Facilitation: An Essential Systemic Practice

by Anna Birney

September 18, 2021

In 2001 fresh out of university I was looking for jobs that connected me to issues I cared about, to play a role in sustainability in some shape or form. I came across an opportunity to support a multi-stakeholder process around the World Summit on Sustainable Development, being an education coordinator for Stakeholder Forum. For the interview, I was invited to one of their events to see what they were all about and to meet the partners. I happened to turn up early to the facilitators’ planning meeting and found myself helping out, preparing the flipchart paper and post-it notes and harvesting insights at the workshop. I got the post and started my career using facilitation, first through learning on the job, but also through various trainings along the way.

Twenty years later in 2021, facilitation defines not just a skill but my very being in the world. It’s taken this long to claim this role. I have struggled with saying I am a facilitator and taking it as an identity and role for myself even though it was the very first thing I did when I turned to work. Reflecting on this I think it is because it is seen as something that is a lesser skill in the world than researcher, leader, or campaigner. This might be because when you are part of a very well facilitated experience, process, it does feel more easeful and helps you navigate the tensions and challenges that exist. The more I explore and inquire into how change happens and what is needed to address the complex challenges of the world as well as how we need to be as change agents, the more I see its vital importance to change making, especially that which is systemic.

Through our Boundless Roots inquiry, for example we saw the pervasive need running through our leverage points for “facilitative capacity: having the capacity and space to design and hold the processes that can bring about radical changes in our ways of living.”

> If you are wanting to bring a systemic approach to facilitate transformative change in your practice, check out the School of System Change Spark courses.


As stated in a previous article, facilitation, for me, is a creative process of bringing awareness to the world. It is about sensing and working with people, interactions, relationships and other dimensions.

adriene maree brown in her recently published book Holding Change names facilitation as “the ways spirit moves towards justice,” by holding “both the people in and the dynamic energy of, a room, a space, a meeting, an organization, a movement”.

Adam Kahane in his book Facilitating Breakthrough talks about the purpose of facilitation as removing obstacles to emergence, “that stand in the way of people contributing and connecting equitably… a liberating way to make progress”.

It helps us organise for change, helps us make decisions and govern, it helps us come together and be in relationship with each other and thus is vital for issues we seek to address such as equity, justice, and climate and ecological breakdown.

Domains of facilitation practice: (a framework)

People often just see facilitation as the ability to “run a meeting” however I think it is important to expand our understanding where it is also applied to leadership, to designing processes that span over years, running learning experiences or to simply a way you hold yourself and be in the world — to bring a facilitative quality to our awareness and relationships. There are many ways people are writing and articulating what facilitation is. What I want to explore here is the different levels or domains of facilitation as a practice. I will look at these different patterns of practice, across scales, so as to see it as a whole, so as to understand it as a systemic practice and how it might be systems changing. Where it is a fractal practice, so that the interior of the facilitator, the dynamics of the team and then the group can support shift relationships and patterns in the world. In systems change it is also important to understand the relationship between the practice, process and outcome. That is the outcome of systemic change especially in relation to just, regenerative and sustainable work is often that of enabling the capacity of the system, this can mean we need to work with the people and relationships first rather than placing content or knowledge about the world first. This is why I purposefully start with the interior condition.

So to iterate, I want to state how much this work is about people, in our full embodied, psychological, spiritual, social messy, whole selves. That we are beings that are social at our core that we evolved as a species by working together, being together and finding ways to organise, lead, work, grow, and so when we think about change we often prioritise the “problem, issue, content” and trying to understand what we want to change and don’t focus enough on the way and process of achieving that and the capability that is needed.

Domains of facilitation practice

1. Inner condition of the facilitator

This quote often gets circulated in these fields

The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” O’Brien from Presencing Institute

This interior condition refers to both our beliefs and assumptions about the world and how change happens. It also refers to our psychology, both developed through our cultural history and our personal journey of growing. Every choice we make, including how we facilitate, are affected by the patterns of our development.

