Your Participants Are Really a Bunch of Animals – The Biology of Facilitation


“Have you ever facilitated a session and observed some participants acting like a bunch of animals?” asked Marcy, Julie B. (2013, p21) and i think the resounding answer from most facilitators would be “YES!”.

It’s important for facilitators to be aware that participants are primarily mammals. We have basic physiological needs just like any other animals do. It frustrates me when workshops are designed to be 8-9 hours each day, with only short 15-minutes break for each half of the day, and participants gorge themselves with high-calorie foods during lunch, after which they return to the classes ready to have a siesta only to discover they have another 4 hours more to go.

Marcy, Julie B. (2013) wrote an excellent paper presenting the biological perspective on participants in group facilitation. Below is an excerpt regarding Biorhythms:


Facilitators may sometimes notice participants making a quick exit from a session 60-90 minutes after beginning, or becoming sleepy in the morning or after eating. This may result in some facilitator introspection such as, “Did I say something offensive?” or, “Am I boring them?” or “They were so focused and productive before lunch – where’s that team energy and drive gone?” Estroff Marano (2004) noted that “Many of the functions of your body and brain are set to operate in cycles of roughly 90 minutes each. And, going with the flow of biorhythms helps you maintain motivation and attention for whatever the task at hand.” She added information from an interview with Dr. Roseanne Armitage “that every 90 minutes, we need to take a mental break because otherwise, our concentration, memory and learning ability start fading.” This type of short cycle is referred to as an ultradian rhythm and it may range from 20 to 120 minutes in length (Rossi et. al., 1992). It is related to circadian rhythms that Pobojewski (2007) referred to as “changes in physical activity, metabolism, hormone production, cell activity, organ function and body temperature – that rise and fall at fixed intervals over roughly a 24-hour period.” (p. 14). She quoted from an interview with Dr. Jimo Borjigin as saying, “Jet lag’s symptoms are caused by the fact that the body’s rhythmic cycles all readjust at different rates…the sleep/wake rhythm may adapt within three to four days, but the body temperature cycle may take six days…Until all these rhythms are resynchronized to the new time zone, your body won’t feel right.” (p. 16). Differences in individual biorhythms may result in some participants being more focused and attentive in the morning while others are more alert in the afternoon.

On a more basic biological level, normal diurnal bladder voiding frequency ranges from 4-6 times per day, or about every two hours (Graugaard-Jensen et al., 2008). The author refers to this as a “bio break” in meetings. While considering these physiological factors, one should also be cognizant of apparent mood-food relationships. Catherine Christie (2012) notes in Mood-Food Relationships that some foods can “alter one’s mood by influencing the level of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters”, particularly “dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin” (p. 1).

Now, how might these physiological factoids influence facilitation? Let’s assume a scenario of an 8-hour facilitated workshop with participants with different biorhythms, some participants who have traveled long distances across time zones the preceding day (or are global travelers), and a client- sponsored catered Italian lunch with pasta, bread, salad and dessert. One might want to plan for a mental break (think topic or facilitation process change) every 60-90 minutes and a 20- minute physical break every 90-120 minutes. If break refreshments are served, one may want to consider offering protein like nuts plus fruit and some candy, like chocolate. After what will likely be a calorie intense lunch, one may also want to incorporate feedback processes that include physical activities like having participants post ideas on the wall, and moving between break-out session rooms. Additional energizers such as lively music, videos, stress toys, and sharing common interests may also be of value. On a lighter note, homage might be made to a popular saying from Evan Esar (1968) that “lecturers should remember that the capacity of the mind to absorb is limited to what the seat can endure” (p. 468). 

– Marcy, Julie B. (2013). ‘It’s a Jungle Out There – The Biology of Facilitation.’ Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications 21 Journal, Number 12, 2013, pp 21-22.

What are your experiences as a participant or facilitator? What other needs of participants do you think should be considered during meetings and/or workshops?

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