Learning From Our Mistakes – Episode 6

In this episode, Beth shares some mistakes that she has made recently in her facilitation practice and talks about what she’s doing about them to keep learning in her work. Beth also explores the following:

  • showing our humanity as facilitators
  • using inclusive language
  • finding the words to speak up against racism
  • the vulnerability and bravery involved in revealing our mistakes

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Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

Hello, this is Beth. Thank you so much for being here. This is episode 6. And in this episode, I am going to go out on the big limb and I’m going to do an episode for you here about making mistakes as a facilitator of learning. And I’m going to share a couple of things that I’ve done recently to make a mistake and to learn from it. So that you know that this is part of the work that we do. We will never be able to not make a mistake, but when we do make one, we need to do something about it and we need to keep learning.

So, get ready, because I’m going to share some things that are coming up for me. I’m gonna go deep, actually, in this episode, and just show you a little bit about what some of my work and life looks like behind the scenes, being a fallible facilitator, showing up as a human in doing the work that I do. So if you’re human, and you facilitate learning in some way, shape, or form, then have a listen, because I really would like to know what you think about what I’m going to share with you. And I invite you to reach out to me, after you’ve listened to the episode with any comments and feedback.

It’s been really interesting preparing for this episode, because I’ve known that I was going to be doing it for a long time on this topic, and so things have been finding me about bravery, about courageous acts in facilitation, about making mistakes, about fails, and about vulnerability. And so I’m going to share some of my thoughts around these topics, give you a couple of examples. But I want to start with someone that I know that admitted their failure to me and other people just this week.

One of the things that just happened to me recently was I was on the receiving end of an email from a colleague of mine, a friend of mine, who is a coach, and they had made kind of a mistake around emailing people too much with their email newsletter. It was coming, I think, every day. And I know I had reached out to her saying, “I think something’s broken with your email system”. [laughs] And apparently other people did too, because I got, and we all got, whoever of us who were on her list yesterday, just got an apology video from her. And she really showed up and said, I’m sorry, I made a mistake. And here’s why. And here’s what I’m learning from it. So it was just yet another example for me of people in my network that I’m seeing showing up being vulnerable and talking about the mistakes they’ve made and owning up to them. Because I think we need to see more examples of that. And that’s something that came across my desk yesterday. And I thought I would tell you about it. So, nice to have those people in my life, and I’m going to try to be that person for you to share how I’m still sort of screwing up here and there, even though I still call myself and feel that I am facilitator with some expertise, a designer and a facilitator of learning with some expertise, but yet, I still keep making mistakes. So what do I do about them?

I’m going to share with you today at least two mistakes that I’ve made recently, and one of them – the first I’m going to talk about – is actually something that I said in the first episode of this podcast. So if you listen to Episode 1, you may have caught this, but you may not have. And so what I’m going to do is shine a light on the thing I said, and just tell you a little bit about why I considered it a mistake. And it was also something that, of course, I didn’t catch even in the editing of the podcast episode and so on. So I’m going to tell you what I did that was a mistake and see what you think about it.

So what was the thing? All right. In Episode 1, I introduced the podcast and I talked a little bit about who the podcast was for. And actually twice in that episode, I said something like, “and if you stand up and facilitate with groups”, or “if you stand up and work with groups, this podcast is for you.” And after that episode released, and of course I listened to it to see if it you know the quality was good and that sort of thing, I realized what I said. I said if you stand up and facilitate this podcast is for you. Stand up. And it was just such a moment where I thought, I can’t believe I didn’t catch that. Not every facilitator stands up to facilitate, of course! And so that language for me was not using inclusive language. I noticed it basically right after the podcast episode released. I didn’t say anything about it at the time, because to be honest, I was already thinking about this particular episode that I was going to do and I thought, Okay, I’ll see if anybody notices, [laughs] and I’ll see if I get any feedback on that. I never did. But I thought well, I’m going to tell you about that. I’m going to tell you about that. It’s kind of a tiny mistake, but it wasn’t an inclusive way to speak about facilitation and facilitators. The people who are, of course, can and are excellent facilitators, we don’t have to stand always to facilitate. We don’t have to be able to stand to facilitate. So thinking to back on my language, I could have been more inclusive there. And I wanted to tell you about it.