This is why knowing your assumptions, the perspective you come from is so important. Exploring what are the pattern of our psyche are, how it was affected in growing up, the knots, the traumas, how sensitive or detached we are to different situations and how it affects how we behave and present ourselves. As well exploring what your intentions, knowing the deeper unique gifts you bring, your essence to bring the best to any work you do. This is why we need to do our inner work as facilitators — “the process of deliberately changing yourself through bringing an awareness to what is happening inside you and how it affects what you do in the world” (I will not repeat myself on the details of this so do refer to my previous article).

As a facilitator, and if you wish to bring yourself as instrument to the process then noticing what is yours, what is in the group and where the difference is; reflecting and mitigating on your own power-over as a facilitator and can thus support power with and from can all be critically important.

2. Capabilities — the skill of the facilitator

There are a number interweaving and interrelated capabilities that lie at the cornerstones of facilitation, that work together as the skill set, or a ways of doing and being in the world that the facilitator might bring. Here are some of them, this is by no means exhaustive but attempt to highlight working from systemic perspective and perhaps also my own style of facilitation.

  • Working with — finding, noticing and reflecting patterns ­– in this article I articulate some common systemic patterns you might watch for in processes that can help you build this ability
  • Noticing and unfolding the emerging direction, this is a dance between what outcome people are invited to as well as where a new direction or outcomes is wanting to come forth by the group, following the process that needs to emerge. One of my favourite go to tips is that of “sharing the dilemma” where you as a facilitator do not know which direction to take the group in, and so you share this and the choices with the group and let them decide. This links to..
  • Finding the wisdom and potential, the possibility of what needs to be brought forward in a process
  • Bringing awareness to what is happening in the room and dynamic — for example sharing reports of the “climate” in the process, stating what energy you are feeling and seeing or by amplifying something that is a point of disturbance or grain of truth. Thus…
  • Noticing and supporting where energy flows shift in groups, highlighting disturbances, hotspots, escalations, edges as well as….
  • … cool spots, de-escalations, moments of coming together
  • Framing — stating where a process is and summarising — I personally find this one a critical skill as it needs to reflect and resonate what is going on for in the process and demonstrating that you are holding the whole for the group
  • Witnessing, listening and having compassion to what is here
  • Bring awareness to rank and power dynamics
  • Working with trauma and power as a path to transformation
  • Represent what is missing, the ghost roles and showing alternative views
  • Bring in multiple dimensions of knowing and learning — (at different levels — body, dreams, consensus reality, essence)

There is a lot here, and realise I could write a chapter on each and also interested to hear what you do and see in practice which could extend this list… I offer them to help this reflection. As I write these down what I reflect upon is that facilitation is such a relational practice. Much of what is written about facilitation are tools that help us facilitate a process, such as open space, check-ins or frameworks such as three horizons or Theory U, but I find that these more subtle ways of being sit underneath all of these tools and frameworks, the difference between doing facilitation and being a facilitator. These capabilities or qualities not only interweave together they also are present in the further domains.

3. The facilitation roles and team

Although you can be a facilitator alone, it is always preferable to work as a facilitation team, so that multiple dynamics can be both activated and observed and the right energy can be brought. With one person being more in the holding space, one (or more) can be in the observing space to help the process of pivoting, re-designing, adapting as you go, as one person steps forward the other steps back. In larger teams it helps to hold different roles, such as harvesting, time keeping, practical and technical support, while in the virtual world this includes setting up break out rooms or miro boards. In the days of real life facilitation (notice my sob for this not being our reality) these included putting up sheets of paper, re-organsing the room, etc. As well as exploring what facilitating in more hybrid, both virtual and face to face settings might mean.

I love stepping back and watching what is happening in a group, and adapting what I might say or frame up something that needs to come next. For me it helps me work with what is needed in the group, not the prescribed script I might have; (although I have long thrown a detailed script out and work with an open flow. I now prescribe more to preparation for presence rather than prescription — see adrienne marie brown principles). Which also includes working on understanding the deeper intentions and purposes you are working for. Critical to any process is paying attention and preparing the facilitation team dynamics, knowing where there are strengths, where there might be things we get hooked by, and how we can cultivate a space together. Preparation in how you work together is more important than preparing a clear agenda. Setting and working through the purpose is also critical so that it enables being able to riff together, and not get stuck in set roles or directions. If you are alone however it is also good to notice what different roles you might play through any process.

