Tough Issues and Open Hearts: Compassionate Facilitation in Species-at-Risk Consultations

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at]

As I was sitting down to read my bit of yoga philosophy before meditating the other day, the foghorns were sounding in English Bay near my home in Vancouver, BC. In a beautiful coincidence, the reading spoke of “dissolving the fog” to connect your heart to your head, and each time I drifted off into problem-solving during meditation the foghorn would bring me back.

This head-heart connection has been a theme in my facilitation work lately, particularly in two projects that focused on federal government consultations with First Nations (the indigenous peoples of Canada) about species at risk. Just to sample the “Bs,” these species include bears, bison, bats, barn swallows, bull trout, blue whales and basking sharks, if we include animals classified as “endangered,” “threatened” and “special concern.” In most cases, First Nations must be consulted on proposals for legally listing the species as “at risk,” and on plans for the recovery of the species.

One of my projects was to train resource managers in Yukon who facilitate such consultation processes. These public servants face major challenges. Their work requires them to consult numerous First Nations meaningfully, while all involved are seriously short of resources and deeply concerned with the outcomes of decisions that may determine the survival of species and ways of life.

In the next project I was the facilitator hired by the federal government to consult First Nations about listing a species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act in a Vancouver workshop. The species is critically important to First Nations for social, cultural, nutritional and economic reasons, and its abundance is patchy. Adding these concerns to the kinds of challenges faced in Yukon means the pressures on those involved in the consultations are high.

Tensions are also high. Survival imperatives are overlain by a federal “duty to consult and accommodate” that is complex from both First Nations and Government of Canada perspectives. Further straining the consultations are missing data, differing worldviews and a history of mistrust.

I had a strong sense of “practice what you preach” in the Vancouver workshop. Here I was in the hot-seat, striving to employ tools I had so recently been offering to the Yukon public servants.

One standard facilitation tool is a code of conduct or ground-rules. I don’t always feel the need for this tool but my federal government client provided me with an elegant set of guidelines, advising that they had been helpful in previous meetings. In summary they are:

  • Participate;
  • Be good to people, tough on issues;
  • Listen generously; and
  • Respect.

The last three of these directives particularly resonate with my professional mission, which is to bring calm, compassion and clarity to challenging environmental issues. Here is a summary of how the guidelines work to ease tension and help people collaborate on “tough issues” such as species at risk.

Be good to people, tough on issues

Another way this ground-rule is often worded is “Challenge ideas, not people”. Yoga philosophy according to Pema Chodran explains that if we are not caught in ego we can surrender to situations in order to communicate rather than to win. Replace “yogi” with “facilitator” in the following text from Yoga Masters to see how useful it can be to surrender instead of react: “By not acting in a negative, aggressive, violent way, the yogi creates an atmosphere in which everyone he comes into contact with feels this harmonious and peaceful atmosphere and responds positively to it. … If we are not aggressive, almost all the people we meet will be equally non-threatening...”

The essence of this guideline was expressed by a participant in the Vancouver consultation who said, “We can make the most of this workshop by having an open heart.”

Listen generously

I believe that deep, compassionate listening should be a priority in facilitation. Listening this way is how we express our open-heartedness to build a safe space where everyone is heard.

Facilitators can sometimes help a timid or less articulate participant feel heard by clearly encapsulating what they are trying to communicate, and we can acknowledge contributions with appreciation. Nevertheless, the priority is to listen intently, without a reply per se.

“Compassionate listening” overlaps with this practice of deep listening. Promoted for peacemaking by an international organization called the Compassionate Listening Project , this model recognizes that by listening attentively, without reacting or judging, we can see through hostility and fear to reach deeper levels of understanding. “The listener does not advocate a point of view other than the wish to build bridges…and listening does not infer agreement.” The Compassionate Listening Project calls this a “mind/heart” approach.

I also draw on the wisdom of non-violent communication (NVC), a model created by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent actions or words are misguided ways of seeking to meet unmet needs. In NVC the facilitator listens for feelings and the needs of each individual or group.

I was moved by participants in the Vancouver workshop who prefaced their contributions by naming their own feelings: “I’m trying to keep my temper…” “I don’t know if I can do this, I’m so frustrated…” “I’m nervous…” And I was impressed at how closely they all listened to one another’s heartfelt views. This is skillful communication.


A key practice in following the “respect” ground-rule is to acknowledge the legitimacy of different ways that we know and come to understand the world. The facilitator and participants need to recognize that various ways of knowing exist, and each has value. It is not acceptable to trivialize one kind of knowledge – usually local/traditional, while putting another – usually science – on a pedestal. A workshop participant reversed the typical hierarchy: “The first step in looking after a species is honoring it. Science doesn’t show respect for the fish – women and children do.”

Since science is currently the dominant framework in the federal government’s approach to resource management, special efforts are required to carefully draw in traditional and local, or “place-based,” knowledge. In a meeting, this boils down to welcoming different modes of communicating important facts and ideas. First Nations people often tend towards the oral more than the literate mode, telling stories in lieu of presenting graphs. The knowledge expressed through nuanced stories includes values as well as information, and truly hearing a story allows the listener to understand these nuances.

Compassionate facilitation can increase understanding, deepen connections and build trust. So the next time you’re leading a meeting with high stakes and tensions, try to keep an open heart.

I’ve found an app called Custom Sounds of Nature that can take me back to my morning’s meditation by English Bay. I will set it to make its foghorn sound quietly but regularly as I facilitate, urging me to dissolve the fog that sometimes obscures my heart from my head.