About youth, amazing skill, high value, future pathways and a very collaborative conference coming up.

Friday. The end of a week where the emotion had drained out of me by about Monday afternoon. I’d blogged about mental health (and my own battles) on Sunday night, and had walked into work ashen-faced Monday morning. By the afternoon, I’d had two colleagues come up to thank me for the post and share their own mental health story. That left me humbled and a bit numb. The rest of the week was go-go-go. When a week is like that, you surrender some of the anchor points that habit delivers to you. There is (for me) a lot less comfort. So by Friday, I was also cognitively spent. When it came to wake up Friday morning, I seriously considered whether I was in the headspace to go where I needed to that day. I needed to be ‘on’, and what I got was pure inspiration.

The invitation.

There are few things I will cancel my weekly volunteering at the Big Issue for, but visiting the Reach Foundation became one of them on Friday. I had been invited to attend a ‘Heroes Day’, one of many early-intervention programs that Reach run for teens and young adults. I was there representing the IAF, the global body looking after the development of facilitation skill. For several months I had been aware that Reach run about a thousand facilitated sessions a year (probably more than the company I work for, with 40,000 employees). These guys would have some expert facilitators.

The assembled.

I gathered there with about 20 other random people, out the back of Reach HQ. Eclectic; an airline CEO, people from other youth-centric not-for-profits, HR reps from medium sized private companies. Everyone there to observe the 6 Reach facilitators (and the army of volunteer support crew) taking a group of 400 teenagers through something life-changing. We were asked what we were hoping to get out of it. Some were looking at partnering with Reach, others were looking at learning from the facilitators in action.  I was there for both.

The power of a narrative base.

We shuffled quietly into the rear of a big amphitheatre, already filled by the intended audience. For the next 3 hours, we witnessed the facilitators harness great skill to work their way through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This narrative anchor took the kids along a path of a ‘call to adventure’, akin to any challenge they had to meet in their young lives. Uncompromisingly, the facilitators asked “Will you take the opportunity?”.  This is about as much as what I can give away about the day, structurally or content-wise. To tell you more would be like giving away the plotline of the Usual Suspects, or the Crying Game, and would betray the trust of the dedicated Reach crew.  But I can tell you about the facilitation technique, and the resulting startling effects.

The needs of the kids.

Today’s teenagers are bombarded, saturated, with concepts and realities that only hit my generation much later in life. They also have developed a networked mind at an early stage, purely due to the technological enablement. One mistake, by them or a perpetrator, and it is public. Then try processing that with a brain still 10 years away from maturity. The Reach facilitators accessed, acknowledged and worked with those truths to create a safe environment for those kids. What did they do with it? They asked questions so daring that the whole room gasped as one; they elicited answers from the kids so frank, so lacking of pretence.

The effect on the observer.

I went in there intent on applying my keen Facilitator’s eye on their technique, and nothing more. That was my purpose for being in the room, but I also wanted to apply that discipline as a shield against emotional wrenching. Good luck with that. The answers from the kids had most of us crying at many intervals. At the half-time break, we retreated back to the ante-room, and we all had to gather ourselves. My method was to stand in my own space and be quiet. Our guides from Reach – totally used to this reaction – eventually came up to ask if I was OK. I shared what I was feeling; that I was still in so many ways that 15 year old kid, way back in 1991. Still growing, still sensitive to the reactions of others, still battling to let my true self show through. Still experiencing fear and doubt when new opportunities presented themselves. That it struck a raw and true nerve. That I was now an absolute supporter of what they do for young people.

The debriefs.

Later, after the PM session, we held a group debrief of the day. The focus was on the skills of the facilitators and how they deployed these. The Reach guides explained that the Heroes Day, being to an enormous audience, and being very theatrical in its production, was the only situation where it was fair to have neutral observers (such as us, and also the school teachers). Therefore it was the only opportunity to show some of the ‘how’ of their method. They said it only showed part of the facilitators’ skills. All our group shared back that regardless, the skills were evident everywhere. Appropriate modulation of voice, “behind-the-play” time-management in their co-facilitation, spatial anchoring to shift perspectives, extravagant gestures to fill the plenary stage, shrinking down to below eye-level of the teenager answering a question, sharing of common experience when doubt arose in a participant, using street-language, cutting tension with judicious humour, harnessing mindful meditation & sensory acuity, letting the pause do the work, taking care of the quiet kids in the room. That is just some of what I can remember. Marvellous.

