Transformative Facilitation through ToP

Transformative Facilitation through ToP

This post was written for ICAI’s online magazine Winds and Waves – published at (see explanatory note).

“Is there a contrast between delivering a program and facilitating a group’s process?” A trainee facilitator posed this question during a mentoring session.

It reminded me that I always approach an event as both an event and as part of a journey, and that this has been part of the history of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) from its beginning.

ICA used facilitation as part of community development work. Each individual event we facilitated was set within the larger, longer-term context of community-driven participatory change. We knew that we were both guides for an event, and role models.

I began to wonder if all facilitators approach their work in this same kind of transformative context. So I thought I would set out its key elements, so others could compare their practice.

I always assume that a long term change is unfolding, that individuals will change as part of this process, and that I must pay attention to this moment, this system, and these people because things I have done before may not work in this specific context. I stay curious, and empathetic, because I want to learn everything and I don’t know what is most important to know.

In transformative facilitation, each element — client communication, design, and facilitation — is a facilitative moment.

The relationship between facilitator and client is key to collaboration.

Client interviews offer an opportunity to get diverse input while connecting with all engaged in the process. Once a date is set for the event, a deeper dialogue — perhaps a design conference or facilitated dialogue — with the sponsor explores the client’s need more deeply:

Current situation: What is the business climate? How is it changing? What has changed recently that has made you aware of the need to change?

Vision or hope for the future: Why did you become involved in this business? What is your vision of the future?

Issues: What major issues you are facing? What needs to change?

Next steps: What are you hoping for by working with us? Who, besides yourself, is key to organizational change? At some level, the change is always required of the leader; are you ready to make the necessary change? How urgent is that change?

Designing by listening for the deepest level of felt need and bringing our full self to the design process.

“Facilitator stance”, as seen by a 2011 US ToP network task force, includes such aspects as “I will symbolize our values, hold the container of possibility, trust in the group, trust in group process, participation is key, suspend assumptions, willingness to seeing and affirming what is, coming to a situation without judgment, and (of course) neutrality.”


Assessing the Current Situation- What do we need to address?

Understanding the Change Dynamics — What fundamental change needs to happen?

Clarifying Images of the future — How will this work be carried forward

Discerning the focus: What are we trying to achieve?

Create a working design: What processes will enable the group to achieve this result

Values/Guiding Principles in ToP Design (Adapted from Jane Stallman’s list)

Co-design with client — unique to client needs — dialogue, draft, dialogue, draft, modify as we go

Ownership of work is the client’s.

Participation is key — Experiential intent, safety for the work that is needed

Focus on outcome, action, resolve … Begin with the end in mind.

Facilitating with the focus on this group at each moment, adjusting process, method and style moment by moment.

Explore hidden facets of their context. “Appreciation for gifts” and “exploring contradictions” help surface deeper and often unexplored aspects of their context.

Developing awareness of dialogue and silence as skills in “holding the space” for the group to process its learning and thus move to a deeper level of reflection and choice.

Being open to “letting go of the design” while recognizing that the facilitator must keep the group focused on time, task and context at times of choice or transition. Even if they are not aware of it, the group is in charge and is self-organizing.

Lawrence Philbrook, director of ICA Taiwan, is a facilitator and organizational transformation consultant who has been designing processes for teams and leaders for over 20 years. For more information or feedback, please contact him at