes aside, this was just what happened for us.) If we create a high-trust environment, actions will naturally flow from the relationships.

The result was far better than we could have hoped for. People commented that they felt strong relationships and trust in the group — even with people they had barely spoken to over the weekend.

Only time will tell whether this results in compassionate systemic action.

Give space for deep reflection

Mindfulness for Change reflection time

I was grateful for all the advice we received before the Hui from friends who had convened and facilitated similar communities. One of the gems was from Sam Rye:

I would also wholeheartedly suggest using an hour or so on one of the days for solo reflection time outdoors.

We often try to fill the silence — in all aspects of life — with loud media, gossip, noise. Leaving space for silence and reflection is more powerful in today’s world than ever before. Silence is potent.

It allowed many people to genuinely consider how they might contribute to Mindfulness for Change. For some people, this meant being honest and saying that they didn’t have the space to participate. Far better that people are honest than pretending they will take actions they can’t actually commit to.

Shut up and get out of the way

Mindfulness for Change Open Space session

The most powerful moments in the weekend didn’t involve any facilitators. They were the moments where we stepped back and allowed people in the room to step into their power.

When I didn’t know what to do, I started to count to 10. Before I got there, somebody else would put a suggestion forward and away we went.

Here’s a quick example. On Saturday, Robin Youngson hosted a heartfelt conversation about the Seven Pitfalls for the Compassion Champion. The conversation was deeply moving and passionately hopeful.

As a facilitator, I knew we needed to do something as a group to end the session. So I started counting to 10. By the time I reached number 6, somebody else in the group stood up to suggest a powerful and spiritual close to the session.

Put your own wellbeing first

Facilitating is exhausting. Holding the energy of 40 people for three days. Making sure everybody’s voice is heard. Supporting and inspiring everybody to connect with the vision of Mindfulness for Change.

Everything caught up with me at the end of the weekend. By the check-out circle, I could barely stand the sight of people — yet there I was trying to facilitate a gracious close to the event.

A facilitation friend has told me that he never participates in mealtimes. He removes himself from the group so he can regather his thoughts and energy. I always thought that would be rude, but now I understand.

It’s like being in a plane when the oxygen masks come down. You need to fit your own before you help anybody else; otherwise you’ll soon be no good to anybody.

Curate diversity

Mindfuless for Change Hui #1 crew

Never before have I been part of such a diverse event in terms of gender and age.

We didn’t nail the diversity piece — far from it. But the weekend highlighted the power of bringing people together who would not usually associate with each other.

Diversity breeds diversity. Of thoughts, discussions, opinions, emotions, worldviews and reactions.

How often do you have a real conversation with somebody who’s 40 years older or younger than you?

So often we’re used to the older generations teaching or preaching to younger generations. Here was an event where the learning went both ways. The generations could say to each other: I see you and, I hear you and I appreciate you.

Integrity is more important than slick, smooth words

As a facilitator, I felt like I “stuffed up” lots of things. Sometimes I struggled to find the right words or I chose a process that perhaps wasn’t the best fit.

At least, that’s what I told myself. My inner critic was hard at work beating me down all weekend.

Yet, in the post-event survey, the facilitation was described as: engaging, flexible, well-managed, sensitive, courageous, intelligent, mindful, learning, really-well-done, gentle, considerate, inclusive, innovative, sincere, effective, respectful, accommodating, caring, real.

My inner criticisms just didn’t matter to anybody else. I was the only person who had a problem with my facilitation.

And that’s probably the most important lesson from the weekend. As a facilitator, I exist only to serve the group to the best of my ability. Don’t aim for perfection, accept what happens and always stay in the present moment.