Is it a big deal? I hope not. I mean, again, you can give me feedback on this. But I just want to show you that I’m still learning in this work, and I know you are too. We can’t show up as perfect human beings ever. And nobody wants that pressure. We don’t want to put that on each other, we don’t want to put that on ourselves. And so the tricky thing for me, is the vulnerability of showing up this way. And so for me making mistakes is really related to vulnerability. Because when I teach people how to facilitate everything that I’m doing has this microscope on it. And even if people don’t notice it, I also then have to divulge it to them, or to you, so that you know that I made a mistake, because I want you to know what it was so that we can all learn and move forward. So when I teach facilitators, especially in these last, you know, two or three years doing a lot of it virtually, even though virtual facilitation is something that I’ve been doing for many, many years, actually, even before the pandemic hit, I’m still making mistakes. And I still have to stop occasionally and say to the group, see what I just did there? I made a mistake. And here’s what it was. And here’s what I would do differently next time. And I want you to know that that is something I’ve noticed, and it’s something I want us all to learn from.

I really struggled, I must say, with the vulnerability of teaching in this way, especially online. It really surprised me that even though I had so much experience already facilitating learning online, in a virtual space, and in an asynchronous online space for years before the pandemic hit. I probably started facilitating online in about 2012. I still felt so vulnerable, showing up online with people all the time. I had no in person sessions. Of course, none of us did. I noted that for myself that I was feeling more vulnerable than I ever had only facilitating in virtual spaces, such as in Zoom. And I was even more vulnerable, because I had to keep telling people about my mistakes. Because that was very important to me to show up that way. But it was hard. It was hard to sit in that vulnerability and get uncomfortable with that. Or, well, not that I was trying to get uncomfortable with it. But I was feeling uncomfortable with it. Of course, it was feeling pretty crappy a lot of the time, actually. Even though people were giving me good feedback about, you know, my expertise, and that kind of thing. Like to just always have to tell people when I was making a mistake was really hard. And it’s always something that I grapple with, but it’s something I feel really strongly about, because that’s how we learn. We don’t learn by seeing examples of perfection, we learn when people tell us how they’re not perfect, so that we can all learn.

So vulnerability, and making mistakes is really intertwined for me. And I want you to know that even though I’ve been doing this work for 25 years, or however long it’s been, this is still the internal voice that I sometimes have. Yes, you know, do I think I’m doing a great job most of the time, for sure. You know, I have a confidence around that. Absolutely. I don’t beat myself up too much. But I do note for myself how vulnerable it is to tell people about my mistakes. And I do struggle with that sometimes in the background.

The good news is that if you don’t teach people about facilitation, like I do, you know, if you’re not doing the thing that you’re teaching people about, then it’s a little easier for you probably, but hey, like, let’s not beat around the bush, you are going to make mistakes. And sometimes you’re going to have to tell your participants about them. Even though they might not be about facilitation, they’ll probably be about something else that you’ve done. And when you do, you might feel that vulnerability that I have felt. I hope you don’t but chances are you will, and just know that it’s normal and that is a voice that we have to deal with in the background of ourselves when we facilitate learning. And we need to figure out what to do about that. So brave spaces [laughs] and bravely showing up to do the work is something that we need to keep telling ourselves that it’s important to do.

Do I tell people all the mistakes I’m making? No, of course not. That would probably be really weird. So I choose, of course, the ones I want to share. So I probably could be way more vulnerable than I am. I still have a, you know there’s a tension there about looking like a professional, looking like someone that knows what they’re talking about knows what they’re doing. So I have to balance that because “professional” to me doesn’t mean never making mistake, showing up with expertise doesn’t mean never being able to say I don’t know, or I haven’t experienced that before or admit my failures or whatever. So we have to redefine, in some ways, the words expertise and professionalism or things like that when we think about these issues.

