Embracing Emergence: Reflections on Facilitating a Changemaker Writing Retreat

by Louise Armstrong

January 19, 2024

Written by Louise Armstrong & Anna Birney
With some light support and augmentation from Chat GPT

Laid back emergent facialition at its best (Left to right — Anna, Louise & retreat participant Saskia)

We — Anna & Louise — cohosted a writing retreat for changemakers in October 2023 at Selgars Mills in Devon, UK. It was an invitation for people to come and take time to reflect and write on their change work, in a shared community space, exploring their own writing process. Given the nature of the reflective space, we also found ourselves paying attention to the nature of the holding and facilitation of the space.

One question echoes in our minds: What does it truly mean to put emergence over structure? In this piece we share our reflections on embracing emergence in the facilitation process. The experience challenged not only the way we approached writing but also our beliefs about control and creativity.

Our reflections circled around the idea and belief that structure, if clung to too tightly, can obscure genuine intentions and hinder creativity. The illusion of control, provided by structured plans, often disrupts the natural flow of ideas. We planned to design and hold the space with emergence as our key principle. This has led us to explore the role of our intentions, framing and how we be (live, work, write) together — and what approaches we might use.

Calling intention

As we explored emergence over structure, we noticed the qualities and conditions that facilitated the process. Our deep sense of intention and the acknowledgement that we personally needed and wanted such a space, a desire for more time and space to write was a strong calling for others to attend. This had emerged after many years, (15years) of inquiring and creating together. We had tested time away together, monthly writing spaces and even a reflection and writing offer earlier in 2023. We turned our own need into a strong calling intention, something we started lightly testing with people and getting strong resonance and positive feedback. These things combined with a strong foundation of deep trust between us facilitators and set the stage for a fertile ground of experimentation.

The importance of framing and loose framework

Drawing on decades of facilitation experience between us, how we approach this session felt different. We didn’t have a detailed hour to hour agenda — knowing if we did — it would leave very little time for people to write. As a base, the invitation was to join the intro session on the first day (Tuesday) and the closing session (Friday) — both of which we were very intentional about framing up. Firstly this was a check-in which helped people arrive as themselves, understand what they wanted and to hear from others what they wanted so that we could mutually hold that for each other, by framing the questions here about not just what you are going to write but how and why, started the week with depth.

The second framing used Open Space principles to frame up the way we would work together, which we added principles we had co-created from the check-in process. This set the container of how we might be together.

Write up of container principles and open space process and principles

The other structure was an optional midday check in ahead of lunch each day — a space to connect and share needs and wants. The invitation was then for people to then do / take the space for them to do what they need and desire. Giving permission and legitimacy to do whatever your need. As the hosts — we had to model that too — show it’s ok to do what you need. In reality that saw Anna writing in bed, surrounded by papers each morning and Louise working in the greenhouse, also surrounded by papers. We also modelled what it was like to reflect, show up as ourselves and really get under the cover of what it was to be a writer, which acts as an invitation for others to do the same. Also showing how we were both facilitators and participants, giving space for others to pick up and initiate sessions or help with the practical elements.

Presence and proximity: irl with digital tethers

Left to right: Glimpses of cooking and eating together and some of the active whatsapp chat

In the end, the reality of co-living and cooking and eating together created ample opportunities to connect, chat, and support each other. Plus an active whatsapp channel — where links to our writing, recommendations and inspiration were shared alongside immediate asks and needs we had. This became a key self organising platform for the group to do what they need. The channel became like a light touch, no commitment, support network for us all. This framework offered the group a supportive structure within which they could navigate their own emergent journeys and find their own place, pace within the unfolding narrative.

“I loved the way that even though it was you two facilitating, everyone also felt the autonomy, trust and able to contribute to the whole.” - Retreat participant

Where we’ve landed

We are left with a strong sense of the transformative power that emerges when we let go of the reins and allow creativity to guide our facilitation. The experience encouraged us to welcome unpredictability and appreciate the beauty in the spontaneous, unscripted stories that arise when we trust the process of emergence over the constraints of structure.

We have come to see not only writing as a creative act but also facilitation and how both can be a transformational process. Both as an intimate, personal act that when comes from our intentions, and modelling the questions and exploration ourselves — might be a route and contribution to understanding the essence of yourself, and the world. Indeed many on the retreat said they not only got writing done and understood the writing process better but also and this might sound crass, opened up a type of deep “soul work”.

There is a wish and desire for more facilitators to really trust the organic, responsive, and creative approach to guiding participants through their own unique emergent journeys. Of course the 2023 Changemaker writing retreat was not just our story — but all who joined and co-created the space. We hope it is also an inspiration for others to reflect on their facilitation practices as we are sure it will be different and uniquely yours.

We’re planning to host a second Changemaker Writing retreat in Nov 2024 (provisionally w/c 4th November) — express your interest in joining via this form. While we have some anxiety about can this be repeated, was this a one hit wonder, would a ‘second album’ live up to the expectations of the first? We’re still craving more more space to write ourselves and hope to create another community space to do that and continue these explorations in.

Left to right: Retreat participants together and our final closing circle

Postscript: How we wrote this piece

As you might expect from two people who hosted a writing retreat, we have a lot of things we want to write and often struggle with the time and space to capture all we want to.
We thought we’d try out some ‘timesaving’ approach to creating this piece differently and capture our experience of this particular experience. We’ve outlined the steps we took below.

Spoiler based on this experiment: don’t overly rely on technology….

We’re doing this for two reasons:

1. To demystify what writing processes look like

2. We both often get feedback and appreciation for being able to weave narratives in close to real time, based on the contribution and perspectives of a group. So sharing this process is part of opening up what that process can look like. We have a bubbling intention to share more on sensemaking and pattern spotting in the future, we’d love to hear your questions and needs to help shape that.

How we created this piece of writing:

  • Post retreat, over 2 month — have anecdotal, in passing and via whatsapp chat and reflections, agree we want more time to do this more thoroughly
  • Set a day to co-work together
  • Have a rambling, in person, conversation reflecting on our experience (~30mins). Record the conversation via Otter.ai with the intention to transcribe it -but the recording didn’t work!
  • Luckliy we had notes — and actually looking back its important to have these as notes are the way we don’t capture the whole conversation but part of the weaving, writing what has weight and helping you find the narrative so…
  • Reflecting on the conversation we just had — re ask ourselves what do we really want to say and share here? Here are clear intentions showing up again! We’re looking for patterns, things that have weight and depth. Use those elements to then weave a narrative
  • Record (via the Voice Record Pro app) a synthesised story of what we just shared
  • Transcribe the audio into text using Otter ai
  • Paste the transcript into Chat GPT and ask it to format it as a blog
  • Paste three different Chat GPT versions into a google doc
  • Review — on paper, not the screen— the base chat gpt blog
  • Have a conversation between us about this and if we feel happy to share this
  • Write through the next version of the blog — notice that we need to add in the personal experience, writing from the first person — bringing our own style back into the process
  • Shared review process- but with deep trust we have for each other, knowing when to edit and when to let go
  • Add links and photos to bring it to life — this always takes longer than you think it will
  • Publish and share
  • Oh and make sure you enjoy the process and have fun… this is always a principle

Note: The write up of these steps has not been artificially generated! Chat GPT can’t yet outline the steps of a creative processes that straddle the online and offline components. But using digital some of these tools to aid us means it’s still taken us three months to publish this piece, which is faster than it might otherwise be.

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