Four books have fundamentally changed the way I facilitate meetings.

The first three books teach and inspire.  The fourth, I wrote. I think it’s not bad, indeed it’s pretty darn good, because of the community of thinkers and practitioners who surrounded me as I wrote it. Christian scripture calls them a “great cloud of witnesses.” The people who shape, mold, and cajole you, especially inspire you, both living and dead.

The fifth book is outstanding and truly inspires.

An amazing read, Designing and Leading Life-Changing Workshops is a game changer. The book is packed with powerful insights about the relationship between contemporary brain science and ancient wisdom practices. It lays out how to design and lead workshops that bring balance, cultivate deep sharing, and change lives.

The book summarizes three types of workshops.

  1. The Conventional Model is where an expert provides information, the proverbial pitcher pouring water into an empty cup. The goal is to acquire new knowledge. Lectures, speeches, and presentations accompanied by PowerPoint slides are examples.
  2. The Experiential Model teaches people to learn and practice a new set of knowledge and skills. Workshop leaders usually define, illustrate, and have people practice the skill.  For example, I teach courses on listening skills and facilitating inclusive meetings. I describe each skill and its purpose, give examples, and include lots of practice. I hope people become more skilled at listening better and facilitating more inclusively.
  3. The Transformational Model’s goal is to build long lasting change in the workshop’s attendees. Participants strengthen self-awareness, gain wisdom, and grow in compassion for themselves and one another. In transformational workshops, the leader is more a guide than an expert. The leader’s goal is to gently nudge the group down the path of new insights and self-understanding.

My retreat offering to debut in the first quarter of 2024, “Finding Calm in the Chaos: A Retreat for Nonprofit Leaders in Crazy Times,” (stay tuned) is an example of a transformational workshop. The goal is to empower burned-out nonprofit leaders to bring balance to themselves and their organizations. The workshop invites introspection, reflection, and examination of each person’s beliefs, challenges, and life goals.  The way I will guide the group includes guided meditation, journalling, art and group singing. Each practice will deepen self-awareness and improve mind/body balance. I hope to guide the group as together we reach our goal of finding calm in the chaos.

All three models have their place. Unfortunately, in the conventional model, the speaker may be stellar, even inspirational, but often they bore with droning voices and long-winded speeches.

Painful memories resurface of a seminar where an economics professor explained widgets and debits at 8:00 in the morning. “Stay awake!” was my primary learning objective followed by “Stifle those yawns!”  The conventional model is still the most common workshop design and continues to under impress.

The experiential model is more engaging. Participants interact with the leader and each other. New skills and knowledge are learned. From how to pack a backpack to brewing cappuccino, from how to plant trees to planting seeds of success, the strength of experiential workshops is you learn by doing. The downside is learnings may be forgotten if not regularly practiced. For instance, “How do you brew a good cup of cappuccino?” I don’t know. I forgot.

The key benefit of the transformational model is lasting change. People learn new skills and wisdom. The difference is they are recorded permanently in both body and brain. Learning endures. Change lasts. That is my hope when “Finding Calm in the Chaos” is launched.

I invite you to get a copy of Designing and leading Life Transforming Workshops. It will transform the way you design and facilitate workshops and retreats.  The book’s wisdom certainly has changed my life and work. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, “Make it so.”

All the best,

Mark Smutny