Facilitate the Adventure — Summer 2021

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On my first belayed rock climb in 1979, the PPE consisted of a 100-foot section of “gold line” natural fiber belay rope, a top anchor, and two steel non-locking carabiners. The “bowline on a coil” around my waist could not remotely be called a harness, and it rode up my ribs, squeezing ever tighter. Any attempt to pause or rest on the rope led to a higher level of breath-taking pain. I made the top, but it did not feel like the adventure I had hoped for.

At the end of the climb, the lead instructor had us circle up. He asked about our struggles, how it felt and how we had eventually succeeded. In that simple facilitation, I saw the entire experience in a completely different light, and it created a lasting positive memory.

That day, I learned four powerful lessons:

• A few focused and intentional inquiries at the right moment will transform a negative experience into powerful positive growth.  

• Some challenges, while physically safe, feel like a failure, and participants depart with sadness and shame.

• Doing everything right in operational procedures can still leave a guest with a disappointing misadventure. The consequences of a misadventure can range from a lack of repeat business to a lawsuit from a breach of duty of care. 

• A facilitator or guide can and must learn right along with participants.

Reachable moments. Today’s PPE is vastly more comfortable than it was in 1979, but the challenges and struggles can be just as daunting for the uninitiated. In facilitated programs, the term “teachable moments” applies to opportunities, planned or observed, to introduce and process the learning objectives promised in education or therapy. But in all programs, facilitated or guided, there are moments in which the care of the human spirit and fostering a positive group experience become the most important objectives. These we might call “reachable moments.”

The lead instructor in my climb was attentive to these reachable moments. He had the awareness, training, and developed skills to respond effectively to my struggle. His attentive engagement during and a short conversation at the end changed the outcome for the better.  

WHAT ARE REACHABLE MOMENTS?

Reachable moments are predictable opportunities in which the right awareness, focus, and engagement will turn a potential misadventure into a wonderful memory of challenge and success. These are the moments in which we give an individual or the group more than they expect—and exactly what they deserve.

Managing emotions. In adventure operations, we seek to invoke a powerful and positive emotional experience through a risk-based adventure. This makes the facilitation of human connections and emotion the foundation of our duty of care. There are times when the guide or facilitator must go beyond the steps outlined in the operations manual, when a facilitated approach is, in fact, just the right operational procedure. That requires being approachable, attentive, empathetic, helpful, and trustworthy for each person.

Guides are typically trained to provide physical safety, but they may not be equally trained to provide emotional safety and facilitated positive outcomes. Delivering someone physically safe to the end of the tour is not the same as delivering a surprising and powerful experience despite the predictable struggles. Without a level of competent facilitation, some clients’ adventures will end poorly. You may not know of this outcome until you get a bad review (or a call from a lawyer).  

Facilitation in our industry has always been a difficult thing to grasp. The “touchy feely” image of facilitation suggests that it’s more like a therapeutic or personal growth approach than coaching on a two-hour-long adventure. Yet, all programs have a responsibility to deliver participants safely to the conclusion, both physically and emotionally. We must provide the right guidance and support to our clients—facilitation, in a word—whether we have promised education and growth or just plain fun and excitement.

Two types of facilitation. I see two possible types of facilitation for both facilitated and guided programs. The first is the basic care and encouragement of participants linked on a shared journey. Even in a short period of time, our recreational and experiential groups need conscious facilitation as they stretch in the novel experience we deliver. The second is a longer and deeper process to achieve outcomes for cognitive, emotional, or team growth. This is the basis for most experiential programs, of course, and at times, the result of a less predetermined path. 

WHERE REACHABLE MOMENTS OCCUR

Both types of facilitation have application throughout a guest’s visit to our facilities. Here are a few reachable moments in which your participants will benefit from a facilitated approach:

Arrival. An arriving participant may be filled with anxiety, thanks to horror stories in the news and YouTube videos of adventures gone wrong. They may feel pressured into joining the adventure by family, friends, co-workers, or a boss.

So: Meet each person out front with a relaxed and warm welcome. That first impression is important. Show them from the start that you will provide a high level of care and that your goal is to create a safe outcome for the day. They should see you as approachable and competent. Greet each person to initiate a feeling of acknowledgment and inclusion. Including everyone is key.

The first group circle. When all of my participants are gathered, I begin with a two-minute “frenzie.” I have each person exchange names and a welcome with all others, one to one, and I join in myself. The frenzie delivers an initial connection that sets the tone for the day.  