Facilitation, as mentioned above, can be or is a way of being which we bring to other roles (this is a nice article by a co-facilitator I work with on differing roles) that we play. For example, if you are a leader or just a participant in a meeting rather than the designated facilitator, how might you also enable others by bringing awareness, framing and critically to supporting decision making, governance and the cultivation of change. How might facilitation be a stance you bring into the world? I know for example I can find myself bringing it to my role as parent or friend when required rather than in what might seem like an official work context.

A couple of reflections I will bring to this domain of working as a team. Firstly that of role fluidity, that being able to move between roles or more importantly perspectives is a critical skill of systemic facilitation. As it helps to loosen and unlock any stuck positions a group might have. Secondly a comment on the concept of neutrality, especially in the context of change making. Neutrality is seen as a critical skill to hold as your role in facilitation so as to not take anyone side, position or perspective, however I have found in practice it is not totally “neutral” that is to say you need to recognise that perspective you might hold, that you as a person can have a position or view. Sometimes this view might need to be made explicit to the group, not because you want to use your power to impose it but the opposite, by naming it and then showing that you are here not to hold that view, are willing to let it go or change it, this can help the group have trust in you as a facilitator and also support others move their view. A go to stance I have in this, is the idea of leaning in and leaning out from Deep Democracy, that once you have leant in (and perhaps physically show this) you also need to lean out to allow the voices to come in.

This is why role fluidity is critical for neutrality: the ability to move or dance between roles and views rather than not engaging with the “content” of the process. As a change maker you might also have outcomes for a process, from small to large, like reaching a decision, or addressing climate justice, however with this concept of neutrality and fluidity you are also really watching if this outcome holds true and or needs to adapt and move to what is needed. So again it’s a dance of being fluid and neutral to what will actually emerge from any process that will help you move forward.

4. Facilitating Group dynamics

Facilitation is not really about you or your practice or skill, it is about the group, the people and the process that needs to emerge. Facilitation is a relational practice and as such relationships are all about dynamics, about movement and change. Facilitation is systemic from the get go. As you facilitate, you therefore have to pay attention and track what the patterns (and anomalies) are to these dynamics and find a way to hold space for what is happening. We all know that relationships are hard work and so the role of the facilitator is to make it easier to flow work through different energies and conflict. This is why understanding power is so important. Are there one up or one down dynamics, who has more positional, spiritual or other forms of rank to each other. If facilitation is to fulfil its promise of shifting deeper structures in the world, such as structural racism or the way our extractive economy is structured, we need to do the work in the room.

A useful concept to help with this is noticing the sameness and difference in a group — in all different dimensions, from the introverts and extroverts, from the makeup of the stakeholders (which ones are dominant and which ones marginalised), from what is happening and what is being said — or more importantly, to what is not being said but felt in the energy of the room. Watching and noticing these flows is one way in to noticing the pattern dynamics. How might you map out the changing energy field that you are facilitating through to help you navigate and work with it?

Setting the container can also be a really useful practice in working with group dynamics. What is the space you are inviting people into, how are you making them feel welcome, comfortable, building trust and relationships, how might the space be meaningful? This is often done through creating team agreements that support the group work together. Getting agreement on how you want to relate and move. Doing this up front is important, but also as you get into the experience of relating together it can be helpful to re-visit them and adjust them based on the real dynamics playing out. These safe spaces are important however if we are doing change work it is also important to create a brave space

Conflict is inevitable and in transformational work often essential to helping move the process forward. Where there is difference, or edges and conflict this is where new possibilities can both heal and emerge. As such we need to find ways to hold this conflict, to hold disagreement, deeper differences and beliefs, as by working and facilitating through them we can create those breakthrough moments.

This is why we also need to set brave spaces, where it is ok to say no, to voice what is marginalised, different, to enter into this dynamic knowing it will help the work you are trying to do together to progress.

5. The overall facilitation journey

Most facilitation processes are not just a one off moment or workshop — and even if they are, this is usually a consequence of a longer need that is arising, or an intention to resolve something. As such, facilitation sits within a larger journey or process, be it one that the facilitator is holding or coming into a relationship dynamic. Therefore process design, working with these journeys is important. In a previous article I talked about the different systemic patterns that might inform these process designs, thinking about how these group dynamics turn into structures and how the structures can support them.

