Facilitation Lessons from a Drum Circle

Drum Circle

In the summer of 2001, I was introduced to the concept of a drum circle. As I reflect on that experience, I realize it exposed me to three key elements of effective meeting facilitation.

I was visiting my friend’s mother, Susan Bauz, at her home in Newport News, VA. All afternoon, people were talking about going to a drum circle. They weren’t sure if I’d enjoy it. They gave me the opportunity to stay home. I had no idea what a drum circle was or why they thought I wouldn’t like it, but I insisted that I’d like to go.

I thought it would be a performance where I could sit and passively listen. I had no idea that it was a participatory activity.

Everyone present was given their choice of percussion instrument and we were welcome to exchange our instruments at any time. Then someone said “go” and the drum circle was off and running. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I was quite sure that I didn’t like this at all. There were no instructions. There was no structure. Just people beating drums.

I sat for 30 minutes, beating the same staccato cadence from the minute it began to the minute it ended. There was a moment, about halfway through our session, in which another drummer found my cadence and repeated it. Eventually everyone was repeating my cadence.

Ha! I thought. I’m doing it right! They’re all following me. Finally!

And then as quickly as they found my cadence, they moved on to their own beats once again.

Lessons for Facilitators

A drum circle, like meeting facilitation, involves a lot of improv. To be sure, meeting facilitation will often have objectives, maybe even a lesson plan and some structure, but in the end, skilled facilitators are willing to move away from their planned lessons depending on the needs of their audience.

I’ve been told that there are 3 rules to improv:

  1. Listen
  2. The answer is always “yes”
  3. Make the other person look good

Can you imagine the consequences if we violated any or all of these rules as we facilitated a meeting? What happens when we don’t listen to our audience? What happens when a participant asks a question and our immediate response is “No!” or “That’s wrong!”? What happens when we don’t attempt to make our co-facilitators or our attendees look good?

In the drum circle, there was one brief instance in which my fellow drum circlers humored me and marched to the beat of my drum. And I felt like I was a part of something. For a brief moment, this was fun!

But I never gave anything back in return. I kept to my own beat.

I violated all three rules of improv and this turned out not to be a great experience for me. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that experience and am able to better adhere to these rules when I facilitate in order to create an amazing experience for my audience and my co-facilitator(s).

As for Susan Bauz, the one who introduced me to this whole drum circle business? She passed away this weekend. I’ll be forever grateful to her for inviting me to come out of my comfort zone in order to get a life lesson in improv.