Facilitators helping communities recover

February 27th, 2009

Facilitator n. A person who makes a group’s work easier by structuring and guiding the participation of group members.

            Fran Rees, The Facilitator Excellence Handbook, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1998, page 11.


Bushfires, emergency response, media coverage, tears, volunteers, support, recovery, resettling, hugs, rebuilding. Then what? How do individuals and communities rebuild the bonds that make communities, well, communities?

Everyone is traumatised by a disaster – the survivors, the helpers, the professionals, the bureaucrats, the media. So who can work with, and in, communities to help with the long-term social reconnection? And why does it matter? Surely rebuilding infrastructure and getting homes and services operating is a greater priority?

I used to think that it was best that someone with my facilitation skills should stay out of the way and let the trained recovery people get on with it, to let the rebuilding begin. Then I learned that social reconstruction and building resilience is important too – and the sooner it begins the better.

 Social reconstruction is about connection, rebuilding the bonds amongst individuals and groups in a community. It’s important to help avoid secondary crises, where individuals become disconnected or isolated and choose to cope by making ineffective, often dangerous, choices, like using drugs, alcohol, violence or withdrawal.

Facilitators don’t have to wait. They can contribute right now, building the foundations for faster and more effective, recovery. A skilled facilitator can create a safe and caring environment to help people express their emotions and encourage connection through sharing of stories and experiences. A skilled facilitator can help create an awareness of what is possible; helping people recall their strengths and build new competencies as they and their community’s progress through the stages of recovery. And a skilled facilitator will be available when individuals and groups are ready to move forward, re-creating a new community based on the achievements of the past and the hopes for the future.

Facilitators, even those who are not members of the affected community, have the skills to build rapport with individuals and groups, creating a trusting environment where individuals can share their experiences. We know when to talk and when to shut up. We know how to listen so that others will want to talk, and how to guide when people are ready to listen.

Facilitators also know how to elicit meaningful recollection that increases people’s options as they consider their future. This is important for developing personal, group and community potential. We can hear when people are limiting their own options by their (verbal and nonverbal) language and gently help them reframe those statements in more effective, more positive directions. Facilitators ask questions that enable people to restructure their own language, and the stories they carry about themselves.

Dr. Gilbert Brenson-Lazan, an experienced authority on the role of facilitators in disaster response, describes social and group resilience as:

the ability to face internal or external crisis and not only effectively resolve it but also learn from it, be strengthened by it and emerge transformed by it, both individually and as a group.

What is the best we hope will emerge from a community struck by disaster? Rebuilding those bonds that define a community depends on the community’s ability to rebound as well as rebuild. This social and group resilience is an essential outcome to emerge from disasters. Groups or communities that have experienced a disaster such as the recent bushfires, have the knowledge, skills and resources needed for developing this resilience, but might not have the (facilitation) skills to recognise and hone the qualities and strategies they need to rebuild their communities.

Working with groups stimulates and reinforces not only those positive community characteristics, but also enhances and rebuilds personal identity, reinforcing self-esteem and self-confidence. Facilitators can be appropriately directive, consultative, collaborative and empowering all at the same time. Our job is not to lead but to develop leadership in the group.

When people are thrown together as a result of a disaster, some conflict is inevitable, often driven by fear, guilt or personal need. Facilitators can help avoid conflict escalation (different from avoiding conflict altogether which would be unhelpful) through dialogue and exploring flexibility and options.

Finally, skilled facilitators know how to recognise stress in others because we know how to care for ourselves. We know our personal limits. We know we all have personal limits. We know how to practice active grieving and how to develop a strong support network.

A facilitated group develops its own capacity to support itself. This type of help is very effective for minimizing (individual) dependence. The group develops strategies together, helps individuals define their own roles and the community can move forward together.

Facilitators bring an understanding of the innate power of groups, the importance of participation and the belief that groups have within themselves the resources they need for survival, recovery and growth. As communities affected by the bushfires navigate their way into their new futures, facilitators can help them form new structures for emotional and practical support.

More than 90 facilitators have registered to donate their skills helping those communities recovering from bush fires rebuild their group and social support systems. If you want to connect with a facilitator who can help, go to our web site www.fhcr.collectivex.com.



Role of facilitation in disaster recovery

February 13th, 2009

Back in 2006 BB (Before Blogging) I attended a training course for facilitators on the role of facilitation in disaster recovery. At the time I said it was probably the most significant training I’d ever done as a facilitator. I wrote an article for the Australasian Facilitators’ Network, to debrief my experience and to share what I’d learnt with others. I think it’s appropriate to republish it now.

My views on disasters and the role of facilitation have been both reinforced and changed completely as I reflect on a two-day workshop I recently completed called “Facilitating Psycho-Social Reconstruction” – and I’ll come back to what that actually means in a moment.

But first, a little background: this workshop was designed and delivered by the Global Facilitator Service Corps (GFSC) is a voluntary group of committed and passionate people who provide a way for facilitators to contribute our facilitation skills to disaster preparedness and recovery. It is ambitious, it’s altruistic, it’s voluntary, and organic.

The workshop was created and delivered by Gil Brenson-Lazan with help from BJ and Lenny Diamond who organised the workshop, provided behind-the-scenes support and developed the notes; and Mike Kane and Erness Wright-Irvin, both Hurricane Katrina survivors from New Orleans, who helped deliver the workshop. Their stories will remain with me for a long time.