One of the things that helped me recently think about bravery as opposed to vulnerability was my Liberating Structures user group that I’m a part of. I co-facilitated a session with my friend and colleague, Jeanie Paterson, here on Vancouver Island. And Jeanie introduced me to a song by Sara Bareilles, called Brave, which we use for one of the Liberating Structures that we facilitated in the session. And if you’ve never heard the song or seen the video, please go check it out. I’ll put it in the show notes. It’s a great lyrical song, and the video adds to the meaning of the song. But anyway, thinking about the song and listening to it, and learning from it, and the word bravery, it really resonated with me. And I thought then – I made notes about it in a kind of a reflective structure that we did after we heard the song – that if I tell myself I’m being brave, rather than I’m being vulnerable, for some reason, that seems easier to me. Maybe I just need to redefine the way I think about vulnerability or define the term for myself. But I thought maybe this will help a little bit. If I think no, I’m going to show up and be brave. And being brave means admitting some of my mistakes and telling people about them. If I tell myself that that is a vulnerable thing to do, it’s almost, there’s like a negativity there. There’s like a taking away that I think I have been feeling or could feel. And so bravery, it just seems like there’s a bit more power in there for me. I don’t know, I’m sure Brené Brown and other people like her that study this stuff probably can shed some light on this for me. But that’s the lesson that I took away from hearing this song by Sara Bareillis.

The other thing that comes up for me a lot around these feelings of being vulnerable, being brave, kind of dealing with making mistakes, is authenticity and showing up as an authentic person when I’m facilitating with groups. Well, in life, [laughs] but when I’m facilitating with groups, for sure. And what does it mean to be authentic and to show up authentically, with my groups? And a large part of what I talk about, and think about around this is showing up as a real human being. And particularly online. Sometimes I say, a real human being at the other end of the computer, you know, on the other end of the system. So how do we show up as humans and show our humanity in online spaces, but of course, in in person spaces as well? Always. When we’re teaching, when we’re facilitating learning with our groups, what does it look like for us to be human?

Often, I think we can learn from other cultures, other peoples about how to show up in learning spaces as a whole human being. I know Indigenous peoples here in Canada have often a holistic way of being and knowing the world and showing up in the world. And I think I can really learn from that. And we all can, to think about how do we show up as the whole human that we are in our learning spaces as facilitators of learning? Because some of that is about, yes, sharing our familial history, our culture, our race, our hobbies, our experiences, but some of it is recognizing that we are fallible human beings. And to just put that on the table, that we all are learning as we go and to bring that more to the forefront. That we don’t have to sweep some of the pieces of our personality or of our being under the rug while being facilitators. We do walk that line of professionalism and expertise and whole person. And I guess we all have to figure that out for ourselves. But it’s something that I’d like you to think about. And I’m trying to think about it more and more as the months and years go on, as I continue to think about what it means to be an inclusive facilitator. If this is a new concept for you, about how to be an inclusive facilitator, go back and listen to the episode that I did with guest Susana Guardado because we talked about this very topic. So showing up authentically brave, vulnerable, making mistakes and learning from them. These are all great things for us to continue to learn about as we grow in our practice as facilitators.

Okay, so on that note, let me tell you about another mistake that I made recently that I’m still thinking about and needing to dive into more to figure out what to do about it when it happens in the future. So here’s what happened. I was facilitating a short two-hour workshop with an organization and it was all about fun activities that you can play and use with teams in virtual spaces. So it was a very light hearted workshop. And I had this activity in there where I showed people pictures and I asked them to come up with funny captions for the pictures. And I was doing this in a Google slide deck so I had the photos in there, and then I had some spaces so that people could write captions in and I gave, you know, some teams time to go and kind of work with each other and see how funny they could be and put these captions to the photos.

One of the photos was an image of a pug dog wearing kind of a scarf like it was wrapped in sort of a scarf-y blanket. Think E.T., if you are familiar with E.T The Extra Terrestrial movie from back in the 70s, I think it was, or 80s. It looks like E.T. but it was this little pug dog and it had this blanket around his head and it was sitting in the forest. As I was sitting in the main room and all the groups were in their breakout rooms working on their captions, I noticed a caption enter into the Google slide for that particular photo and it said something about wearing a niqab.

If you’re not sure what a niqab is, here’s what it says about it on Wikipedia. “A niqab covers the face while leaving the eyes uncovered, and today can be found amongst Muslim women in many different countries.” So I saw this comment go in, this caption, about wearing a niqab. And I had this moment and this feeling come over me of dread. I did not know what I was looking at. I was looking at a comment about a niqab and I didn’t know if it was a joke – because I had few people in the workshop that I thought could have been from a Muslim country or maybe you know, were Muslim themselves or, or were from a culture where people might wear niqabs. And I thought, is this a joke that someone’s putting in about their own culture and should we take it that way? Or is it a racist statement that is totally unacceptable in this and any milieu around wearing a niqab.