There are many approaches and tools that can support the design of these journeys, one that have set out process to follow, such as Theory U or Three Horizons, or facilitation guides that can suggest how to run a certain process (Art of hosting, worldcafe etc.)

What is often not talked about is what a once co-facilitator of mine, Joe Hseuh, made explicit to me: the importance of the silent convening as part of the journey. The preparing of the people, participants and facilitators, to enter into process together. This can be a whole process in itself, especially if the topic has a lot of tensions in it.

I remember my colleagues at the Finance Innovation Lab talking about how they once brought together a group of different actors in a room together — as a core premise of systems change — bring the whole group together, from the mainstream players to the radical niche alternative movements and how the process fell apart in the room, as they were not ready to work together. Preparing people and the process before you start is so important.

At the School of System Change as we pull together our Facilitation handbook(s) for our programmes, we are having a debate about how much we need to be prescriptive to how the journey is and how much it is based on principles and elements that the learning facilitator pulls together. When I started facilitating years ago I remember loving having a process to follow, designing and following something to the letter. Over the years, I realised though that you can get lost in that and not pay enough attention or put what is happening in the group first and foremost over your design. That is not to say throw out design or process; as a geek and therefore a collector of these journeys I love a good tool, technique and new approach. This is more to notice how you are holding it, when it is a crutch, a guide and when it needs to be adapted, or even let go of. This is why facilitation is not something that in my view we can learn in a one-off course but is something that we constantly practice and practice over and over again. Every time I learn something new, I add it to my skills. Adaptability is an underrated skill — the constant re-design and movement whilst also having structure to follow, or in other words, dancing between emergence and structure.

6. Facilitating knowledge

So far I have talked about facilitation as what is happening in and between people and yet we are also doing this most of the time, in change work particularly in the context of some question, challenge or outcome that a group is working with. The final spiral of facilitation, remembering that they are all really weaving and flowing together, is that of how you work with the subject matter at hand. What does it mean to hold this as part of your facilitation practice? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article this is often where facilitators start, and pay much less attention to the previous five domains — thinking about the outcome you might want to create — enabling collaboration of a group of stakeholders in the food system, supporting healing and reconciliation due to injustices, imagining what an alternative economy might be like, helping a team or organisation decide on their strategic direction. For this we need to weave together the knowledge in and or beyond the group with a process of say, visioning or conflict or using a systemic framework.

Some things to consider when holding content and knowledge in process — how much do you need to know yourself compared to how much you are bringing the knowledge that resides in the group. I often feel knowing too much can also have its drawbacks and a lot of facilitation is bringing forth the knowing that exists in the system. The critical skill is helping the participants to see the whole of their collective wisdom — that being the knowledge with wider feelings and experience. In systems processes, this is why using maps or other stimuli can be useful if it helps them to have a territory to build together. In some processes, however it can also get in the way and so just simply framing back, showing them the whole in how you summarise (such as the dynamics and the tensions in what is being said) can help bring it to life. To help make progress, if that is what is needed I also like the idea of banking (micro) decisions, the idea that we get clear a decision or direction, really agree on what they are and then open up to the next idea, so that you are both holding the whole but helping navigate through the different parts.


Facilitation is not something that is learnt in one training session or situation. For me, it is the most complex of all systems practices as it is about bringing together people, frameworks, intentions, energies and so on. For that reason my appreciations and acknowledgements are vast. From those I have trained with, learned from (trainings and books), more importantly those I have learned with, the hard work of co-design, reflections after sessions of pushing at each other’s edges, and areas to develop further — and to all those who are taking up the mantle of facilitation and claiming as your own identify. I can unequivocally say that the world needs more facilitators at this time of all types and forms, to help us work with what we are seeing as the discontinuity, escalating urgency and need to navigate change that we are facing.

Get involved

If you are interested in learning or improving your facilitation practice, join us on one of our Spark facilitation courses at the School of System Change.

by Anna Birney

Anna Birney is the CEO (Chief Enabling/Evolving Officer) at School of System Change.