Opening briefing. I begin with a group welcome and then a “sounding” in which I ask everyone, “What inspired you to join us on an adventure today? Is there a concern that I can address before we start?” They might be surprised to see you connect with each person and learn that you care about who they are and what they might need for the day. Explaining the equipment and procedures is expected, of course—but helping them to prepare for the challenge with your support is the foundation of a powerful experience.

Guides must demonstrate care and technical competency during gear-up, and help guests build confidence in the equipment.

These steps establish your relationship with each person, encourage members of the group to engage, and offer insight as to who is in the group. You will hear personal expectations and concerns, and you may identify someone who will need more support, coaching, or perhaps much closer supervision. 

Harnessing. In the rush to keep the tour on schedule, it’s tempting to manually install and adjust each person’s harness for them. However, any touch of a participant’s body should occur only when that person is unable to do an essential task themselves and with their permission. Your need for speed does not override the personal and legal minefield of an unwanted touch.

So: With your group in a circle, demonstrate the process, starting with your harness off, and ask them to follow your sequence. When they have done their best and you see a problem, tell them of your concern, tell them exactly what you need to do, and then ask and wait for their permission. You might also have a parent, partner, or friend complete the task, if that is more comfortable. A facilitated approach respects the body and dignity of each person. 

(For more on harness donning, see “Easy Donning,” p. 54)

The first launch. For many, the first step is the crux of the entire day. Invite people to choose their order, and connect with each person as they step up. Confirm that you have their name correct and answer questions patiently. 

That first step, both figuratively and literally, is a reachable moment that will influence the rest of the day. Your initial patience will help keep the group moving for the rest of the tour. For some guests, a reminder to take a breath, a confirmation of their technical safety, and encouragement that they can take this step, like others in the group have, is a game changer. Your care of each individual in this reachable moment will actually help you to stay on schedule.

A physical event. Our courses are challenging by definition, but they shouldn’t defeat our guests. My physical struggle on my first belayed climb filled me with emotion and distracted me from the joy of the adventure. During my struggle, the instructor gently inquired if I would like some support and advice. He started by encouraging me to breathe, find a comfortable stance, to consider my goals, and only then addressed how I might find my next point of leverage. His concern was for the person first, adventure second. In that way, we can guide our visitors past the challenges that confound them.

An emotional event. Any struggle on the course will stimulate an emotional response on the part of the individual. While the struggle excites some people, others will quickly become emotional. In such cases, a person’s cognitive ability, focus, and effective action decrease quickly. As the emotion intensifies, so do the downward effects. The ability to respond verbally can be deeply impacted as the emotion grows, too.

This person is confronting a disappointment that is beyond his means. Ignoring these moments can wreck the experience for him and ruin the timing and outcomes of the tour for everyone.

So: Handle the emotional moment and get the tour back on track. An effective structure for emotional intervention will quickly bring the person back from a decline and help him to re-focus. Others in the group watch how this is handled and decide for themselves about the character of the guide and how they might be treated if they struggle.

Emotional interventions typically involve a sequence of empathetic inquiry and movement toward a set of choices the participant needs to sort through, with your help. Begin by inquiring about their present state. Offer a full deep breath together to bring them into the present. Then return to their earlier stated goals for the experience, and review the challenge before them. Explore the options, and finally, the participant needs to make a choice. The goal is for the participant to end up as the courageous hero of their own story. 

The final debrief. A simple circle at the end of the tour, a few questions about successes and the things we have experienced, provides a fitting finale. A “final frenzie” that allows us to acknowledge and thank each other for the journey is just the right closing.  

FACILITATION IS INTENTIONAL

In a facilitated approach, participants arrive as strangers, leave as friends, and tell the story of their amazing experience to everyone who will listen. Facilitation is an intentional process in which we bring a group of strangers or friends together as we guide them through a sequence of challenges. The challenges we choose set the stage for thoughtful reflection leading to positive outcomes. Facilitation infuses a sense of connection, competence, and celebration to the experience from arrival to departure.

Common goal for all. All programs, facilitated and guided, have something in common: We want people to join us for an adventure, we want them to have a safe and positive experience, and we want them to tell others how much they loved it so that they and others will return. Facilitation of the journey, the bumps in the road, challenges overcome, and new friends made will turn a brief experience into a lifelong memory. People will remember how they felt, and how you treated them.

Facilitation provides the means to rapidly develop an emotionally safe setting. It establishes a foundation of trust and, in the event of a struggle, the guide is already viewed as safe, helpful, and competent. People who experience your care and professionalism are easier to lead, more willing to take on a higher challenge, and more forgiving when there are mistakes. 

Tom and his wife, Jennifer, operate Leahy & Associates Inc., providing challenge course design, operations, training, and the NCCPS Facilitators Unconference. Contact Tom at tom@leahy-inc.com. 

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