I had maybe a minute or two to kind of think about this and wonder and decide what to do. And honestly, I’ve never had something like this happen before in one of my workshops. I teach facilitators, I often have people, you know, whose hearts are in the right place in the room. I don’t tend to have this stuff come up in things that I tend to facilitate. And it really took me off, it took me by surprise. So I made the decision not to say anything about it, unless somebody would bring it up. And so I brought the group back to the main room and we did the debrief, and I just kind of ignored it, I had people voting on their favorite captions. And one person put a little green arrow next to that statement, and I just kind of ignored it. I’m kind of ashamed to tell you this now, to be honest, because I know, in hindsight, I would have done something differently. So I didn’t say anything, nobody said anything, it didn’t really come up other than this sort of little arrow that came up. I knew who the person was that had placed the arrow on the screen. And because you know, I think part of my part of my thinking was that, oh my gosh, this was a workshop about fun, you know about playing games. And I was worried that if I said something about it, it would really take the workshop off the rails potentially. And kind of I think I maybe had 20-30 minutes left in the session, I just didn’t know what to do to kind of keep a lid on. To kind of acknowledge it but then to keep a lid and kind of keep going with the workshops, I felt the pressure of time. So I chose to do nothing.

Was that the right decision? No, in hindsight, and especially after I had a conversation with the client about it, because you know, a client group had hired me, and then I was facilitating the workshop with people that they had found to come and be my participants. I right away told them right after the workshop. One of the client people was in the session so that they had seen, you know, what had happened, and I asked him about it. And I went and talked with kind of the supervisor of the unit and several other people. And they said, Yeah, yes, that is a difficult situation! You should have said something about it. But we totally get why you didn’t. And honestly, if we were in the same space, Beth, as you we probably wouldn’t have said something either, because we would have been caught off guard like you would have been. So we get that you didn’t say anything but yeah, let’s all talk about it now. And what would we do in the future if this happens again? What would we say to speak up? Because speaking up is what is going to help us be a more inclusive culture and to welcome all people into our learning spaces.

I’m telling you this not because I want to shed light on the fact that I was potentially culturally insensitive or supporting racism in my virtual classroom. I mean, this is a risk for me to even tell you this. But I need to take this risk, because I want you to know that this happens. If it hasn’t happened to you, it will. And I want you to be prepared of what to say, because I wasn’t. And I didn’t have the words at the time. And I think I’m still formulating them for the future about what I should do to be an ally in that particular situation. It is a more serious issue for me, this kind of mistake that I made, and I’m telling you about it, because this is the kind of thing that, you know, is driving me to do better in my facilitation practice. I’m taking a look at more trauma-informed facilitation workshops. There’s something coming up in my local area about that particular topic and other things related. So you know, what, how do I continue to learn and to grow so that this kind of thing, when it happens again, I will know how to effectively respond to it because I’m the one holding the space in the workshop. It’s not up to another participant to say something, although it would have been great if somebody did, because I suppose it would have forced me into an issue. You know, to have to, to grapple with it and figure it out. So of course, we invite people to say something. But as the facilitator, we are the ones holding the space and taking the lead on that. And I need to do better next time.

So, big mistake, big fail. And here we are, I’m telling you about it, this is going to be here forevermore. And I hope, if you’re listening to this, you know, months from now, or years from now that I am a better facilitator because this has happened to me and other things like it. Well, nothing like this has ever happened. But you know, other mistakes that I’ve made, I will always become a better facilitator, when I take the time to reflect on the situation and think about what my role was, what my responsibility was to be better in that particular moment.

Woah, okay, I just had to take a little breather there, because I don’t know if you heard the catch in my voice. But man, that was an emotional thing to tell you about. And I really wish I could cut this out. [Laughs] And not put this in the podcast. But I have to, because this is my commitment to myself and to my practice and to my community to try to show up and do better. Thanks for listening.

