They looked defeated.
I was facilitating a group of Ecuadorian Master’s degree candidates from a university in downtown Quito. I had brought them to one of our low ropes elements called “The Cable.” In short, I asked the entire team to tightrope (with no assistance from those on the ground) across a cable about the width of your middle finger and about 8 meters long. As a facilitator, I had decided to throw this difficult task at them and now I faced a group of tired, “at the end of their rope (or cable in this instance),” frustrated students.
Hacienda El Refugio exists to provide a training and retreat center which facilitates a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through nature and outdoor adventure. One of the main ways we accomplish this mission is by creating custom retreats for groups of individuals of varying ages. We have a large number of facilitators from around the Quito area that guide the groups during these retreats. In most cases, the retreats are different from what you would normally imagine as a retreat. Each retreat has an objective, a purpose, and our facilitators have been trained by El Refugio staff on how to guide a group through a series of activities and challenges to accomplish those purposes.
Facilitating is not an easy or straightforward task. As I have facilitated groups and watched other facilitators guide groups, one of the most important things I have learned and observed is that there is no one way to facilitate a group. A part of facilitator training is learning to be open to and look for these different paths of leading. We call these different ways “La Pata de Gallina,”or “The Chicken’s Foot” (see below). Depending on the group dynamic and each individual’s level of participation, there are many different ways that I could lead a group.
For example, in the story at the beginning of this post, I described how my group of university students could not get everyone across the cable. Their frustration levels continually rose and everyone seemed to be talking at once. Everyone thought they had the best idea, the idea that would work; however, after several failed attempts, it began to get silent. I had several options in that moment: encourage the group to continue working towards the goal, stop the group and reflect on teamwork and listening to each other, or maybe reflect on the importance of choosing a leader, or maybe help the group identify what was working and what was not working. I did not take them to this low point without purpose. “La Pata de Gallina” was offering me several different roads to take. The most important question on my mind in that moment (and in the minds of all of our facilitators as they guide groups) was how can I apply what this group was experiencing to their daily lives?
Two essential parts of facilitating are prayer and observation. God ultimately knows and directs a group’s experience. It says in Proverbs 16:9:
We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps” (NLT).
An incredibly exciting part of facilitating is that God is working through us to accomplish His purposes in the lives of others. He chose us to speak His words and show His love to each person who comes to El Refugio. We do not want to miss that! That is why prayer is so essential to our work. We often pray for wisdom, open eyes, and the words that will impact each group member’s heart.
Observation is another essential piece to facilitating because, again, there is not a cookie cutter way of handling a group. It takes practice to see just what a group needs in the moment. In groups of ten or more participants, it can be difficult to gauge the level of the group and offer relevant guidance. By observing the group, what roles the participants take, and how each participant responds to the challenges, we can provide a more meaningful experience.
For example, I took a group of high school students to our low ropes element, “The Wall.” The entire team had to scale a twelve foot wall with only the help of their fellow group members. This particular group worked extremely well together until the very end of the exercise. One member was left standing at the bottom of the twelve foot wall alone. The group continued to encourage him with shouts of, “You can do it!” “Maybe if you tried this…” He tried several different ways of jumping, using his legs, using his arms…Nothing worked. In the end, we had to call the group together and end the exercise. The original plan was to have the entire group get over the wall and learn how to work together to meet a difficult goal; however, this was an opportunity to use my observations and the observations of the group to create a relevant and impactful lesson. What we needed to talk about was their definition of success. Was the group’s success dependent on everyone getting over the wall? What was success for the group in this moment? The group realized that success, in this instance, was putting forth their best effort and continuing to encourage each other during the entire process. They learned that in their daily lives, there will be times when they will realize that their original expectations were too high (like the twelve foot wall that they could not all scale), and they would need to re-evaluate their definition of success.
We at El Refugio believe that there should be a purpose in everything we do during a group’s time here. The questions we ask and the crazy activities we plan (like following a leader’s voice while blindfolded) are all meant to bring our groups to a better understanding of themselves, their role in the group, and who the Creator of the creation around them is. It is a pleasure and a gift to be a facilitator and I cannot wait to see how God will continue to work in my life, the lives of the other facilitators, and the lives of those who visit El Refugio.