The workshop ran over two days. There were about 14 of us – from across the USA, Canada and Australia.

Some highlights: Haiti-born Suze describing the chronic trauma of Haitian people living in the United States; Scott talking of his experiences as a 9/11 survivor; Erness describing her own immediate denial that there was any urgency to leave as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans; Mike describing his experiences of living with friends and his coping mechanism of either extreme activity or total inactivity. These personal, first-hand stories make the reports we see on our news come alive with a potency that is rarely possible via the media. Yet again, the power of personal anecdote was reinforced. And we all had stories to tell – maybe not of the same scale as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina – but personal disasters nonetheless that underlined the common human experience, and needs.

I’d always assumed that the immediate post-disaster recovery was best left to experts, with facilitators coming in to help with longer-term reconstruction of communities. Boy, was I wrong! And I’d also assumed that disaster only meant the all-too-regular large-scale natural and human-induced disasters. Wrong again! And I thought that the role of the facilitator began only after disasters. Three strikes and you’re out! I was wrong on all three counts.

The experts, the recovery teams, the bureaucrats – everyone is traumatised by disaster and have similar, but different, needs according to their circumstances. And yes, that includes us, as facilitators, too. Facilitators can contribute straight away, building the foundations for faster and more effective, recovery.

While there will always be a need for facilitation around large-scale, high profile disasters, there are everyday disasters too – happening in organizations and communities. Understanding the psychological and social impacts on individuals and groups helps us as facilitators to respond better and appropriately.

And for me, the most exciting of all, is the potential for facilitators to help build resilience and local capacity in groups and communities – so that if and when disaster occurs the group or community is prepared for psychosocial reconstruction.

Now there’s a term you may not of heard before. It simply means the reintegration of individual with community/group needs. During chronic or after acute trauma, individuals respond by reverting to survival mode. The longer individuals stay isolated and looking after themselves, the more likely they are to become dependent and adopt dysfunctional strategies to cope and suffer secondary crises.

The model developed by GFSC explores all of this and much, much more: individual needs and responses, leadership styles, approaches, skills, what to look out for and importantly, crisis intervention techniques – building rapport, the power of language, debriefing after a critical incident, building group resilience, suicide risk and referral (there are some things well outside the realm of facilitation and should be referred to professional therapists), avoiding conflict escalation (note – not avoiding conflict); and caring for ourselves and developing personal resilience.

Why facilitation? What do we bring that others don’t to these situations? It’s simply really – an understanding of the innate power of groups, the importance of participation and the belief that groups have within them the resources they need for whatever it is they need to do for survival, recovery and growth.

GFSC Model





At any time during the recovery process people can slip into ineffective strategies to cope – and while this model looks linear, it’s not really. Understanding this model can be helpful in responding as a facilitator – recognising what individuals and groups are going through.

Footnote: While I decided to help coordinate facilitators willing to donate their services to help in the recovery process for survivors of the Victorian bushfires through my blog and the AFN, Anne Pattillo in New Zealand had the same thought regarding IAP2. So naturally we’ve decided to work together. Stay tuned for developments.



Time for Action 2

February 9th, 2009

Thanks to everyone who has so far offered support – and even if you haven’t or can’t, thanks for being there. It’s early days so I’ll simply keep a register of people who are interested in helping and pass that along to relevant organisations. I’ll let you know what I’m doing. Feel free to pass on these resources and to do anything you think is necessary in your own community.

I’m reminded of some improv principles that seem particularly relevant right now:

  • Do something
  • Start anywhere
  • Be obvious

With the help of my friends and colleagues at GFSC (Global Facilitator Service Corps) – here’s a couple of excellent resources to help us understand what people are going through.

This is a manual of psycho-social reconstruction. Understanding what people are going through can help us respond – personally and professionally. 

50 things that you can do when there is nothing else to do is a workbook for anyone who has been directly affected. 

These are just two of many resources that are available.

Time for action

February 8th, 2009

What a difference a day makes. Many thousands of Victorians did not have a good weekend. They now face the devastation of bush fires that swept the State on Saturday in extraordinarily hot weather, fuelled by gale force winds. Whole townships have been destroyed, and many, many lives lost. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and hopeless.

This is a real test for us as a community – whatever that term means to you. It’s an opportunity for those of us who can, to do something.

Donate money.

And here’s some other links for information, support etc.

Support family and friends, neighbours and strangers. Here’s some resources to help.

For those of us lucky enough to avoid disaster THIS time, continue to build our individual, family and neighbourhood resilience.

Donate our expertise. I’m working on how to coordinate this for facilitators. It’s too early for facilitation to make a difference. Right now people need to grieve, and need emergency support, somewhere to stay, clothes to wear, food and someone to hug. Over the next few weeks and months we can help with community building. If you’d like to donate any expertise you have please leave a comment.

Inspiration and motivation

January 24th, 2009

Feeling a bit down in the dumps the other day and unable to get myself motivated, I started writing this post.

I’ve always understood inspiration to be external and motivation to be internal. I’m finding lots to inspire me on the web, and in the world. What I’m struggling with is motivation. Any suggestions?

And that’s where I left it. I did a bit of a google search and found lots of stuff, but nothing that spoke to me. Then on Twitter the next day I found this. It’s a free e-book titled How to Motivate Creative People by Mark McGuinness. Perfect!