Blog > Facilitators helping communities recover

February 27, 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



Share post on social media: