Facilitator Safety and Well-Being: Coping with Stress

This section is about understanding the stresses inherent in facilitating work around race, racism and anti-racism and provides suggestions for dealing with that stress. Many of you will have your own ways of understanding and addressing stress generally. The suggestions in this section stem from our personal experiences with stress related to facilitating our own (as well as others') processes of understanding race, racism and anti-racism. As discussed in previous sections, broaching these topics can oftentimes lead to emotionally charged exchanges. These discussions can be stressful as the facilitator attempts to balance others' emotions and responses with their own.

See our Facilitators' Stories section for the following related anecdote: Safety and Well-Being.

Unpacking Stress

As discussed in previous sections, facilitators want to create safe spaces for participants to talk openly about these issues. However, this means that participants have the ability to say things that may cause pain and make us (as facilitators) feel angry, hurt, distant, frustrated, etc. Knowing when to exercise self-control and when to show these emotions will help the facilitator keep participants engaged. Sometimes, these emotions can nudge participants forward in their process, other times, like when the discussion becomes heated or too uncomfortable, a break or different approach to the topic may be required and the facilitator should refrain from expressing anger or frustration. This type of self-control requires self-knowledge; self-knowledge can help the facilitator understand their own position, and as a result, feel less stressed because they understand why certain attitudes, responses or topics can bring up these emotions. (See our section What's My Story?)

Strategies for Managing Stress 

  1. Understand your comfort zones as well as participants.' Conversations about race/racism/anti-racism can take facilitators and participants out of their comfort zones. For racialized facilitators, the process is difficult because racism is inherent in their daily lived experience. Thus, the unlearning process, even when it is someone else's process, can be painful. For all facilitators, the difficulty is in opposing the structures that they are part of or enmeshed in, especially if they are white.

  2. Learn to be comfortable with making mistakes. Agonizing over "I could have done that" or "I wish I would have done this" puts stress on the facilitator and is not helpful to participants' processes. Mistakes are inevitable, and mistakes that are acknowledged and unpacked are invaluable tools for both facilitators and participants. A willingness to say that you did not handle the discussion well and that you would like the class to revisit it provides a means to get into a deeper and more complex discussion. Remember that it is important to be prepared for the discussion: understand what you are getting into before pursuing it.  

  3. Be prepared for conflict. Conflict causes stress and because of the personal nature of conversations about race and racism, conflict can occur easily and often; we often say that this is a sign that the process is working. Participants, particularly white participants and even some racialized participants, for different reasons, do not want to admit that racism exists; these individuals are brought up to act out liberal strategies that promote racism. Often, these participants will defend these strategies unyieldingly because they believe that their intentions are good and that they do not intend to be racist; they believe they are merely trying to be friendly, and thus, that they cannot be perpetuating racism. In preparing for conflict, self-reflection once again becomes essential. Understanding your personal attitudes, beliefs and behaviours related to conflict helps to relieve some of the stress. (See the following related anecdotes: Conflict and Multicultural Educator vs. Anti-Racism Facilitator and Conflict)

  4. Know when to stay in the moment and when to provide participants with processing time.    

  5. Recognize that small steps are important as change is slow. Expecting change to happen quickly can lead to greater stress and in some cases, facilitator burn-out.  

  6. Be aware of outside resources. This might mean other groups dealing with similar issues who can provide support and information. By connecting with other groups, we can become allies with other facilitators or individuals who understand anti-racism work. Locating outside resources and allies will provide support and help with stress—doing anti-racism education in isolation is far less productive and far more difficult. 

  7. Work with other facilitators where possible and debrief your anti-racism workshops or sessions afterwards.