Creating Safe Spaces for the Soul: The Importance of Skilled Facilitation in Circle of Trust Retreatsby Senior Fellow and Director of Facilitator Preparation Marcy Jackson
for a liberation of creative power.
We seek to awaken in ourselves
a force which really changes our lives from within.
And yet the same instinct tells us
that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest,
most original, most personal in ourselves.
That instinct for renewal and creative power, and the desire to recover that which is deepest in ourselves, has led thousands of people to Parker Palmer’s writing and ideas and to the work of the Center for Courage & Renewal. We celebrate the myriad points of access and inspiration that have brought a far-flung “community” together around compelling ideas that bring qualities of integrity, courage and the importance of the inner life into greater visibility and practice.
Many have also sought opportunities to deepen their understanding of the Circle of Trust® approach—the foundation of our work—by attending a Courage to Teach, Courage to Lead or Circle of Trust Retreat (see our calendar) where they discover that talking or reading about something is very different from the lived experience of it! Perhaps this description of an opening circle in a Courage to Teach retreat can offer a glimpse into the depth of speaking and listening that occurs in our circles—the kind of sharing that most participants report to be utterly unique in their experience:
Twenty-five teachers and administrators sit in a circle, giving their full attention as an elementary teacher speaks passionately, and poignantly, about her love for her students and her commitment to reach each and every one of them. She goes on to tearfully describe the personal toll this is taking on her own life—bone-deep exhaustion, non-stop worrying about the safety of some of her students, the weariness of facing an always burgeoning mountain of papers to grade, creeping guilt at not having enough time or emotional energy to give to her own family, a sense of increasing isolation from friends and colleagues because there is simply no more to give. The listeners sit quietly, respectfully, as she finishes, each reflecting on their version of her story.
The next teacher speaks of the debilitating effects on his and his colleagues morale as relentless pressure is being placed on him and his school to raise test scores, or else! Once a labor of love, teaching is now becoming an onerous task as the nearly singular focus on standardized testing dominates all communications among faculty and administrators. More silence.
The next person to speak, a newly appointed principal, describes her recent attempts to mediate an explosive situation between a student, his parents, and a teacher. In the midst of helping the parties work through their threats, she has become aware of the heavy burden of responsibility she carries. Yet, she is also recognizing a growing confidence and inner sense of authority, grounded not in her role as a principal but in her personal integrity. On around the circle it goes—each person relating stories and examples of how their complex journey as teachers and leaders has unfolded since the last time they were together a few months ago.
from "The Courage to Teach: Rejoining Soul and Role," an interview with Parker Palmer by Georgia Weite in Wisconsin Academy Review, Winter 2003 Volume 49, Number 1.
The issues and dilemmas raised in this circle are not unusual or extraordinary for people working in education these days, and there are corresponding examples in every other other serving profession. What is unusual is the opportunity to share their fears, burdens, and humble successes with trusted colleagues who take time to listen and receive them, not fix or “problem-solve” them.
The Role of Facilitators in Circle of Trust® Retreats
The creation and holding of a trustworthy space—in which honest and vulnerable sharing like this can occur—can look deceptively simple but is actually complex and demanding. Parker Palmer puts it this way:
“In this culture, we know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, to argue its case, to make its point. We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions to show up, to express anger or joy. We know how to create spaces that invite the will to show up, to consolidate effort and energy around a common task. And we surely know how to create spaces that invite the ego to show up, preening itself and claiming its turf! But we seem to know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to show up, this core of ourselves, our selfhood.”
Much of the essence of this approach is embodied in the subtleness of facilitation that invites others to explore their own inner landscape. Facilitating the creation of safe spaces that welcome the soul, and inviting people into tender (and sometimes risky) territory, is only possible when there is a foundation of trust. When you ask people to speak honestly, to be vulnerable, to look at fears and failures, hopes and dreams that are closely held but rarely see the light of day, it is trust that opens the way. And among a group of diverse individuals, that kind of trust that is often hard-won!
Of course facilitators do much more than simply create the space for participants to come together, they guide conversations focused on a poem, a teaching story, a piece of music or a work of art—drawn from different cultures and wisdom traditions— and invite participants to reflect on the “big questions” of their lives, allowing each person to intersect and explore them in his or her own way.
The Center’s Role in Facilitator Preparation
When establishing the Center, we committed to a “chain of integrity” in our preparation of facilitators and in the leadership they provide in Circle of Trust retreats. Creating Circles of Trust: Facilitator Preparation Program has always been a core program of the Center, and we continue to invest in the careful development of facilitators who embody the qualities and conditions that are foundational to the integrity of our approach.
That commitment has resulted in:
1. a thoughtful discernment process regarding the selection of facilitators, and;
2. careful attention to how they’re prepared and mentored.
We believe that the quality, integrity, and transformative nature of this work rests not only on the Principles and Practices of Circles of Trust®, but also on the selfhood and the skillfulness of the facilitators themselves. Their integrity and capacity to create a safe and hospitable space is an essential part of what makes this approach distinctive.
Each year we hold a Gateway Retreat for persons interested in considering becoming a Circle of Trust facilitators. We just finished this year’s retreat with 24 participants who are currently considering application for next year’s facilitator cohort. We anticipate taking 16-20 people into the next cohort and they will engage in a two-year process of preparation retreats and mentoring.
Currently, we have 180 active facilitators in the United States, Canada, and Australia. They come from backgrounds in education, medicine and healthcare, human services, religious and spiritual settings, law, human services, community leadership and public life. It is a joy and a privilege to work with these gifted and capable individuals who are also passionate about the creation of safe spaces for the soul. Our lived experience, in circles across the globe, tells us that this approach is not only trustworthy but hospitable and demanding, respectful and generative, transformative and real—and one, that in Merton’s words, “awakens a force which really changes our lives from within.”
Return to Words of EnCOURAGEment Fall 2010