All right, I’m not done yet. [Laughs] A few more things I want to talk about around making mistakes, and making fails and facilitator fails and recovering from them. So, one of the things I hope we’ve learned is to take the time to reflect on these things. Actually, I saw this thing come across my virtual desk the other day. Priya Parker, who’s a facilitator in New York City, she shared this on her I think it was her Instagram feed, and it was somebody talking about a “fail-a-bration” that they were having. So she was sharing this idea from someone named Brad Montague, I think it is. That’s their Instagram handle anyway. She said, “writer and illustrator Brad Montague”, around something he invented called the “fail-a-bration”. And Brad shared…if you go if you go look on Priya’s profile, it’s like a bunch of little cookies that are like tan coloured. And Brad says, “These cookies were supposed to be lions. They turned out perfect for my very first fail-a-bration though.” And they don’t look like lions at all. They’re actually kind of hilarious little blobs. I think one of them sort of looks like the cookie monster from Sesame Street but it’s brown. And it just made me laugh because it it allowed me to think about my fails as something I could celebrate. You know, yes, they are hard. But can we just celebrate that we recognize, first of all, that they’re failures, and that allows us to do better next time. So he had this idea, he says “throw a party where people can share things that didn’t go as planned. After each person shares, they get a standing ovation! Plus the audience says we see you we love you. Thank you.” So I’d like to thank Brad Montague and Priya Parker for sharing Brad’s idea about this fail-a-bration.

I’ve also had people do failure resumes. I worked on a course once as an instructional designer with a instructor who assigned this as an assignment, actually, to do a failure resume. So if you’re an instructor, if you’re looking for something to help people learn about failure, like sort of failing forward or recovering and learning from failure, try thinking about maybe an assignment to do a failure resume. I’m sure mine wouldn’t be just two pages. [Laughs] It might be a little longer than that, depending on how far I went back, you know, failures, big and small.

Another thing that could be an idea for you…at the end of every year I do looking back looking forward process, and I just do it in a Word document. But I go back, this is for my entire business, actually, I go back and I look at the successes of the past year, but also the the failures of the past year. Because if I don’t think about what went wrong, I’ll never be able to correct those things for the future. And so sometimes it’s, you know, really tiny things. And sometimes it’s a very big thing that I really need to remember to do or not do that really does change the course of my business for the future. So think about your failure resume, maybe a fail-a-bration celebration amongst your facilitator friends, or your faculty friends, or your instructor friends, or something like a looking back looking forward process, where you’re getting honest with yourself about the failures that you’ve made in the last year.

The last thing I’ll say about this topic, and this is gone on a little bit longer than I intended, to be honest, so I guess I’ve been sharing so much with you today [laughs] is that sometimes we want to quit because of failures, or uncertainties. I was listening to an episode of The Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Bonnie Stachowiak the other day, and she had Dave Cormier on there as a guest. And Dave was talking about how uncomfortable it is to be uncertain, and to be in ambiguous situations. And it made me think, yeah, you know, I’ve had that recently too where somebody has challenged me just lightly on something I’ve done. And my first reaction in my own head was, I don’t want to do this anymore. You know, I felt like I wanted to run away from the thing. And just like, I’m not gonna teach this workshop anymore, because people challenged me. But again, I had invited the challenging. So it was a really kind of strange situation to be and just noting my own reaction was…in the face of uncertainty, in the face of not knowing something, that I – in some small part – wanted to never do it again. And of course, I will not do that, I will always show up and keep doing it again. But I just heightened my awareness to that feeling that when we fail, or when we’re uncertain about something or we’re in an ambiguous situation, sometimes we want to just quit and never do it again. If you’ve ever felt that way, I mean, maybe come back and listen to this podcast in the future [laughs] or drop me a line or something because I don’t want you to ever quit because you’re having the feelings that are uncomfortable in this work. I just want you to keep going and reach out to get the help and support and community that you need from other facilitators, other people who teach, other people who understand and and can help you along your journey. And so I’m going to give that advice to myself and keep reaching out to my community, especially my facilitator, friends who are people of colour and Indigenous peoples and people who are not like me to keep challenging me and to keep teaching me things that I need to know to be able to do better in this work. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time.

[Episode Outro]
In the next episode of the podcast, join me as I interview Taruna Goel. Taruna is a learning and development professional and one of the things she really cares deeply about is helping people learn how to learn. What does this mean? Well, we’re used to talking about the content that we teach but we’re less used to talking about how someone goes about learning something. Because there are strategies that people can learn to become expert learners. So, Taruna and I will have a conversation and she’s going share a lot of tips with us about how we, as facilitators of learning, can use these skills and strategies ourself to become expert learners, but then also how we can turn around and share the strategies with our students so that they can become expert learners as well. Thanks again for listening today. See you next time.

[Show outro]
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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