The Wonder of Retreats

by Susan Valentine

I love facilitating retreats. Actually, I like running them. To me, they are in fact like an athletic event (energy required!), with a little bit of theater (good scripting required) and a dose of musicality (crescendos and choruses welcome, too) thrown in. I like the fact that no matter how much is done pre a retreat, it is the in-the-moment, on your toes sculpting (yes, there is that artistic element, also) that keeps you alert, eyes and ears and brain keenly engaged. And I guess, truth be known, I like the adrenalin rush of orchestrating retreats as they unfold.

Here are some things I have learned over the years that work well for me while facilitating retreats. First, the athletic aspect:

  • It is important to have water available, to keep hydrated, and to be sure that participants have some kind of beverages readily available throughout the day. You can also avoid having prescribed breaks if folks are able to “take care of themselves” easily.
  • The facilitator/coach needs to be sure the “team” – client sponsor/any other key stakeholders - is on the same page in terms of expectations and the agenda pre the actual event/retreat. This often means a few planning discussions that ensure that concepts or words mean the same thing to everyone – a calibration of sorts.
  • All participants should be told to wear comfortable clothing, including shoes. I always wear sneakers. I think better on my feet in sneakers. I feel more playful, reachable, flexible.
  • Movement should be woven into the day’s activities. Small group activities that allow people to go to different rooms; breaks or meals that involve getting outside; maybe even a few minutes of directed exercise following lunch.

The theater aspect:

  • I think it is OK for the facilitator to be theatrical. Not hokey, but aware of the stage and performance aspects to running the show. It is possible to be serious and engaging.
  • Simple things like using colorful markers on flipchart pads, including interesting objects in small group activities, even choosing folders and handouts that have some energy to them via color or typeface or design.
  • Involving the audience early and often is critical. Identifying who is trying to wrest control of the day from you and letting them know you will have none of it… or whose economy of words in comments saves the day from tedious monologues, so their participation becomes key…or checking in periodically to see how folks are doing by asking everyone for a one word response to a question and then tinkering as need be with the flow (“so, how are you doing at the moment?”)
  • Preparation, including considering some “what ifs,” is really important. Being sure that expectations are clear at the outset of the day and that the outcomes are being met throughout the day is critical. Capturing key lines spoken by participants on flipchart paper or jotting them down a notepad onso you can play the words back later helps participants know they are being heard and helps you have the audience be the key point makers.
  • Humor. Laughter is indeed good for the soul and helps people relax and feel connected. So, finding ways to not force lightness but to capitalize on lighter aspects of the day’s serious work is a good thing. While the facilitator needs to be professional and show quickly they know their stuff and are committed to the group’s success, it is OK for the facilitator to be warm and engaging, even funny.


  • The natural ebb and flow of energy should be used to advantage. It is OK to have quieter moments to balance high-energy crescendo sessions during the day.
  • Be on the alert for the “chorus” moments (often “ah ha” moments), when critical agreements seem to be reached or clarity on a difficult topic shines through. Embrace those moments with gusto. If you are fortunate, several of these will occur in a day. Each one should be “noted for the record” so that the group owns its own awareness, claims its progress.
  • “Voices” really matter. For instance, using your own in a modulated way is important (a dull facilitator is a deadly thing). But mostly, help the participants find their own voices in the midst of the group. A way to start this process is to get folks involved in saying something about themselves early in the retreat. Ask pre retreat for folks to fill-in-the-blanks and come prepared to introduce themselves via statements like: “something most people don’t know about me is….” or, “my affiliation with this organization matters to me because…”
  • Decide for yourself which participant voices you think add zest and vibrato – especially as opposed to the speech makers -- to the conversations and find ways to draw them into the discussions.

I also really enjoy facilitating retreats because they simply are a wonderful chance for a new, in-the-moment community to be formed. The desire to work together, and the passion of common belief, and the willingness to give of one’s time all combine to form a luscious opportunity for mutual growth as individuals and as a collective, on behalf of an organization.

The bottom line: Being chosen to facilitate a retreat is an honor. Proceeding with planning and execution thoughtfully is critical and shows respect. But, viewing the day as an opportunity for everyone to exercise as many “muscles” as possible, in a lively setting, is also a smart move. It will increase the chance of everyone contributing and even having fun while accomplishing good, hard work. So, orchestrate away…and then see where the melodies take you…

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