Expert Inclusion Tips for the Beginner Facilitator

While I was in graduate school at Rutgers University, I once mediated a roommate dispute that was a cultural clash between two students that really boiled down to religious differences.

One student had their partner over (often sleeping over) and the other student was not comfortable with that at all. As the mediator, I worked to make sure each student was open and accepting of what the other had to say, and that in the conversation, we didn’t use exclusionary language or fall back on stereotypes. But those aren’t skills I always had.

Through “Safe(R) Space” trainings, interacting with students from different backgrounds, and my coursework, I came to acknowledge and understand biases and stereotypes, and how to work against them in myself and others.

During my time at Rutgers, I greatly expanded my understanding of diverse experiences, privilege, and ways to be more inclusive both professionally and personally.

Learning from these experiences was an amazing, transformative journey.

When I say “inclusive,” I mean practices that work to be mindful of all identities and abilities. It’s a simple idea with complex implications but is nonetheless crucial. There are many ways to incorporate an inclusion mindset, and I’ll be focusing on a just a few specific instances here.

We need to be inclusive and encourage universal access in all that we do as higher ed professionals — especially within the learning environments where we work. Typically we lead team builders and trainings with our students which provide an important opportunity to make sure that everyone feels safe, included, and heard. These critical moments to create community and engagement can easily fall apart if people feel disrespected, unheard, or devalued. This may also be the first impression students have of your office, and, if squandered, you will have to work twice as hard to earn their trust.

This is difficult, uncomfortable work, but it is critical and necessary, especially in the world we live in today. It is okay to feel anxious and to make mistakes. Just apologize when you stumble, be committed to learning, growing, listening, and be patient with yourself. As long as you’re continuously improving, you will be on the right path.


Before you begin the activity

There is a lot you can do to prepare your session to go as smoothly as possible and work towards your desired goals. Using a helpful facilitator checklist like this helps to ensure that you and your co-facilitator(s) get off on the right foot before a training is designed. Having a co-facilitator is a great way to help you stay on track, include different perspectives, and learn about how you could be an even better facilitator. Make sure you choose a physical space conducive to the session, arrange it as needed, and make sure that the attendees know what they’re in for and can mentally prepare. No one likes to be blindsided, especially with something as sensitive as discussing inclusion, privilege, identity, and biases.

According to Kaleigh Cornelison, MSW and facilitator, a general rule for preparation is that “It never hurts to over-prepare, just make sure you’re still flexible with whatever might come up.” Remember, you don’t know each attendee’s history, or what their comfort level is with the material you’ll be discussing. So before you begin your workshop, take an inventory of your own language tools, and think about what words might be considered jargon to someone new to this subject area. This will help you meet your attendees where they are. You’re on this journey together!

Importance of word choice

Words are powerful. They have the power to open up spaces and the power to make a space feel uncomfortable or exclusive. As facilitators and leaders, we need to be conscious of how we use them. Something as seemingly small as using a person’s correct pronouns can have a huge impact on your audience. It is fair, especially as the beginning of a facilitation (or during sign-ups for a training) to have folks indicate their name and pronouns. Beyond the training space, If you aren’t sure what the correct word is for something, ask a trusted colleague or do some research on the internet. Language around inclusion and identity is constantly evolving, so keep in-tune with how things might be changing. And if you say something wrong, and a training participant tells you, say “thank you” and commit to learning more about that identity in the future. As Meg Bolger of the Safe Zone Project told me, “Make sure your intention aligns with your outcomes.”

In addition, giving content notices when you’ll be discussing emotional subject matters and trauma goes a long way in helping people feel comfortable and present in the training space. For example, in a training about bystander intervention, this could be as simple as saying “On these next few slides, we’re going to be discussing statistics around sexual violence and different identities.”

Caution Sign Inside Building

Getting everyone involved

Students will be more likely to engage with your session if they feel included in how things are organized. This is especially important for diversity and inclusion work. Gathering together everyone’s hopes, expectations, and concerns will help make sure everyone feels heard, respected, and supported. Being deliberate about creating space to hear folks’ voices goes a long way.

And listen to your audience. If you say something out of turn, adapt. If someone has questions, answer them. But be careful, having your audience overly involved in the session can be harmful. Sam Killermann, an author, speaker, and educator, noted that it’s important to not have the entire session hinge on the audience sharing their experiences. Being a member of a marginalized group or struggling with finding your identity is an emotional journey. You need to lead the conversation in a way that is supplemented by the feelings and thoughts of your audience, but not reliant on them sharing.

Lastly, don’t feel like you have to get overly high-tech with your presentations. There is value in unplugging, saying “no” to a slideshow, and getting folks talking in the same room. It’s hard to beat the engagement and honesty that comes from getting folks discussing important topics together.

Keep the momentum going

Inclusion and identity-driven work is always evolving in terminology and the best delivery methods. So keep up with the latest research and conversations. It’s hard work, but you owe it to your colleagues, students, and yourself to always keep learning — and we promise you, it’s worth it. You’ll be building the framework for a campus where everyone feels welcome, safe, and engaged.

If you want some ideas for how to foster more inclusive mindsets in your students and staff, check out The Safe Zone Project, the Social Justice Toolbox, and Presence’s own inclusion training partner, Resilient Campus. For more general facilitation tips, check out the Facilitating XYZ site as well as the Facilitation Magic book (co-written by Sam and Meg).


P.S. — If you want to know how Presence is practicing what we preach, check out how Presence has committed to doing this important work through creating an inclusive culture and challenging biases.

Many thanks to the content area experts on inclusion and facilitation whom we spoke with for this post: Meg Bolger of the Safe Zone Project, Sam Killermann, author, speaker, and educator, and Kaleigh Cornelison, inclusive facilitator and social worker. All are committed to this work and were gracious enough with their time to speak with me.

Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin Ramsdell (he/him) is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations. Learn how we can help get your students involved.