Facilitation Is A Fine Art

A handful of years ago, I was debriefing an event I facilitated, lamenting that–despite feeling like I had thoroughly prepared and practiced–I was shocked that my stomach was in knots and my voice felt shaky the entire time. Even though I knew the content, my body was acting as if I didn’t. I went on to talk about the gap between my intentions and my experience.

My supervisor said matter-of-factly, “Oh, well that makes sense—you were experiencing the three anxieties with a new group.”

I’d never heard about the “three anxieties” and felt like I missed out on the inside scoop.

I said, “Wait, what? What three anxieties?”

She went on to share more about the 3 types of anxieties that impact facilitators.

Here’s the essence of what I heard her say afterward (just the tip of the iceberg):

  • Social Anxiety: you’re navigating new group dynamics and trying to figure out your place. There may be some fears of being judged or feeling inferior  
  • Performance Orientation: you’re worried about the presentation itself and assume it may be scrutinized, you may also be thinking about how your position of authority impacts how/if people will listen and pay attention
  • Public Speaking: Most of us are familiar with this one. After googling the phrase, I was shocked to read that it’s “the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety affects about 73% of the population. The underlying fear is judgment or negative evaluation by others. Public speaking anxiety is considered a social anxiety disorder.” (more here)

That’s a lot.

I always knew about public speaking anxiety, but I couldn’t help but see all the missed opportunities without taking intentional time to plan/prepare for the other types of anxieties. After that conversation, I reflected on what I’d do differently to prepare moving forward.

You see, I’ve always been fascinated with invisible tensions—the hidden, subtle things that impact experiences. In fact, I talk about unconscious bias and emotional intelligence all the time—because they have huge impacts on leadership. And if we don’t talk about them, they can stay invisible and/or become blindspots. 

I coach and work with leaders, equipping them with the tools I wished I’d always had for that reason. I figure if I can help leaders and teams uncover their blind-spots and prepare intentionally, they won’t miss the opportunities I did, and the world will be better off.


So back to the three anxieties…

When we’re in the front of a room those three invisible tensions are inevitably at play, it’s important we know how to navigate and cope with them—otherwise our intentions will continue to be at odds with our experience.

Also, it need be noted that, if you’re a woman, Person Of Color, or hold any marginalized identities, then stereotype threat may also be at play in addition to those three anxieties above. (see here for more on stereotype threat and how to counteract it). Needless to say, our brains are in overdrive trying to protect us while facilitating. We talk extensively about stereotype threat in my 10 week leadership program, but for now, I’ll just say–this work is complex and nuanced, and it’s no wonder facilitation is a fine art. 

And here’s the thing: A lot of people expect to go from being a great coach or teacher to a great facilitator. OR, a great teacher (of students) to a great leader (of adults). We work hard to prove that we’re good at something, and then we move up the ladder expecting the traits we’re good at to transfer…

I know I certainly did.

But they don’t. It’s like expecting to be a great ocean swimmer when you’ve only ever swam in a pool. Even if you’re great at one, you have to learn the skills and nuances necessary to be good at the other and then practice into greatness. Some things get lost in translation when you’re transferring skills into a new domain. 


That’s why inclusive facilitation is a fine art. It requires intentional skill-building, capacity-building, emotional and social intelligence. Especially facilitating conversations for diverse teams with complex dynamics–we must hold space with great care and intentionality to be responsive to the groups’ needs.  


I’ll always be a work-in-progress, but I’ve been privileged to learn alongside some of the best equity leaders out there (shout-out to the National Equity Project). And, since I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic and support my clients to do the same, I’m offering a few tips as food-for-thought.


Here are some ways to overcome anxieties as a facilitator…

Connect to the 5 Power C’s and remember:

  1. Clarity: get grounded in your vision, intentions, and hopes for the engagement. Communicate them and be explicit about them in your framing.
  2. Community dynamic: pay attention to the nature of the group dynamic (and ask about it in advance if at all possible) so you know what you’re walking into and can prepare for social dynamics. Also do what you can to ensure it’s a welcoming ambiance. Lighting, seats/table arrangements, music, etc–all that matters for the dynamic of the group.
  3. Communicate authentically & intentionally: share your values and story. That grounds you in your identity and conveys some vulnerability, which is trust’s currency. Also, language matters, so remember that you’re inviting people into a conversation. Choose your words wisely & inclusively.
  4. Conflict is okay: expect some interpersonal tension and recalibrate expectations if/when diversity of perspective is raised. Divergent thinking is celebrated in my world, and I welcome different opinions.
  5. Change is good: make space for it. Normalize emotion, and understand the difference between changes and transitions. Don’t be alarmed if someone stands up, ruffles paper, or interrupts. When you expect changes and curveballs (and know they can’t throw you off), your presence is calmer and more grounded.  


The SPARK acronym also helps:






Now I’d love to hear from you.

What questions / dilemmas / connections do you have?

If you’re ready to take your facilitative leadership to the next level, I have an upcoming 2 week online mini-course on facilitative leadership where we go in depth around all of what’s above. Doors close this weekend and space is limited, so get registered while it’s hot!


If you have questions feel free to send a message here.



Rachel Rosen is on a mission to spark a global conversation about inclusion, racial equity, and courageous leadership. The Founder of S.P.A.R.K., an inclusive community card-game, and S.P.A.R.K. Leadershipshe helps leaders uncover their blindspots and take their diverse team to the next level with intentionality and integrity. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, team and organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice. Discover your S.P.A.R.K. score here.


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