Tips for Facilitating Reflective Conversations

Four facilitators on creating the conditions for reflection

Image: Participants at a Conversation Project program in Portland.

Oregon Humanities’ work to bring people together in reflective conversation doesn’t happen on its own. We collaborate with a large community of facilitators through programs like the Conversation Project and through our Facilitation Training, which gives participants the tools to get people talking in their own communities. Our facilitators have a wealth of knowledge about how to make good conversations happen, so we asked them to share a few pointers.

Create Belonging (For Yourself)

Focus on sensory specifics. When I don’t know how to emerge from or enter into a traumatizing context, I ground the interaction in our bodies. What are we feeling in our legs, our fingers, our minds, our hair? How would I know that just by looking at you?

The goalposts have always been, and will always be, arbitrary. So take intentional time and effort to define your integrity for your own practice. (The most compelling audiences I’ve ever performed for are audiences of one.)

Remember to keep your lineage in your heart. Mentors, patrons, benefactors, ancestors. Anything can be armor: a costume, a worry-stone, a favorite pen, a photo of a loved one, your water bottle.

Plan a ritual of self-care after the event (going to a bookstore, meditating, cigars, a cup of tea).

Really listening to others means you will also hear things from yourself that may surprise you. You must practice acceptance of everything you hear, from others or from yourself. 

—Paul Susi
Conversation Project leader, "Housing and Belonging"


Stay Present

Whether it's in person or via video conferencing platform, try to be as attentive and present with your attendees as possible. Picking up on micro movements like a lean forward or an unmute can go a long way in ensuring your attendees know that you are paying attention and looking forward to their contributions to the conversation.

—Brittany Wake
Facilitation trainer


Nurture Connections

I've learned a lot about facilitation from adrienne maree brown's powerful "Emergent Strategy" body of work, which advocates learning from nature in our work for systems change.

One principle from this body of work that I think about a lot when I'm facilitating is "what you pay attention to grows." 

Each time I host my conversation, "Relationships for Resilience," I try to invite participants into a broader and deeper sense of their entanglement in a network of mutually supportive relationships. That's what I want to see grow within the space of the conversation: that sense of being held. 

So when I see participants treating each other well in the room, or describing a relationship that nourishes them, I reflect it back to them—affirming their moments of connection with each other, and their strategies for tending relationships with other people, other beings, and places.

All participants bring their own identity intersections, lived experience, and perspectives to the picture of how resilient relationships feel, work, and change. We're in the conversation to learn from one another. 

My role is to pay attention to the many practices of resilience that show up in the room and amplify them, so that more options, opportunities, and connections become more visible—and therefore, I hope, have something of what they need to grow. 

—Christina deVillier
Conversation Project leader, "Relationships for Resilience"


Tune in to the Room

One thing I sort of keep in my head when I'm facilitating is that I'm there to make it more likely that people will listen to each other thinking, which will lead them to think more and to feel more, and so then they'll want to hear more, too. 

So what I try to do is pay attention to that: are the people in the room listening to each other, thinking, and feeling more alive because of this listening and thinking? This can be blurry stuff to pay attention to, but usually I feel more alive when the people in the room do.

Often it feels to me like I'm asking myself: what's happening in here? Are people feeling more alive, more attuned, more awake—and am I, too?

—Adam Davis
Facilitation trainer 


Find more opportunities to get your community talking through the Conversation Project, or meet our team of Facilitation Trainers.