The business case for peer facilitators.

One other aspect came up in the debrief. All in their twenties, it became apparent why the facilitators’ age mattered simply, and simply mattered. It wouldn’t be possible to get the level of engagement they did without being able to quickly position themselves as a recent peer. I wrote about the other end of the age spectrum a few months back. On that theme of facilitator age, I know now anyone 30 + could not have run the Heroes Day for Reach. Similarly, I manage a learning program that helps 450 women a year to obtain career confidence. It is a male-free zone, including the facilitator pool. If fact, I’ve never seen the program live, but the participant testimonials speak of the quality. The comfort of the familiar, along with good facilitation, achieves a supportive environment that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere in life. That is what the power of facilitation is about; it’s just that sometimes you need to be the right facilitator to match the audience.

Their future careers.

But what future for the Reach facilitators once they hit their late twenties? Have they been fortunate enough to find their highest and best use so early in life? Is it all downhill from there? Well, I met a couple of their alumni that had come back to help on the Heroes Day (Reach is a big family). Both had landed radio broadcasting gigs. I can imagine the following: their facilitation over many years giving them that initial patience to explore the full promise of a pause, and from there they would have got the knack for timing. Combine that with the ability to mentally multi-track (from co-facilitation) and be mindful of risk (from working without a safety net), and you have the core skills for live radio. Even then, radio is fickle. There has to be a market, a path of lengevity, for these highly skilled young veterans and the mastery their 10,000 hours of practice has given them.

The professional association.

This is why I was there on Friday. The IAF exists to champion facilitation skills. We do that by helping to articulate the benefit, create opportunities for our members to use their skills, and provide an accreditation framework that accelerates their self-development and elevates the status of really good facilitators. Historically an older demographic (because it usually takes a lot of time to get to know oneself enough to successfully facilitate), the IAF is getting dramatically younger, particularly through Asia. The Reach facilitators are more than ready for the IAF because they have all faced their own demons, very early on. They have much to teach other facilitators too.

The accreditation.

The CPF accreditation is an extremely handy bridge for young, but seasoned, facilitators to make the jump into work within sectors such as government and corporate. So much of the work of the Reach facilitators can never been witnessed unless you are one of the young people they work with. If you walked past them in the street they would look like any other young creative or uni student. Facilitators of their ilk need something that traps the magic of their deeply developed skillset. In a way, I’ve tried to do that with this post. In a world where we have to make decisions based on a quick glance, letters after one’s name doesn’t hurt.


The conference.

Which brings me to what is going to happen from 25-27 May 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. A global IAF conference, with the theme of ‘Pushing the Boundaries’. Planned to be jointly held between the head office of a major corporate and a sporting stadium, even the venue choices are unusual. The collaborative fleshing out of conference content is currently underway, with the direct involvement of corporates, government agencies and the not-for-profit sector. For organisations like Reach, this is an invaluable opportunity to not only share the success stories of their unique application of facilitation, but also show off the rarely seen subtleties of their method. We look forward to the value exchange.

We work out loud.

Another way that the conference organising committee (of which I am a part) has decided to ‘push the boundaries’ is to openly narrate our progress leading up to May. This story-sharing is an essential ingredient in making the design process as iterative and human-centred as possible, the intended outcome being to create a sense of personal connection right the way through the experience for everybody. We have already harnessed the CX skills within our committee to form a blue-print, with a heavy focus on the ‘why’ and customer benefit. I will publish a separate post shortly to share more about that.


If you are intrigued about knowing more or getting involved in the Melbourne conference, here are a few options and jumping-off points:

  • On twitter, search for #pushingboundaries and/or #IAFOceania2016. The handle for the host chapter committee is @IAFVic and the host region is @IAFOceania. Message or tweet us directly, we’d love to talk with you.
  • If you want to run a session at ‘Pushing the Boundaries’, you can find the information and lodgement form here. You have until 31 October 2015. The scope is deliberately very wide so as to be as inclusive of as much diverse, innovative thought as possible.
  • You can ask questions, obtain context and make suggestions at the IAF Oceania Linkedin group.
  • You can email us at

This is a special post for International Facilitation Week, which runs from 19 to 25 October.

Paul Batfay is an ambassador for the “Pushing the Boundaries” IAF facilitation skills conference in May 2016 to be held in Melbourne.

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